Spy chief resigns, highlighting agency dysfunction

Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence, announced his resignation Thursday after a 16-month tenure marred by infighting and tension with the White House.

Blair’s resignation reflects lost confidence in his ability to coordinate the 16 intelligence agencies he oversees and “fuels new doubts about the success, and wisdom, of the major intelligence overhaul in 2004 that created the spymaster position,” says the New York Times.

Obama’s request that Blair step down follows a recent Senate report two days earlier criticizing intelligence agencies for allowing a Nigerian man to nearly detonate a bomb aboard a trans-Atlantic flight on Christmas Day last year and other security breaches.

But according to the Times,  Blair’s efforts to coordinate a “hidebound intelligence bureaucracy” were doomed from the start:

…most intelligence experts agree that the job has been troubled from the start, having little actual power over the operations and budget of a sprawling intelligence infrastructure that the Pentagon and C.I.A. still dominate. The vast majority of America’s annual intelligence budget, nearly $50 billion, is spent on spy satellites and high-tech listening devices under Pentagon control.

Instead of easing endemic tensions, Blair’s “territorial squabbling with other departments” became public when a fight with Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta last year over who would choose intelligence officials abroad became so heated that President Obama and Vice President Biden had to step in—and ultimately sided with the politically agile Panetta, the Guardian reports.

Washington Post opinion columnist suggests that “Blair was asked to do an impossible job” and that the position needs redefining if his successor is to succeed:

Changing the person who occupies the DNI position will reduce friction temporarily, but the real problem is the definition of the job. If the DNI is supposed to be the intelligence czar, then he can’t have such a high-profile political underling as the CIA director. A better idea, in my view, is for the DNI to be a low-visibility facilitator — an intelligence community version of the director of the Office of Management and Budget. The OMB has power, through its review of budgets and personnel, but it doesn’t pretend to have line operating authority. That’s the right model.

Though Obama has not yet announced a successor, retired Air Force lieutenant general James R. Clapper, Jr., a top intelligence official, is the likely candidate, the Times reported.

 
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