Obama to tap ex-admiral to be intel chief
President-elect Barack Obama has selected retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair to serve as the nation’s next intelligence director but has not concluded his search for someone to lead the CIA, according to government officials familiar with the selection process.
If confirmed, Blair would be Obama’s point person on an array of highly charged intelligence issues the incoming administration will inherit from President Bush.
Among them are the allocation of resources amid two wars, the operation of secret CIA prisons overseas, and the ongoing wiretapping of e-mails and calls that pass through the United States.
Officials close to the Obama transition team sent mixed signals on when the president-elect might announce Blair’s nomination, prompting some members of Congress to issue public statements on the selection even before it has been made official.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee, praised Blair’s “long record of distinguished service” and said the position called for a “strong leader who can work on equal footing with the Pentagon.”
The confusion on the timing of the announcement is the latest indication that the Obama team has struggled to assemble its intelligence team. Obama finished filling out the remainder of his Cabinet-level candidates on Friday before departing for a vacation in Hawaii.
In a 34-year career in the Navy, Blair served as head of the Pacific Command, and he spent a year at the CIA in the mid-1990s as the agency’s first associate director of military support, a position created to bolster cooperation between the agency and the Pentagon.
Thomas Wilson, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, described Blair, a Rhodes scholar, as “very smart, very knowledgeable and very decisive.”
Wilson, who worked with Blair in the Pentagon and was his neighbor in Navy housing in Washington, said that Blair’s CIA position gave him “broad exposure to how the intelligence community works” and that being head of the Pacific Command “gives you a tremendous host of issues that you have to deal with, including Korea, China and Southeast Asia.”
Blair’s nomination would continue a recent trend in which many of the nation’s top intelligence jobs have been held by military men, including the person he would replace, retired Navy Adm. J. Michael McConnell.
Blair would be the nation’s third director of national intelligence, a position that was created after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to improve coordination among the 16 agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community.
Blair’s experience managing vast parts of the U.S. military was a key factor in Obama’s decision, officials said. Blair, in an e-mail exchange, declined to comment on the nomination.
Blair is a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. His classmates that year included Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.); and former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North.
Blair’s record is not unblemished. He was forced to resign as president of the Institute for Defense Analyses, a military think tank, over conflict-of-interest complaints. At the time, he was serving on the board of a defense contractor whose work on the F-22 fighter jet program was being evaluated by the institute.
But congressional officials said they would not expect Blair to face serious difficulty being confirmed.
While Blair’s name as a choice for the intelligence post circulated for weeks, the Obama team has appeared to have greater difficulty settling on a candidate to lead the CIA.
A former senior CIA official and Obama advisor, John Brennan, abruptly took himself out of the running last month amid criticism from liberal groups that he supported controversial intelligence programs of the Bush administration. In a letter, Brennan complained that “the fact that I was not involved in the decision-making process for any of these controversial policies and actions has been ignored.” Colleagues of Brennan said he was angered that the Obama team bowed to outside pressure.
A senior congressional official said that Blair was expected to play a larger role in the selection of a CIA director.
Among the candidates being considered is John Gannon, who served as deputy director of the agency during the Clinton administration.
Gannon declined to comment.
Times staff writer Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this report.