Blair’s First Moves

The new spy chief is not afraid of a head wind.

The new spy chief is not afraid of a head wind.

There's an old sea story about Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence. It's from his days as commander of U.S. Pacific Command in the late 1990s. Adm. Blair, the story goes, was meeting with a counterpart from the Chinese navy, who warned Blair not to take provocative actions against Taiwan.

After the Chinese admiral said his piece, Blair replied: "Let me tell you a couple of things. First, I own the sea out there. Second, I own the sky above the sea out there. Now, don't you think we ought to discuss something more constructive?"

The story has shown up in at least two newspapers. (One has Blair in China, the other says the meeting took place in Hawaii.) It's also been told by two former high-ranking officials who know Blair. Whether or not the story is true or entirely accurate, it still jibes with the image that Blair has put forth so far: a plain-speaking commander who's willing to court confrontation.

That trait has been most pronounced in some of Blair's first big moves on the job. Back in February, he turned heads-and left many people scratching theirs-when he named former CIA director John M. Deutch to an advisory panel on imagery satellites, and then picked career diplomat Charles W. Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council, a high-level and important analytic post.

Deutch left the agency in disgrace in 1996 after it was revealed he stored classified information on his computer. (An 11th hour pardon from President Bill Clinton reportedly spared him from a federal indictment.)And Freeman was severely criticized by some who felt his views on U.S. policy in the Middle East were biased against Israel.

After the dust-up over staff picks, Blair appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and dropped another bombshell. He declared that the National Security Agency-which has been in Congress' crosshairs amid allegations of illegal domestic spying during the Bush years-should be in charge of the nation's computer security, "both in the government and in the country," Blair said. President Obama has taken fire from his political base because he voted for a bill that dramatically expands NSA's ability to monitor the global communications system. From a purely political perspective, Blair's vow of support was like nominating an alleged arsonist to be chief of the fire department.

If Blair didn't know that backing Deutch, Freeman and NSA would raise hackles in Washington, then one must question how effective a gatherer of intelligence he really is. But it seems more likely that Blair knew some people would be put out, and he didn't care enough to turn back.

Blair knows Deutch from his days at the CIA, when Blair was the first associate director of central intelligence for military support. Deutch has technical expertise that makes him a logical pick for the advisory board as well. Blair also thinks highly of Freeman's analytical mind, and has said so to no less than Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who was critical of the nomination. As for NSA, Blair said the agency has the "most technical skill in the area of cyber defense, based in large measure on its ability to do cyberattack." It's hard to argue otherwise.

In Blair's first controversial moves, there are flashes of that tête-à-tête with the Chinese admiral. So far, the only casualty of his commanding style has been Freeman; he withdrew his name amid swelling outrage. When Obama nominated Blair to be the intelligence director, many people said he didn't have much intelligence experience, but he was one forceful manager. So far, Blair has lived up to that image.

Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.