When it comes to the effective running of the U.S. intelligence community, which is more important: personalities or structure?

Leadership changes are about to take place in two of the five positions that have emerged under President Obama as key to intelligence operations. Leon Panetta has been nominated to move from CIA director to secretary of defense, and David Petraeus has been nominated to shed his general’s uniform and become CIA director.

The other key players, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Assistant to the President John Brennan all remain. If you believe that personalities dominate, the departure of Robert Gates from the Pentagon removes the linchpin that has helped keep the wheels from coming off what has occasionally been an unstable vehicle.

Gates, a former CIA director and for the past four years defense secretary, uniquely understood the need to balance national and military intelligence interests. From the Pentagon he has had authority over 80 percent of what has grown to be an $80 billion intelligence community budget, since his department houses the main agencies that collect signals, imagery and technical intelligence, mainly via satellites. While he has been secretary, traditional Washington-based rivalries between officials at CIA and the Pentagon were damped down.

Gates opposed the 2004 legislation that established the position of director of national intelligence (DNI) and stuck to his principles by turning down the job when President George W. Bush offered it to him. Gates has tried to help each of the three men who briefly held the position and even recommended the incumbent, Clapper, who had become his top military intelligence official.

The question of intelligence structure versus personalities came to mind after Dennis C. Blair, the third DNI and a retired Navy admiral, testified last week before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. There Blair spelled out his ideas on improving the intelligence community’s performance. They are primarily structural with an interesting exception for personalities.

Blair was eased out of the DNI job a year ago, after serving for 16 months. He told the committee he had waited before talking because, as he put it, “my comments could perhaps be miscast as sour grapes from the loser in some petty bureaucratic squabbles.” Blair had some rough times not just with Panetta but also in developing a personal relationship with Obama, for whom — by statute at least — he is supposed to be principal intelligence adviser.

Blair’s main organizational proposal called for splitting the CIA into two agencies — one to be the National Clandestine Service doing spying and covert operations, the other to be the center for all-source analysis. He said the present CIA, which carries out both functions, “mixes skills, procedures, competencies and cultures [that] are very different, and their co-location yields little synergy and has major disadvantages.”

He also said that the operatives are “positive, can-do people” and that attitude “set the tone for the agency,” detracting from needed skeptical analysis, “especially when the analysis wasn’t supporting the program that the action side was working on.”

That proposal would outrage most agency officials who have spent recent years putting CIA’s analysts together with the clandestine operators so that collection reflects analytic needs. Another part of Blair’s plan, which would create an uproar within the Pentagon, relates to putting the Defense Intelligence Agency’s analysts into the new former-CIA analytic organization and the Pentagon’s human intelligence operators into the National Clandestine Service.

Neither idea has much of a chance for implementation, but one of Blair’s suggestions worth consideration would add a new legal basis for joint CIA-military covert operations, such as the one that killed Osama bin Laden. The CIA’s clandestine operations are carried under Title 50 of the U.S. code and the Pentagon’s under Title 10. The former require congressional notification, the latter don’t. Blair suggested a Title 60 for what he sees as more joint covert projects. They would also require notifying Congress.

Another element of Blair’s proposals would have the president choose for DNI a person with“some intelligence knowledge, but [someone who] doesn’t necessarily have to have lived and breathed it all his or her life.” On the other hand, he thought the CIA director should be a professional, serve a fixed term, with the DNI “running the political top-cover” for the agency.

This, of course, would increase the power and authority of the DNI. “The intelligence community needs a leader, an integrator, not a coordinator,” was Blair’s message.

He rightly observes that whatever authority Congress intended for the DNI, “a portion of it has migrated back to the director of CIA on the one hand, and some to the National Security Council staff [read: John Brennan] on the other hand.”

Trying to establish by law who will be the president’s prime intelligence adviser is where structure and personality come together. The 2004 statute says the DNI is to be that person, but history shows that the president’s chief intelligence adviser is the person with whom the president feels most comfortable. That is the real world.

In his view, Blair said, the Obama White House believes authority over intelligence “is sort of spread around among people, and the White House picks and chooses what it will use.”

Blair supports the idea that by law the DNI should be both the president’s senior intelligence adviser and leader of the community and that Congress should move to tighten the 2004 legislation to that end.

“Administrations and personalities come and go,” Blair said, “but it seems to me it’s the responsibility of the legislation to establish that structure.”

There is no way Congress will do that, and it shouldn’t.