Without first hand knowledge of the ins-and-outs of the turf battles within the intelligence establishment, there is no way to interpret what the stakes were or to anticipate the practical implications of Admiral Blair's firing. So one must make do with impressions drawn from observed performance and public utterances. Here are a few.
1. The intelligence establishment lacks coherence - organizational or operational. Exhibit number one is the shadowy army of mercenaries that the CIA has mustered to conduct its own war in FETA and NWFP of Pakistan. Cobbled together by an unsavory character whose CIA past seemingly outweighs the official reproaches he has received, and Leon Panetta's promise months ago to disband it, they act without coordination with the Pentagon's various special force outfits or even the latter's knowledge of what mayhem they are up to. There is reason to doubt that anyone in the administration outside of McLean is 'in the loop' - even the White House. There are myriad other exhibits on record.
2. The so-called reforms that created the position of Director of National Intelligence consolidated nothing. It just added an administrative layer to an already diffuse and under-supervised slew of outfits while providing fresh terrain for cut throat bureaucratic politics. The current set-up is surpassed only by the Department of Homeland Security as an exemplar of muddled, mindless response to a question of governmental competence.
3. Personal rivalries and institutional chauvinism were probably the mainsprings of the conflict. So nothing at all is resolved by sacking Blair and replacing him with another old hand from one of the tried and true intelligence organizations.
4. The notion that Blair's fate was sealed by the fiasco associated with the "fruit-of-the-loom" bomber is risible. After all, the CIA, FBI, State Department and God only knows who else also failed to do their jobs with elementary skill. The only thing more worrying than that multiform failure has been the so called 'fixes' that have been trumpeted. Let's recall the reaction to the revelation that our $60+ billion intelligence apparatus uses retro software that cannot identify an individual with a unique 14 letter name when a consular official mistypes one vowel. John Brennan, now chief of counter terrorism at the NSC, solemnly pledged to Congress that it never will happen again since steps were being taken to add 300 analysts to some task force or other. More cost-effective would be a phone call to Amazon or E-bay to get the name of the people who designed their software.
5. There is no adequate oversight, supervision, monitoring or coordination of the intelligence establishment. Hence there was a crying need for the Obama White House to take matters in hand in January 2009. Instead, one of Obama's first acts as President was to rush over to the CIA to convey personally his assurances that all those folks there were doing a heck of a job, that they were under-appreciated, that no one would be penalized or chastised for anything and that they had a friend in the White House. The appointment of the intelligence novice and Washington insider Panetta as Director, with the correct expectation that he would be a ferocious protector of the agency, sealed the deal.
The sad truth is that the President doesn't have it in him to take charge, to crack heads, to fight for something because it is necessary. Moreover, he obviously doesn't see that there is a problem with American intelligence - other than a public relations one. Mr. Obama reflexively respects and defers to every establishment - be it Wall Street, the oil cartel, the Pentagon, the health industry or the intelligence world. He flees from the very idea of disturbing or offending them. No amount of failure will change that.
For want of a President with a more acute sense of responsibility and some intestinal fortitude, we are fated to ricochet from one intelligence crisis to another.
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