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

By Greg Miller and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 22, 2010; A01

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.

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.

Congress also struggled to define what the director should be empowered to do. The law provides the authority to "develop and determine" the national intelligence budget, but the director merely "participates" in setting the spending for military intelligence programs that are set by the defense secretary. Those agencies account for about a third of the more than $70 billion allocated annually to the intelligence community.

Blair and his predecessors struggled to straddle competing aspects of the job -- serving as the overall manager of the diverse intelligence community while also serving as the president's principal intelligence adviser. Blair emphasized the community-management aspect, officials said, a choice that may have cost him the ability to foster closer ties with Obama and his closest aides.

Indeed, Blair lost several turf skirmishes to someone who was supposed to be his subordinate, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta. Even before he came into the job, Blair was warned that it would likely be the case.

After accepting the position, Blair met with the outgoing director, Michael McConnell. "They will recruit him," McConnell said of Panetta, according to a source who witnessed the exchange, meaning that Panetta's loyalties would soon be to the agency.

"My view is that the only person who might have the horsepower with the White House to turn the DNI into an effective position would be Leon Panetta," said Sen. Christopher Bond (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee. "He just laughed when I told him that."

Asserting authority

Blair's attempts to assert authority over CIA operations and certain overseas assignments rankled some within the intelligence community.

"The DNI exists to set policy. It was never intended to collect intelligence or run operations," said a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of interagency sensitivities. "It's supposed to be a guiding strategic hand across agencies, not a top-down command authority."

Colleagues of Blair, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, said he chafed at such descriptions of the job. Blair had intended to serve out a four-year term in the position, officials said. That he was pushed out has as much to do with his political alienation from Obama as it does the intelligence failures that cropped up during his tenure, they said.

By contrast, Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, is said to remain in good standing with the administration despite mounting criticism of his agency in recent months. The center was intended to fuse foreign and domestic intelligence on terrorist threats, and to supply policymakers with analysis and expertise on key terror-related issues.

But the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that the center mishandled multiple clues that might have prevented a Nigerian man from smuggling a bomb aboard an aircraft bound for Detroit on Christmas Day. An attachment to the report said officials at the center seemed confused about its role. "Despite its statutory mission," the attachment said, "NCTC did not believe it was the sole agency in the [intelligence community] for piecing together all terrorism threats."

Defenders of the center said internal changes after the Detroit incident are bringing tangible if not publicly visible results. And they said the NCTC has been involved in thwarting several plots, including one to attack the New York subway system, and terrorist threats in Denmark and Germany.

Staff writers Peter Finn and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.

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