With Dennis Blair getting the shove out the door from the Oval Office in a manner described by CBS as “graceless,” one can’t help but wonder why anyone would leap to replace the Director of National Intelligence. According to Politico, the most qualified candidates share that skepticism. They call the conundrum a “wicked problem,” but one mainly self-inflicted by the Obama administration:
Prominent political figures and intelligence veterans aren’t exactly leaping at the opportunity to replace Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence who was ousted by President Barack Obama last week after losing a series of fights with the CIA and presiding over an intelligence system that failed to detect beforehend three significant terror strikes.
Intelligence veterans say the next DNI will inherit a job with a big mandate – overseeing a sprawling U.S. intelligence bureaucracy largely suspicious and resentful of him – but little real power to carry out reforms, and a position first in line to take the inevitable political heat.
The difficulties the Obama administration has run into in filling the post are rekindling questions about whether anyone can successfully do the job as it is currently constructed—doubts which now extend to some of the earliest and loudest voices for creating the new role five years ago.
“I think the position is extremely difficult and may be unmanageable,” said Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman and co-chair of the 9/11 panel which recommended the new post. “Four DNIs in five years when you appoint the new person, for one of the post important jobs in government? That turnover has to be worrisome. We’ve had three very good people appointed to the post and they’ve all come away dissatisfied….I think in large part they stepped aside or came away dissatisfied because of a lack of authority to get done what they think needs to be done.”
“The job hasn’t been going very well,” said Fran Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush. “Either you give the DNI the authority he needs or change the job so it focuses more on strategy, and then you don’t need the authority.”
The problem stems from a poorly designed reform of the American intelligence community, provided by the 9/11 Commission and adopted by a too-credulous Congress under political pressure. Prior to that, the CIA director was the head of all non-military intelligence, both gathering and analysis. The 9/11 Commission decided not to streamline intel by putting all of it in one structure but to create another two levels of bureaucracy and put the DNI in charge of the entire mess.
However, in charge turns out to be something of a misnomer. The DNI is nominally in charge of the national intel center created in the overhaul, but as Blair discovered, not much else. Blair famously lost a power play with Leon Panetta last year after Blair wanted to reassign some of the positions in the CIA, laboring under the delusion that Panetta worked for the DNI. Panetta, a long-time power player in Washington DC, ended up winning that battle at the Oval Office level, leaving Blair emasculated. He wound up in charge of just enough to take the blame for the failure to stop three terrorist attacks in the last six months, but not quite in charge of enough to have prevented them through his own efforts to remake US intelligence.
Under those conditions, who in their right mind would want to replace Blair? It’s not just thankless, it’s powerless as well. The Obama administration should rename it the Scapegoat Secretary for some honesty in advertising.
The Obama administration gets the blame for putting itself in this position, but they shouldn’t get all of it. Congress needs to revisit its poorly-conceived reform of the intelligence community and start over from scratch.