By Greg Miller
Friday, May 21, 2010; A01
Dennis C. Blair will resign Friday as the nation's intelligence director after a tenure marred by the recent failures of U.S. spy agencies to detect terrorist plots and by political missteps that undermined his standing with the White House.
Blair, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was pushed out 16 months after he became President Obama's surprise pick to be the nation's third director of national intelligence. His departure is likely to renew debate over whether the DNI position, a daunting job created amid sweeping intelligence reforms after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, is fundamentally flawed.
Obama praised Blair's integrity in a prepared statement and said that under his leadership the nation's intelligence services had "performed admirably and effectively at a time of great challenges to our security."
Blair's offer to step down came during a phone conversation with Obama on Thursday in which the president said he planned to put someone new in the director position, according to an official familiar with the exchange. Blair's exit creates a critical national security vacancy at a time when U.S. spy agencies are under pressure to step up their defenses against emerging terrorist threats.
His departure had been rumored in Washington for months, but the nature of his resignation -- without a replacement ready to be named -- suggested a lack of coordination.
The U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Obama had first raised the possibility of replacing Blair in discussions with him earlier this week. The White House had indicated a preference that Blair stay in the job until a successor could be named. But Blair refused after learning that the president had decided to look for a new director, the official said.
Blair issued a statement saying that it was "with deep regret that I informed the President today that I will step down." He added that during the Obama administration, U.S. spy agencies had become "more integrated, agile, and representative of American values." Blair becomes the highest-ranking member of the administration to resign.
Current and former U.S. officials said the White House had discussed the position with former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who serves as co-chair of Obama's intelligence advisory board; James R. Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general serving as undersecretary of defense for intelligence; and John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense who leads the Defense Policy Board.
Clapper is a leading candidate to replace Blair, a senior White House official said Thursday night, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the search continues. Officials said Hagel told the White House he would not be interested in the position. The former senator was abroad and could not be reached for comment.
Blair had been charged with carrying out Obama's campaign pledge to move the country away from controversial programs -- including the CIA's use of harsh interrogation methods -- that administration officials argued had damaged the nation's standing around the world. But much like his predecessors, Blair struggled to gain traction in a position that is widely seen as lacking adequate authority to oversee an often fractious community of 16 spy services.
Blair sometimes made public remarks that revealed his frustration with the way the intelligence community functions, and that were seen as embarrassing to the administration.
In January, Blair questioned the administration's failure to use a new team of specially trained interrogators to question the suspect in the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day. The unit was created for such scenarios, Blair said in Senate testimony, adding, "And duh . . . the decision was made on the scene."
Beyond such blunt statements, the timing of Blair's departure suggests that the White House had lost confidence in him after the agencies he oversees failed to detect relatively unsophisticated terrorist plots. The Christmas Day incident involved a Nigerian man who is accused of smuggling an explosive onboard the aircraft in his underwear. Earlier this month, a naturalized U.S. citizen apparently trained by a Pakistani terrorist group parked a vehicle packed with explosives in the middle of Times Square.
Blair often seemed sidelined by other key members of Obama's national security team. Blair lost a public turf fight with CIA Director Leon Panetta over who had the power to appoint the top U.S. intelligence representative in countries overseas. John O. Brennan, the president's main counterterrorism adviser, is a CIA veteran who has assumed the role of de facto intelligence chief within the White House, often serving as the administration's public face on national security issues.
Blair attended a state dinner at the White House on Wednesday evening. But it was Panetta who accompanied national security adviser James L. Jones this week on a trip to Pakistan to press the government in Islamabad to expand its military campaign against insurgent groups.
David Gompert, who was recently named Blair's principal deputy, will become acting director until the Senate confirms a replacement.
Other members of Obama's security team have also been singled out for criticism in recent months, including Attorney Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael E. Leiter. But both are seen as having stronger political connections to the White House than Blair.
Blair was perceived as holding a particularly unmanageable job. His two predecessors also departed after relatively brief tenures in which they struggled to prevail in turf battles with other agencies and to implement changes.
Blair's resignation comes just days after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a scathing report on U.S. spy agencies' handling of the Christmas Day attack. The report documented 14 distinct failures to take steps that might have prevented the attempted bombing.
Blair responded to the report with a statement saying that the intelligence community is "aggressively focused on potential threats," but acknowledging that "institutional and technological barriers remain."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Peter Finn, Anne E. Kornblut, Ellen Nakashima and Michael D. Shear and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.