Can Dennis Blair save U.S. intelligence?
In the shadow of the intelligence failure that culminated with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab lighting an explosive aboard a Detroit-bound flight, the titular head of the U.S. intelligence community was busy fighting another war. For months, in fact, Admiral Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence (DNI), had been waging an epic bureaucratic offensive. His job had been created in the wake of September 11 to foster cooperation and accountability among the 16 agencies sifting through the mounds of inbound data about threats to U.S. interests. Turf wars, the job’s congressional creators theorized, had prevented spooks from the sort of sharing that would piece together plots. So a strong leader was needed to heal these rifts in the government.
Under Blair, however, these rifts have grown worse. His sworn bureaucratic foe is CIA chief Leon Panetta, who, at least on paper, reports to him. But, when Congress sculpted Blair’s job, it left plenty of ambiguity about the extent of the DNI’s authority over the CIA, which seemed bound to create the very squabbling that the reforms were intended to stifle. Blair has compounded this problem with his knack for stirring intramural controversy. He seems to relish the occasions when he can snatch power from Panetta. Over the course of the past year, he has demanded the right to appoint the top American spy stationed in each foreign country, a power traditionally reserved for the CIA director. He has hammered the agency for botching the Afghanistan war and attempted to assert more control over covert operations, from paramilitary units to drone strikes in Pakistan. (Blair declined requests for an interview.)
All in all, relations between the DNI and CIA have never been worse. Last summer, a source close to Blair fumed about Panetta’s “insubordination” to The Washington Post’s David Ignatius. The White House eventually dispatched National Security Advisor Jim Jones as a special envoy to negotiate a truce between the men. When Jones failed to make peace, Vice President Joe Biden took a turn at brokering a cease-fire. According to the Los Angeles Times, Jones ultimately crafted a formal agreement that clarified the relationship. Among other things, it preserved the CIA’s direct line of communication to the White House and the privileged role of CIA station chiefs. Even though Panetta signed the document, Blair refused to give his consent. His huffing finally forced Jones to unilaterally issue a memo last month imposing a clearer division of labor.
Blair’s obstreperousness doesn’t shock those who have worked with him in the past. As one former Pentagon official told me, he “doesn’t suffer fools gladly and his definition of fools is fairly expansive. Sometimes that can [mean everyone] up to and including the secretary of defense and even presidents.”
The fact that relations between the most powerful members of the intelligence community are fraught is not a comforting thought at the present moment. Following the foiled Christmas plot, President Obama has waxed outraged over the bureaucracy’s failure to “connect the dots.” Blair’s job description has always made him responsible for ensuring the efficacy of a system that flows intelligence to appropriate analysts with a minimum of bureaucratic friction. With so much so obviously broken in this system, the question is, does he have the temperament and organizational chops to get the job done?
That Dennis Blair would ascend to the highest ranks of government surprises almost no one who encountered him on his rise there. Even those who don’t like Blair concede his smarts–and those who admire him tend to gush. Richard Danzig, who served as secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration, told me that Blair exudes “seasoned maturity” and “obvious kinds of stature.” He’s the “smartest-in-the-class–type person,” says Hudson Institute defense analyst Richard Weitz. Hailing from New England Yankee stock and Naval aristocracy, Blair is the sixth generation of his family to serve as an officer. After graduating second in his class from Annapolis in 1968–a year that also included the notorious Oliver North, Senator Jim Webb, and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen–Blair scored a Rhodes Scholarship. Next came a White House fellowship, followed by a string of top intelligence jobs, including a stint on the National Security Council (NSC) staff in the Reagan administration. “He went everywhere with a pad, constantly writing notes,” says one former NSC staffer who served with Blair. “I thought to myself, ‘This guy’s writing a book.’”
While he obviously impressed his superiors, Blair’s headstrong tendencies could also make him a nuisance. In 1999, he assumed control over the United States Pacific Command (PACOM), which controls all U.S. military operations in the Pacific theater. Forty-three countries were under his purview, along with 300,000 military personnel. It was a vast assignment that placed him in proximity to many impending crises. The first of these to strike on his watch came in Indonesia, where government-backed militias waged a violent campaign against an independence movement on the island of East Timor.
Two months after assuming his command, Blair met with General Wiranto, the leader of the Indonesian military, with instructions from Washington to warn him that, unless he stopped supporting the militias, the United States would cut off all contacts. Yet, as Washington Post reporter Dana Priest recounts in her book, The Mission, Blair never issued that warning. Instead, he invited Wiranto to a military seminar in Honolulu, where he promised to train Indonesian soldiers in crowd control. And he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Indonesian military was playing “a difficult but generally positive role.”
What did this positive role entail? The Indonesians were supporting militias responsible for killing not only large numbers of East Timorese–perhaps as many as 7,000–but also 16 United Nations election observers. The militias forced 20,000 independence supporters into prison camps, where they were kept with hardly any food. But such humanitarian concerns were secondary. Blair considered maintaining strong ties with the Indonesian military to be far more important.
When the Clinton administration threatened to expel the handful of Indonesian military officers studying in the United States, Blair successfully urged the NSC to reverse this decision. “At no point,” Priest writes, “did Blair ask the special operations officials who worked most closely with Indonesia to reach out to contacts they had developed … to try to arrest the violence.” In other words, he repeatedly freelanced and deftly used his allies in Washington to make the case for a very different sort of policy.
Those who knew Blair during these years say that he clearly aspired to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs. But, in the early days of the Bush era, he found himself locked in combat with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In part, their conflict was structural. Rumsfeld wanted increased oversight of the combatant commanders by installing civilian representatives in each of their headquarters. “Rummy wanted to break the Joint Chiefs’ dominance,” says a former NSC staffer.
But there were substantive differences over Pacific Rim policy, too. Blair believed that the United States had unwisely cast its lot with Taiwan–he reportedly told a congressional panel in 1999 that the island is “the turd in the punchbowl” of Sino-American relations (Blair disputed the context of the remark)–and advocated a less adversarial stance toward China. This position, which was shared by most of Blair’s predecessors at PACOM, would repeatedly bring him into conflict with the Bushies. The first instance came when a Chinese fighter pilot collided with a U.S. EP-3 spy plane flying in international airspace. When the damaged U.S. jet managed to land on Hainan Island, just off the coast of China, the Chinese held the 24-member crew in custody. As Blair worked with Joseph Prueher, the American ambassador to China, to negotiate their release, the civilians at the Pentagon were horrified at their conciliatory tone. One official recalls them issuing “accomodationist messages to the Chinese on the naïve theory that a quick apology and abasing ourselves would work.” Rumsfeld worried that they neglected to exact any costs from the Chinese as they hammered out an agreement. Indeed, the Pentagon reeled at the concessions that were made. Even though the EP-3 was in perfectly reparable condition, they consented to China’s demand that the plane be dismantled by American military contractors and shipped home in crates.
In May 2001, just a month after the EP-3 incident, Blair took his differences with the defense secretary public. A study commissioned by Rumsfeld had warned that U.S. bases in the Pacific would become increasingly vulnerable to Chinese attacks in various conflict scenarios and recommended that the United States shift its resources to capabilities like missile defense and space weaponry. Blair disagreed, not only with the recommendations, but also with the threat assessment. “I think that using this projection of what the Chinese are now doing as a rationale for the U.S. having to flow back out of Asia is just wrong,” Blair told The New York Times in a front-page story. The article quoted him recommending that the United States spend more time working on its “alliance structure” rather than fretting about exaggerated warnings of Chinese bellicosity.
It was the public voicing of these doubts that bruised Blair’s relationship with Rumsfeld–and his chances for promotion. The circumstances of his departure are murky. While officials at the Pentagon say that he left after failing to win the Joint Chiefs job, Blair privately claimed that he was fired. According to one official who worked with Blair, “He said that to me, to many people. I’ve heard it repeated back more than a half-dozen times.”
Dissident status in the Rumsfeld Pentagon obviously makes for a good credential in Democratic foreign policy circles. But Blair still wasn’t a natural denizen of the Obama camp. After retiring from the Navy, Blair joined a series of corporate boards and became president of the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a federally funded think tank that advises the Pentagon on weapons procurement. In 2006, it was revealed that Blair served on the boards of two corporations that made parts for the F-22 fighter jet, whose continued construction IDA had endorsed (and which Congress canceled last year). Blair acknowledged that he was involved in two reports endorsing the plane. An inspector general investigation was launched at the behest of Senator John McCain and his colleagues John Warner and Carl Levin. The inquiry concluded that Blair “took no action to influence the outcome of either study,” but it also found that he “violated IDA’s conflict of interest standards.” In July 2006, Blair resigned from one of his corporate board positions; after heightened media scrutiny, he quit the presidency of IDA, too. Blair blamed much of his fate on the Arizona senator, a bitterness that hasn’t abated. “He portrayed himself to me and many others as a victim of John McCain, whom he found to be irresponsible and wrongheaded,” says one former colleague.
How Blair got the DNI position remains opaque. Before being approached for the job, he’d only spoken once with Obama, way back in 2006. “He was not particularly involved with President Obama in the campaign,” says Danzig, who was a top foreign policy adviser during the race. So, when Blair received the job offer, he professed shock. “I was quite surprised to receive a phone call from him asking me to join his team,” Blair told reporters in March. Whatever the circumstances of his recruitment, Blair clearly had a profile that appealed to Obama: intellectual, a proven history of engaging adversaries, and a willingness to candidly express his opinion with superiors. The latter quality jibed with the prevailing liberal critique of the intelligence community, which held that, in the Bush era, analysts bent their evidence to win the approval of their political bosses.
But it is this maverick quality that has landed Blair in several controversies. The first began when word leaked that he had asked Charles Freeman, who had served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia and director for Chinese affairs at the State Department, to be chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the government’s top intelligence analyst. The choice raised the ire of a diverse group of Israel supporters, China hawks, and Darfur activists. For instance, of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Freeman once wrote to an e-mail listserv that the “truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud.” In his position as head of the Middle East Policy Council, a Saudi-funded think tank, Freeman published an “unabridged” version of the controversial “Israel Lobby” essay by professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. Until February 2009, Freeman had served on the international advisory board of the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation, a government-owned conglomerate with stakes in Sudanese petroleum.
As controversy swirled, Blair steadfastly defended Freeman. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said, “I’m better off getting strong analytical viewpoints … than if I’m getting pre-cooked pabulum judgments that don’t really challenge.” But his backing of Freeman did little good. Just hours after Blair left the Senate hearing room, Freeman, likely bowing to pressure from the White House, withdrew his name from consideration. In a rambling letter blaming “the Israel Lobby,” Freeman claimed to be done in by “unscrupulous people” who were “intent on enforcing the will and interests of a foreign government.”
A few days before Freeman bowed out, Blair’s spokeswoman acknowledged that he did not seek prior White House approval of the selection, a rather daring move given the problems a figure like Freeman posed to so many constituencies. And, even after the controversy, Blair told reporters, “I thought [Freeman] was a good pick, I still think he would have made a great National Intelligence Council chairman, but it wasn’t to be.”
Introducing Blair for his January confirmation hearings, Senator Dianne Feinstein cited a description of the incoming DNI as “one of those who could think outside the box.” That was, in essence, what attracted him to Freeman. Both men envision themselves as truth-tellers working amid a sea of conformists.
But this headstrong quality has thrust Blair into the center of myriad intraadministration debates. His assessment of Tehran’s nuclear program, for instance, stands at odds with the evaluations of our European allies, international watchdog agencies, and even other branches of the U.S government. Last March, Blair told a Senate committee, “Whether [the Iranians] develop a nuclear weapon which could then be put in [a] warhead I believe is a separate decision which Iran has not made yet.” That’s a strong stance, without much hedging, and inimical to the view of Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Just a day after Blair’s testimony, Mullen told a Washington audience, “I believe that Iran is on a path to develop nuclear weapons. We can debate the timeline, but it’s very clear to me that that’s their path and that’s what their leadership is about.” A frustrated Feinstein told Congressional Quarterly, “You have one admiral saying one thing and one admiral saying another, I’m not going to get into the middle.” As late as September, according to Newsweek, Blair’s office told the White House that it continues to stand by the conclusions of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran was not presently developing nukes.
All this has played out against the backdrop of Blair’s contretemps with Panetta. And, while their squabble has nothing directly to do with the Abdulmutallab case, it is reflective of a dysfunctional intelligence culture. But, thus far, none of these failures has redounded against Blair. That’s because, as much as Blair has a talent for provocations, he also knows when to cool his jets. “He’ll be very good at staying below the radar. This has been key to his career,” one of Blair’s former colleagues told me. And so, the man who officially has ownership over the intelligence community has largely avoided blame for this spectacular intelligence failure.
In a sense, for Blair to succeed in this next chapter, he will have to overcome his own temperament. He’s a self-styled maverick, ever willing to prod. Or, as his friend Strobe Talbott says, “He’s a speak-truth-to power guy.” That’s an admirable quality for an analyst, but it may not be the ideal defining quality for someone tasked with taming a sprawling bureaucracy. To enact the improvements that the president has demanded, Blair must accept a truce in his battle with the CIA; he will need to bolster the morale of agencies that feel trampled, fostering a sense of collective mission. In other words, Blair will only be able to execute this agenda by fighting another turf war–and this time, his enemy will be his own ego.