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Dennis Blair's replacement has problems to solve

Saturday, May 22, 2010; A14

THE RESIGNATION of Dennis C. Blair as director of national intelligence was the product of personal as well as institutional failings. A retired admiral with a distinguished record of service, Mr. Blair's political judgment looked questionable from the beginning of his DNI tenure, when he nominated a former ambassador with close ties to China and Saudi Arabia -- and crackpot views about the Israel "lobby" -- to chair the National Intelligence Council. After the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing, Mr. Blair told Congress that the Nigerian suspect should have been questioned by the interagency interrogation group created by the administration for terrorism cases -- only to acknowledge later that the team had not yet been launched.

But Mr. Blair's biggest problem was his poor management of the problem he inherited from his three, also short-lived, predecessors: the lack of clear authorities and responsibilities for his office, which was created by Congress in 2004 in an ill-considered attempt to respond to the intelligence failures before Sept. 11, 2001. Though it has mushroomed into a quasi-agency with 1,500 employees, the office of the DNI has never exercised authority over the nation's other intelligence agencies or solved the problem of their failure to share and synthesize information about key threats.

Mr. Blair's attempts to address these failings often looked misdirected. He launched a losing power struggle with CIA Director Leon Panetta over the appointment of intelligence chiefs at U.S. embassies, a questionable priority. Meanwhile, he failed to fix the most important component of his own staff -- the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), which is supposed to be the organization that "connects the dots" about all terrorism threats.

A scathing report issued this week by the Senate intelligence committee made clear that the NCTC not only "was not adequately organized and did not have the resources appropriately allocated," but also did not even accept its own mission. Instead of closely tracking and coordinating information on specific terrorist threats, its staff "focused primarily on providing strategic, or high-level terrorism assessments and providing support to senior policymakers." The committee found that had the NCTC done its job, it "could have produced sufficient information to recommend" that the Christmas bomber "be placed on the terrorist watchlists."

Those findings should provide a clear mandate for Mr. Blair's successor. Rather than fight unwinnable turf battles or attempt to assert authority over the budget and operations of every U.S. intelligence agency, the new DNI would do well to make sure some basic jobs are done well -- starting with the counterterrorism center. The failure to centralize and investigate information about terrorism threats was the most important problem demanding correction after the Sept. 11 attacks. The fact that the now-bulky organization Congress created in response is not closely focused on that mission is inexcusable -- and dangerous.

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