The resignation of national-intelligence director Dennis Blair marks a rare event in Washington, a time when the conventional wisdom—that incessant chatter about political fortune—was actually right. From the moment in late 2008 when Barack Obama picked the retired admiral and former head of the US Pacific Command for the thankless job of spy master, the buzz said he’d never last.
For starters, Obama and Blair barely knew each other. (They’d only met once before Obama offered him the job.) The position of intel chief has a brief history of five years, but in that time, the men who’ve bonded personally with the President have had the most longevity and success. The position itself is legally and bureaucratically anemic, and the title of “director” belies its real influence.
Blair was never a good fit. He was a commander by nature and a man accustomed to having enough firepower under his personal authority to incinerate another country. I interviewed Blair shortly after he assumed office. His subdued demeanor and his show-don’t-tell approach to leadership were striking. I asked him about an old sea story from his time as Pacific chief in the late 1990s. Blair was meeting his counterpart from the Chinese navy, who warned the United States not to take provocative actions against Taiwan, a US ally that China regards as a breakaway republic. After the officer finished his lecture, Blair replied: “Let me tell you a couple of things. First, I own the sea out there. Second, I own the sky above the sea out there. Now, don’t you think we ought to discuss something more constructive?”
Blair acknowledged the story was true and chose not to amplify it, except to say, “I don’t have enough time to screw around with indirection.”
That helps explain why, early on in his tenure, Blair decided to flex his muscles and show the 16 agencies ostensibly under his command that he was in charge. Blair declared that he’d choose his own overseas representatives, who work in American embassies under the title chief of station. Historically, the head of the CIA has made those decisions. Blair knew that, and his pronouncement was meant to send a message.
But the next day, CIA director Leon Panetta—legally Blair’s subordinate—dashed off a memo telling the intelligence agencies to disregard that order. Blair regarded Panetta’s defiance as an act of insubordination. The dispute had to be mediated by White House officials, where Panetta had many friends, allies, and proteges. Blair lost. His attempt to exert his influence only measured his limitations. It was the most potent example yet of what the conventional wisdom had been saying: Blair was too used to getting his own way to last in such a weakened, cloutless job.
This should’ve been a teaching moment for President Obama. For several years, intelligence experts—most prominently Blair’s predecessor—have exhausted themselves listing all the deficiencies of the post. The big one comes down to money. The intelligence director doesn’t have clear control over the budget-making process, in which the Secretary of Defense ends up deciding how tens of billions of dollars are spent each year—making him the de facto national-intelligence chief.
Former spy chief Mike McConnell, who enjoyed a close relationship with George W. Bush, said many times that he didn’t have enough statutory authorities to really bend the agencies to his will. The 9/11 Commission knew that someone needed the power to do that when it recommended creating the position of Director of National Intelligence. But the commission also knew that for any DNI to succeed, he or she would have to possess an extraordinary blend of persuasiveness, charm, and bureaucratic fighting skills.
Although those rare people may be out there somewhere, there aren’t enough of them to consistently perform the heroic tasks the 9/11 Commission had in mind. It’s time to ask whether anyone should even try—or even needs to.
Blair’s resignation comes on the heels of a predictably blistering congressional report on the intelligence community’s failure to preempt the Christmas Day bomb plot. Officially, this is Blair’s problem, because the organization that’s supposed to “connect the dots” about strikes against the United States—the National Counterterrorism Center—is under his command. But it’s far too simple to say that Blair was fired because of this intelligence breakdown. There will always be intelligence failures. No system is perfect. The President surely knows that, and his advisers have said as much in public.
Blair is leaving for the same reasons that future intelligence czars will leave: The job is set up to fail. Or more precisely, it’s set up to have a person to blame when the system fails, which is inevitable. This is why so few people are willing to step into the role. (Robert Gates, himself a former CIA director, got the offer from the Bush administration and turned it down. Later, he became Secretary of Defense.)
No one person can control the entire intelligence bureaucracy, nor should one. The agencies perform unique jobs, and while there’s certainly overlap in their skills, those are best harnessed for specific problems, such as fighting terrorism or stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Much of this work is done in isolation with good reason. The CIA has the most experience running human spy networks. The National Security Agency specializes in electronic eavesdropping. Theirs and other efforts come together in the counterterrorism center. But it’s not the intelligence director who manages their daily work. It’s a subordinate official, who reports—by law—to the President.
For intelligence to succeed as a mission, even at this lower bureaucratic level, the President has to make it his priority. He has to be personally invested enough to set the tone for his National Security Council, the secretaries, and agency chiefs who actually do the work of intelligence everyday, or who assign it to high-level assistants. There’s already a position in place, decades old, to marshall all those powerful forces on the President’s behalf. It’s called the national security adviser. He sits in the White House and is, by law, supposed to coordinate the functions of diplomacy, the military, and the intelligence community. For the past quarter century, that job has been a policy post, because the last time a national-security adviser waded into the waters of actual intelligence operations, the Iran-Contra Affair was the result. But that doesn’t mean the White House should distance itself from the machinations of intelligence. By design, and by virtue of its influential perch, the national-security adviser has just the right balance of legal authority and persuasion to see that the President’s vision for intelligence is carried out.
But the Obama administration probably already knows this. Underneath the President’s current adviser is a deputy for counterterrorism who’s actually helping to manage this daily work. And unlike Blair, this man—John Brennan—knows the President, has worked with him closely, and has his confidence. Here’s hoping the President doesn’t make the mistake of promoting Brennan to Blair’s old job.