Intelligence chief stepping down after rocky tenure
National Intelligence Director Dennis C. Blair announced his resignation Thursday after a rocky 16-month tenure during which he found himself on the losing end of turf battles and struggled to develop a close relationship with President Obama.
The White House has been interviewing candidates to replace Blair but has not chosen one, several officials said.
Blair’s departure surprised his staff and many members of Congress. He had told associates that he intended to remain in the job for four years.
But he never seemed to form a close bond with Obama, and one senior official said Thursday that the retired Navy admiral had been forced out. Several officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.
After a series of attempted terrorist attacks and intelligence breakdowns that included the 13 shooting deaths last year at Ft. Hood, Texas, and the failed Christmas Day airliner bombing attempt, Obama’s confidence in Blair had suffered, several officials said.
In a statement, Blair said he was stepping down with “deep regret.” He said the intelligence community had “worked tirelessly to provide intelligence support for two wars and to prevent an attack on our homeland.”
Blair had won plaudits for improving coordination among the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies. But his departure comes only days after a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the attempted Christmas Day bombing concluded that the National Counterterrorism Center, which is under Blair’s control, “was not organized adequately to fulfill its missions.”
Obama said in a statement that Blair “has performed admirably and effectively at a time of great challenges to our security, and I have valued his sense of purpose and patriotism.”
“Dennis Blair has a remarkable record of service to the United States, and I am grateful for his leadership as director of national intelligence,” Obama said.
Possible successors are retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, the Defense undersecretary for intelligence; Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who is co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board; and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Also under consideration, administration officials said, are Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig. Harman is running for reelection in a strongly Democratic district. Danzig was a key advisor in the Obama campaign and at one time was a candidate for secretary of Defense.
Blair’s resignation is effective May 28. By law, his deputy, David Gompert, would become the acting director until the Senate confirmed a replacement.
One official said Obama may designate Clapper to take the job on an interim basis until a permanent successor can be named.
Blair’s replacement will be the fourth director of national intelligence since the job’s creation as part of intelligence agency reforms called for by the Sept. 11 commission and intended to prevent future terrorist attacks.
The high turnover reflects what critics say is the biggest problem with the job: Although the director is nominally the nation’s senior intelligence official, it is largely a management position that lacks authority to control the day-to-day workings of the CIA or more than a dozen other intelligence agencies.
“I think that he worked very hard to try to integrate the community, but it’s a very, very hard job,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Blair’s strained relationship with the White House has been an open secret in Washington for some time. Instead of Blair, deputy national security advisor John Brennan often has been the most visible administration official coordinating the official response to attempted terrorist attacks.
One official said Blair’s reputation at the White House had suffered because of strains between him and Brennan, a former CIA official and head of the National Counterterrorism Center.
“The public perception and also the perception of the [intelligence] community is that DNI [director of national intelligence] does not have the gravitas or the power or the clout that’s needed to really get the job done,” Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said at a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security this week.
Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who was co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, testified at the hearing that the situation “concerns me a bit, because the DNI … has got to be the strong leader of the intelligence community and if somebody else is taking even the public lead on some of these questions, DNI is not where it’s supposed to be.”
Brennan is not considered a candidate to replace Blair. He would probably face difficult questions about the George W. Bush-era CIA interrogation program during confirmation hearings, a spectacle the White House wants to avoid, officials said.
Like his predecessors, Blair seemed to chafe at the limited power his job possessed. When he sought last year to name senior U.S. intelligence officers in some overseas posts, the White House overruled Blair and allowed CIA Director Leon E. Panetta to continue making the choices.
“Clearly, and understandably, Director Blair was frustrated by the White House’s micromanagement and sidelining of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on national security issues,” said Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. He added that Blair’s departure was “disturbing and unfortunate.”
As a former senior military officer accustomed to running his own organization, Blair did not devote much time to cultivating relationships at the White House.
Although charged by law with handling Obama’s daily intelligence briefing, Blair acknowledged in a recent public appearance that he sometimes left the job of providing the president’s morning national security update to others.