Dennis Blair Departs DNI, The Position Still Poorly Defined

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Help Wanted: Director Of National Intelligence

Responsibilities: Oversee a complex network of intelligence agencies in the U.S. government that do not report to you or want to be overseen by you. Deal with seemingly endless bureaucratic infighting, underscored by a rising frequency of threats on the homeland. Testify often before a petulant Congress that is often more intent on scoring political points than engaging in serious dialog.

Perks: Public blame when things go wrong. No public credit for things that go right.

Pay: Not as much as you could make elsewhere.

The public trials and tribulations of resigning Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, and the private successes for which he is bound by law not to reveal, are not the sort of stuff that leads the news. The American people are most happy about the intelligence bureaucracy when they don’t have to hear about it, because they tend to hear about it when something has gone wrong, like when a guy boards a plane with a bomb in his underwear or when there is a nasty turf battle, like the one Blair had with Leon Panneta, the head of the CIA, over which agency gets to oversee the foreign stations. As David Ignatius explains,

The real problem for Blair was that he occupied a job whose powers were defined in law, but not in practice. . . . Critics argued that the DNI operation just added more layering and bureaucracy to an intelligence community that already had too much of both. The DNI’s staff kept on expanding, and other agencies balked at what they saw as redundant functions. Blair thought, reasonably enough, that his job was to run the intelligence community. But nearly all of the intelligence chiefs have other bosses. The FBI director reports to the attorney general. The heads of the surveillance agencies, the NSA and NRO, report to the Secretary of Defense. That left the CIA director as Blair’s only important direct underling, which led to the battle with Panetta.

Now President Obama is tasked with finding a replacement for a job that remains ill-defined. Coordination of intelligence agencies in times of crises is largely handled by John Brennan, who sits in the basement of the White House. Foreign data collection remains Balkanized in a number of different agencies. When the Senate Intelligence Committee released a May 18 report on the 14 failures that led to the Christmas Day underwear bombing, the Director of National Intelligence, which is charged with coordinating the intelligence agencies and upgrading technology, did not get high marks.

[T]he Committee found that no one agency saw itself as being responsible for tracking and identifying all terrorism threats. In addition, technology across the IC is not adequate to provide search enhancing tools for analysts . . .

Republican Senators Saxby Chambliss and Richard Burr had an even more pointed critique for Blair, in an addendum to the report which may have sealed his resignation:

DNI Blair stated that “this was not–like in 2001–a failure to collect or share intelligence; rather it was a failure to connect, integrate and understand the intelligence we had.” However, as Members who participated in the Joint Inquiry of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, we respectfully disagree. Some of the systemic errors this review identified were cited as failures prior to 9/11.

The New York Times reports that several candidates to replace Blair have been interviewed, and that James R. Clapper, currently the top Pentagon intelligence official, is the top candidate.