Is The Intel Chief Being Zorned?

Making the rounds among the ranks of the "formers" -- that is, former senior intelligence officials who are now free to discuss the politics of the intelligence community, is a new verb. To Zorn, as in to render ineffective but to retain a subordinate. The context, for those who don't live in Washington, was the decision by the poohbahs at the Washington Redskins to temporarily retain head coach Jim Zorn but give play-calling abilities to someone else, effectively neutering his authority and credibility.

(A warning and self-exculpatory diversion here: speculating about who is up and who is down in the eyes of the administration is something that I try to avoid on this blog. It's unseemly; the speculation is often poorly sourced; and it's not generally fair to the public servants who are the subject of unsubstantiated gossip. But sometimes, circumstances alter this calculus of mine.)

Is Adm. Dennis Blair, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, being Zorned by the administration? Surely not, officials say. Perfunctory "he is our Director of National Intelligence" and "he has the support of the president" statements are given out.

But Blair, more than any other intelligence official, is on the hot seat. Yesterday, he admitted that the intelligence community is effectively blind in a key area: databases cannot communicate with each other. There is no IC-wide Google-like search capability to automatically match HUMINT tips with SIGINT taps. There is no major project underway to achieve that goal. And Blair also conceded that the IC simply misjudged the threat posed by Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. And the chief of the counterterorrism center, Mike Leiter, said that no additional staff were diverted to analyze the threat from Yemen even as chatter about a potential attack reached senior executive service levels. Then there were two inexplicable errors -- errors I know for a fact caused consternation at the White House. Blair suggested that he might not agree with the administration's decision to try the Christmas Day bomb suspect in a federal court, and he seemed not to know that the FBI hadn't yet stood up its new high-value target interrogation unit. A climb-down was quickly issued. Comments, he said, were "misconstrued." Not before Republicans had a field day.

All I know is that the administration fiercely defends Leiter and perfunctorily defends Blair. Firing him before congressional hearings would be a mistake -- why not let Blair take the blame, thus putting on the record offenses that the Obama administration already knew about? A congressional report will give the administration a pretext, if they need one, to dismiss their intel chief. Problem: who would get the job? Not John Brennan, the counter-terrorism chief. Obama wants him in the White House. Leon Panetta has linked himself to CIA equities like Navi link themselves to Pandoran wildlife in Avatar. Most anyone with a knowledge of the guff that the DNI has to deal with have no interest in the job. And the job itself might not be possible for anyone to perform well. Blair is as good as they get, and he's faced continuous troubles for his trouble. Is Blair being Zorned?

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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