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

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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.

He knew that he would probably have to resign after the Senate Intelligence Committee released his report. As nice and committed as Blair was, the report found that the National Counterterrorism Center did not have a firm grasp of what its core mission was. A few weeks ago, his last public speech hinted at some of the challenges he still faced, and included what I took to be a bit of a jab at the White House for not supporting him. He also joked, perhaps ruefully, that he would be replaced by Redskins QB Donovan McNabb.

Early Thursday, Blair was told to expect a call from Obama later that day. The call came about a half hour before Jake Tapper broke the story -- before Blair had a chance to send out a goodbye letter to the staff. The White House had begun to interview his replacements after the Senate released its classified version of the report two months earlier.

Blair tried to forestall the inevitable, borrowing staff from so-called "pursuit teams" and bringing them into a new, tactical intelligence analytical cell that would run down daily threat streams from all sources. The White House had asked Blair to prepare to stay on as DNI until a replacement could be found, but Blair did not want to be a dead man walking. He said he'd give the White House a week.

It's expected that a good chunk of Blair's staff, and top-level DNI managers, will be asked to resign once Blair's replacement is named.

Insiders at Liberty Crossing in Virginia, the openly secret land plot where the DNI is headquartered, worry about whether Gen. James Clapper, the likely nominee, will be as committed to civil liberties and analytic transformation issues as Blair was. Little known to most outsiders was Blair's insistence that his chief privacy officer, Alexander Joel, be present for virtually all high-level meetings.

Clapper's tenure as undersecretary of defense for intelligence was marked by a few different hiccups, although he is highly regarded inside the Pentagon, and he gets along well with Panetta, who has more clout in the IC than anyone.

Clapper has a background in technical and signals intelligence and military culture  at a time when the community is trying to rebuild its human intelligence capacity. He's also not the type of guy who would accept the position without private assurances that he'll get his way.

Intelligence officials say that Clapper has a better appreciation of the need to revive U.S. counterintelligence efforts at both the strategic and tactical levels.

The country has a tradition of strong civilian oversight of the IC, even when the heads of agencies were members of the military. Clapper is a military's military man. 

Blair arrived at a DNI that was bloated, with a staff of several thousand, that had already calcified, institutionally, and lacked support and authority. It proved too difficult for him to break apart firewalls.  Certain things did not make sense: the strategic operational planning directorate funded just two positions for writing counter-terrorism strategies.

Though Blair brought in a tough chief information officer, Priscilla Guthrie, he was particularly unable to make much progress standardizing information technology across the intelligence community, which is absolutely critical. One reason: many IT departments were funded by the DoD or by entities that Blair didn't control. CIOs of various agencies didn't have the same authorities, either.

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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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