Friday, May 21, 2010

Bye-Bye Blair

In hindsight, the resignation of Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence was hardly surprising; indeed, it was only a matter of time.

Admiral Blair, who headed U.S. Pacific Command before retiring and assuming the DNI post, had been on the outs with other members of the Obama Administration. His tumultuous, 16-month tenure was marked by a series of comments that proved embarrassing to the White House and turf battles with other members of the national security team, including CIA Director Leon Panetta and Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan.

Blair's resignation, which is effective next Friday, was announced only two days after a Senate report criticized the DNI's office (and other intelligence organizations) for failures that allowed the "underwear bomber" to board a U.S.-bound jetliner on Christmas Day. The suspect in that case, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was already known to American intelligence--thanks to a warning from the man's father, a prominent Nigerian government official--but the National Counterterrorism Center, which fell under Blair's supervision, failed to connect the dots. As aa result, Abdulmutallab came perilously close to detonating his bomb, and destroying an airliner with almost 300 people on board.

Mr. Blair's problems were compounded by the incident's aftermath. The DNI stated publicly that the would-be bomber was an ideal candidate for questioning by specialists from the High Value Interrogation Group, and not the law enforcement officials who handled Abdulmutallab's interrogation. But there was only one problem: the interrogation group wasn't ready for operations at the time, making Blair appear ill-informed, even foolish.

If that wasn't bad enough, Admiral Blair also disclosed that the suspect was cooperating with interrogators. That incensed officials at the FBI's counter-terrorism unit (and the CIA) who were trying to locate Abdulmutallab's accomplices before they could go underground. He also made enemies with Leon Panetta by attempting to place a DNI representative at U.S. embassies overseas, by-passing the network of CIA station chiefs who are normally responsible for our intel operations within that country.

But in fairness, Blair isn't the only member of the Obama national security team to make ill-advised remarks, or commit serious blunders (hellooo, Janet Napolitano). But, unlike Ms. Napolitano or Leon Panetta, Admiral Blair is not a career Democratic politician. And, unlike Mr. Brennan, Blair generally favored a more aggressive approach towards terrorism and intelligence-gathering, a position that didn't sit well with the White House.

Besides, the administration needed a sacrificial lamb for its recent intelligence failures. Between the Fort Hood shootings; the attempted airliner bombing on Christmas Day and the recent, failed car bombing attempt in Times Square, the Obama team has amassed a rather troubling record in records. By forcing Blair's resignation, the President creates the impression of change and accountability within the intelligence community. But that impression is illusory, at best.

That's because key security positions are still filled by incompetents (like that former governor of Arizona masquerading as DHS Secretary) and professional bureaucrats (read: John Brennan) who seque from administration to administration, with little positive impact on the nation's security.

With his departure, Admiral Blair is being hailed as one of the few rational voices on the Obama security team. But truth be told, Blair was a poor choice for DNI; before he became the nation's top intelligence officer, the career navy officer's only experience was as a consumer of intelligence. Consequently, he lacked the background to meld 16 different intel agencies and organizations into an effective team. It's a fault he shares (to some degree) with his predecessors, who enjoyed only middling success in trying to build a unified intelligence apparatus.

As for who comes next, it's any one's guess. Various Washington sources suggest that Mr. Obama has already interviewed two potential candidates, and those individuals have either been rejected, or turned down the job. If the President had his druthers, he'd probably nominate John Brennan, but his past comments make him all-but-unconfirmable.

Remember: Brennan is the same guy who described Hizballah as an "interesting" organization, suggesting that we should try to "build up" moderate elements within that terrorist group. He also refers to Jerusalem as "Al-Quds," the same name bestowed upon that holy city by Islamic radicals, and once said a 30% recidivist rate for released terrorists "wasn't bad."

With Brennan a non-starter, the name of James Clapper has surfaced. Clapper, a retired Air Force Lieutenant General, who was Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) when he left active duty in 1995. During the administration of George W. Bush, he served as Director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), which processes and analyzes data collected by our spy satellites and other sensors. Under Mr. Obama, Clapper has held the post of Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. Obviously, General Clapper would bring an exceptionally strong intel background to the DNI post--something that is desperately needed.

But if Jim Clapper becomes the next DNI, his success (or failure) won't be based on his professional or technical expertise. Instead, he will be measured by his ability to win bureaucratic battles, forge key alliances and focusing our intelligence assets on prevailing threats, without the filter of political correctness. General Clapper certainly has the right background for the job, but given the demands of the DNI post, many wonder if anyone can actually get the job done.

Hopefully, we'll learn the answer to that question very soon. Director of National Intelligence is too important to leave vacant for an extended period, like the head job at TSA. If General Clapper declines the post, we hope Mr. Obama has a Plan B, C, and D, to get someone qualified in the DNI slot, and sooner, rather than later.


Corky Boyd said...

The biggest mistake was establishing the DNI position in the first place.

Adding another level of bureaucracy made absolutely no sense. It was a clumsy answer to the missteps of 9/11. And it was the result of the 9/11 Commission, none of whom had ever run efficient and nimble operations. All were political functionaries or politicians. It was a solution that sounded good, but would never work. Running such disparate operations as CIA, DIA and NSA with ongoing turf battles, needs someone who is closer to the action.

The DNI responsility should reside with the Director of CIA, where it in essence resided before.

G. Murphy Donovan said...

Good post, Smiley. Clapper would be a good choice. Unfortunately, unlike Panetta and Tenent, he's not well wired politically. Blair was probably picked because someone thought he'd be reliable. Also Clapper still has enemies in the DIA alumni crowd who thought Jim's attempts to rejigger that mushroom factory were misguided. If Clapper gets the job, he gets no budget authority until he proves his reliability. This administration does not suffer bad news gladly and they do shoot messengers.

G. Murphy Donovan's Blog

tfhr said...

Corky Boyd hit it right on the screws with that first sentence.

阿楊, on the other hand, makes no sense but I do agree with his point that the additional space added onto the DIAC would have been better utilized as a parking garage.