September 1, 2009
DNI Dennis Blair has been challenged by his workforce.
Back in May, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair announced an important change in the intelligence community's overseas operations: From now on, he would reserve the right to select as his primary representative in foreign countries someone other than a CIA station chief. For decades, station chiefs, who work in U.S. embassies, had been the top intelligence officials, and that accrued significant power to the CIA. Now Blair was preparing to dismantle that long-standing tradition, and in so doing was horning in on the turf of CIA Director Leon Panetta.
As turf battles go, this one looked pretty straightforward and relatively mild. Blair's office, itself barely four years old, had the statutory authority to pick the foreign representatives, but that was something the CIA had long coveted. Some amount of anxiety or push back at the agency could be expected. But it was what Panetta did next that ratcheted up the conflict to a full-on war, one that the White House ultimately would have to settle. Panetta essentially told his workforce to disregard Blair's directive. Blair was reportedly incensed, and thought Panetta's undercutting amounted to insubordination. But Panetta held firm, and this was the first signal that Blair, a straight-talking four-star admiral used to getting his way, was in for a major test of his leadership.
There should have been no question that Blair had the legal right to order up the change. The law creating his office puts him in charge of managing the 16 intelligence agencies, and it stripped the CIA director of those responsibilities. The fact that Panetta, who has even less intelligence experience than Blair, was able to undercut the DNI says as much about Panetta's political skills as it does the lack of authority and perhaps even respect that Blair enjoys in the administration. He'd met President Obama only once before he was offered the top spy job. Panetta, on the other hand, has close relationships with many of Obama's top aides and is close to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, with whom he worked in the Clinton administration. Blair is said to be close to National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a former four-star general, but Jones has been the target of a persistent whisper campaign around Washington about his ineffectiveness in the administration. The whispers about Blair are fewer, but they're still out there. He hasn't appeared engaged in many of the top intelligence policy battles, which, in fairness, are centered mostly on the alleged past misdeeds of the CIA. But still, Blair seems like an outsider, and so this dust-up with Panetta, and by extension the career bureaucracy of the CIA, didn't strengthen his position.
The debate was referred to Jones and the National Security Council, but officials there were unable to come up with a solution. In a move that defied any obvious logic, they punted the problem to Vice President Joe Biden. As of this writing, the matter remains unresolved, but however it turns out, the message has been sent: Blair can be challenged by the very workforce he's supposed to control.
Blair did get a vote of confidence in July, when members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said he should appoint his own representatives abroad. The committee has been keen on seeing the CIA accept its diminished role in the intelligence hierarchy, and it wasn't a big surprise that they sided with Blair. But support from the Hill doesn't count for much in this fight. In order to assure his position atop the pecking order, Blair needed support from the White House. And he didn't get it-at least not immediately. If the administration ultimately sides with Blair, it will have been after a long, deliberative process in which the perception of his influence continued to decline.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.
September 1, 2009