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Blair's resignation may reflect inherent conflicts in job of intelligence chief

Last month, Dennis C. Blair, center, was joined by directors of U.S. intelligence agencies, including CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, left, and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper during a ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the office.
Last month, Dennis C. Blair, center, was joined by directors of U.S. intelligence agencies, including CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, left, and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper during a ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the office. (J. Scott Applewhite/associated Press)

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By Greg Miller and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010

As the intelligence community was rebuilt after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, two additions were seen as crucial to addressing systemic breakdowns: a new director to force often-squabbling agencies to work together, and a counterterrorism center to connect threat data dots.

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But developments this week underscored the extent to which those two institutions have struggled to carry out their missions, and are increasingly seen as hobbled by their own structural flaws.

The resignation of Dennis C. Blair as director of national intelligence Friday means the position will soon be turned over to a fourth occupant in little more than five years. Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the job has come to be viewed as a thankless assignment -- lacking in authority, yet held to account for each undetected terrorist plot.

"The DNI doesn't have any authority to make things happen," said Mark M. Lowenthal, a former senior CIA official and the chief executive of the Intelligence & Security Academy. "If you look at who we've had, we've been extremely lucky in the people who've accepted the job. Three of the brightest people I've ever met. But they can't make the job work. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself: Is it the job?"

The DNI oversees 16 intelligence agencies, including the CIA. But the director has only partial budget authority over the sprawling bureaucracy he leads. Thus, some intelligence experts say, whoever holds the job will lack the influence envisioned when the office was created.

The National Counterterrorism Center, established after the 2001 attacks to collate information from across agencies and analyze threats, is under the same scrutiny. Two narrowly averted terrorist attacks in the past five months have prompted criticism of the center, part of the Office of the DNI. A Senate report released this week concluded that the center was still "not organized adequately to fulfill its mission" six years after it was launched.

The failings have caught the attention of the Obama administration. One of the first tasks given to the President's Intelligence Advisory Board when it was assembled in December was to seek ways to bridge the gap between the expectations and authorities in the intelligence director's job.

Blair's colleagues acknowledged that he struggled with the political aspects of the position. But they said he was particularly frustrated by what he considered micromanagement from the White House and a lack of adequate budget and hiring authority.

Early problems

The leading candidate to replace Blair is James Clapper, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who has led two large intelligence agencies and currently serves as Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence.

Clapper is capable of bringing "a sense of purpose, mission and identity" to the director position, said a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official who worked closely with him. But, the former official said, "without some support from the president or structural change, you're not going to see a much different outcome."

Problems with the position have prompted a series of high-level candidates to turn it down. Among the first to do so was Robert M. Gates, now the secretary of defense. As a former CIA director, he opposed the legislation that established the DNI. U.S. officials acknowledged this week that they had approached former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) about replacing Blair, but that Hagel made it clear he would decline.

Creating a powerful intelligence director was one of the main recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. The commission's report called for the director position to be lodged inside the White House, but that provision was quickly dropped when Congress took up intelligence reform legislation.


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