Intel Director Defends His Job, and the Job

The Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Adm. Dennis Blair (ret.), said today bluntly that intelligence reform since 9/11 has been "inadequate" to handle current intelligence threats and that the intelligence community's "ability to innovate, to cross traditional boundaries ... falls well short of our adversaries' ingenuity and nimbleness."
Blair was invited to give a defense of the position he occupies about five years to the day after the first DNI was sworn into office. Those in the room included many current and former intelligence officers, analysts, experts and policy-makers, and members of congressional staff who wrote the DNI into law. Blair did not need to provide background and context. He drew a laugh when he said that "as parents know, it's possible to complete an undergraduate education in five years or so."

Blair has spent his first year in office struggling to serve as the president's chief intelligence adviser and execute oversight and planning functions for the entire community. He largely avoids the media and does not appear in public all that often. Though he's had a tough year, he did not use the speech to settle scores. Instead, he used it to explain them. He said the future of the success of his job -- the Director of National Intelligence -- depends on the crossing of three thresholds.

One was developing "a cadre of joint leaders instinctively working together across the full range of intelligence activities." Parsing this point: Blair said that the senior executives at the highest ranks of U.S. intelligence agencies are "very skilled at an individual level of experience," but "have often stopped short of [finding] the best solutions for the country by crossing the boundaries of institutional prerogatives." This means, in essence, that Blair believes that agency heads remain too turf-conscious and remain far too hesitant to break "some institutional glass and [do] things in a new way." The rejoinder to this is that Blair, as DNI, is supposed to compel this glass-breaking. But though he did not say it -- he left it to others -- he needs to be fully empowered to make decisions and have those decisions be supported by the White House and Congress.

Blair said that in his experience, the "most committed and imaginative and least parochial" members of the intelligence community were junior officers in the field, "especially in warzones." This line will play well.

Blair's second success-threshold was whether covert action was more comfortably integrated into the larger national security picture. Blair said that "we must acknowledge that the context has changed, and that there are more more overt tools of national power [where] previously only covert action would have been applicable." This can be read as an implicit criticism of the way that the CIA, in particular, has been quick to turn to the covert option without first making sure that its operations are well-considered and won't have long-term consequences that jeopardize larger security goals. The DNI has sought to increase his oversight of covert action, leading to several tempestuous battles with senior CIA officials over the past year.

The final point was the least controversial: Blair wants everyone to share what they know, and he wants intelligence analysis to be more efficient. The tools to assess the quality of collection and analysis, he said, "are quite rudimentary. We often do what we can, rather than what we should."

Questioners tried to draw Blair out on a number of points -- was he getting the right amount of support from the White House? Did he need more statutory authority? Should he be more visible? To the delight of his staff, Blair didn't depart from his remarks. He did allow that his role often led to a perception that he was "the red-headed child at the picnic," but said that President Obama and his team are a "demanding set of policy customers," and so he felt honored to participate in what he called "the Golden Age of the Intelligence Community."
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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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