The Admiral's Listless Ship: The Demise of Dennis Blair

The outline of the story arc is familiar: Adm. Dennis Blair (ret) slowly lost confidence of the White House. But it's also true that the White House was never able to provide Blair the support a DNI needs. The office doesn't have full budget and targeting authority, so it needs legitimacy, and that's something only the full faith and credit of the president can provide.

Blair has ruminated to colleagues that he just didn't get the politics of the job well.  Early on, he didn't understand that his choice of ex-diplomat Chas Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council would be controversial. Freeman, to him, was the most brilliant, most unorthodox thinker he knew, someone who would challenge his assumptions. Blair thought the guy who would write the National Intelligence Estimates should be a rigorous critical thinker. But Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel disagreed ... flipped out, actually,  and the relationship between the two men were poisoned since then. Freeman is an opponent of the standard U.S. policy towards Israel and makes no bones about it. He was much too sensitive a pick.His current job is a bit of a black hole so far as the public is concerned. He has oversight over the DoD's contribution to the intelligence community and was tasked to lead a thought group charged with overhauling the Pentagon's Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance activities.  Clapper is accountable for agencies under his purview, like the DIA, which has taken over the interrogation portfolio from the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command.

But his confirmation hearing will be short and to the point.

His three big mistakes:

1. The Freeman choice, which provoked a rebuke from the president and his chief of staff

2. The decision to try and force CIA Director Leon Panetta to defer to him in appointing station chiefs. Arguably, this was a battle Blair should not have fought, but he had no political person to tell him that it was a bad idea. Panetta had been the aggressor, countermanding a directive that Blair had signed. But in retrospect, Blair should have let Panetta's status striving go. The dispute had to be settled by Vice President Biden. At the time, White House officials noted warily that they assumed that the DNI would have been able to handle the matter in house.

Blair's staff wondered why the White House always seemed to undercut their boss with snide background remarks to reporters. In turn, the White House was galled when a foreign government complained to high-level staffers that it did not know who was running the show, Blair or Panetta. Liaison relationships between the U.S. and other countries, frayed since the Bush administration, had not improved as quickly as Obama's National Security Staff had wanted.

3. The battles he fought with Panetta over covert action. Blair is not a fan of the aggressive Predator Drone program. But Panetta, Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and the White House are.

His meta-mistake (not really a mistake, but a reality): Blair proved not to be a good player of institutional politics. And he got no back up from the White House at critical junctures. It is said that his relationship with Brennan is frayed. But that's not really true. Brennan didn't seek out to undermine Blair. But as a top Obama confidant, he would provide advice to Obama that often conflicted with Blair's position -- something Obama appreciated about Brennan. Brennan did not enjoy being put in the position of having to mediate disputes within the intelligence community.

The final straw was the Christmas Day bombing attempt and Blair's public mistake about whether the High Value Interrogation Teams should have been deployed. They were not ready, of course, something he hadn't realized. It was a sign that Blair was not involved in day-to-day counterterrorism planning. It struck some as a sign of his distance, and others as a sign of his commitment to his job, which he saw as strategic.

Presented by

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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