Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pick for intel chief signals shift

After Dennis Blair's assignment as military liaison to the CIA 13 years ago, he groused about all the cloak-and-dagger politics at Langley headquarters.

"You'd go to a meeting and think everyone had agreed" and then the meeting would end and "someone would come up to me in the hallway and say, 'Forget what you heard in there,'" Blair once explained.

Secret agendas have never been "Denny" Blair's style. The reserved former four-star admiral, who is widely understood to be President-elect Barack Obama's choice as director of national intelligence, is well known in Washington as an intellectual who values straightforwardness and has mastered the byzantine interagency process during his various government stints.

Obama aides said the official announcement of Blair's selection was not expected until next month. They said Obama would most likely reveal his CIA choice at the same time.

Streamlined office?
In choosing a man so steeped in Washington's ways, the Obama administration is signaling its intention to streamline the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is seen as too large, too cumbersome and still too disjointed, according to transition officials.

Created by Congress in 2004 over the objections of most leaders of the U.S. intelligence community, the ODNI today includes 1,500 employees and a hefty, although undisclosed, number of private contractors. It supervises the nation's 16 other intelligence agencies.

Blair is likely to face Senate questions about his role in maintaining U.S. military ties with Indonesia's military during a period in which it engaged in human rights violations, and about his corporate ties to a company involved in the F-22 Raptor program. There are also members of Congress who remain uncomfortable with giving the top intelligence job, with its range of priorities, to a former military officer.

Blair would be the third recently retired four-star officer nominated by Obama for a top post, an unusual trend for a Democratic administration and one that has surprised both political camps.

Former Marine Gen. James Jones is the nominee for national security adviser, and former Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki has been tapped as secretary of veterans affairs.

Blair, a sixth-generation naval officer from Maine, is unusually familiar with the business of intelligence, with stops at the White House, CIA and Pentagon and through his daily contact with the State Department when he commanded U.S. forces in the Pacific. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he led an interagency effort to capture or kill members of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group in the Philippines.

Washington connections
He also has adeptly navigated the shoals of Washington, first as a White House fellow, then as a National Security Council staffer, CIA liaison and director of the Joint Staff.

In 2001, Blair was one of the brightest stars in the military firmament: an admiral with a platinum resume whom many considered a lock to become the next Joint Chiefs chairman.

But the new defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, considered him to be too outspoken and independent, and thought he was out of step with President Bush's foreign policy.


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