By Susan Crabtree - 05/22/10 10:45 PM EDT
The office has turned over four times in five years, with retired U.S. Navy Admiral Dennis Blair on Thursday becoming the last person to resign from the post.
Blair quit under pressure after a string of failures by U.S. spy agencies to detect terrorist plots. But he also resigned amid several turf wars with other administration officials, a problem that also bedeviled his predecessors.
Blair’s departure has renewed debate over the role and powers of the position first created in response to recommendations by the 9/11 Commission, which sought to tear down walls between domestic and international intelligence gathering and information sharing.
Whoever Obama picks to fill the post will face new pressure to redefine the job’s authority and power even while they navigate a difficult Congressional confirmation process.
The White House on Friday pledged to name a new director soon, and administration officials say James Clapper, the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, is the leading candidate to fill the post. Another candidate is Mike Vickers, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for special operations.
Those names are already generating criticism among vocal Republican critics of the administration’s national security policy.
Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the ranking member of the Senate intelligence committee, said the position requires independence from other intelligence and defense agencies, gravitas and political strength. The only person Bond sees as having all of these qualities is CIA Director Leon Panetta, who likely would not want to leave to help restructure the DNI considering the position’s rocky history.
Bond never supported the creation of the DNI and argues that history shows that it cannot be tasked with all of the responsibility and no authority. He has also accused the Obama administration of giving Attorney General Eric Holder too much control over national security decisions, which he believes must stop in order for the DNI to assume its proper role.
“Bond’s position has been that it doesn’t matter who takes the job if the nation’s terror-fighting strategy is still being run out of the Department of Justice,” said Bond spokeswoman Shana Marchio. “Also, Congress must act to give the new DNI the authority to do the job.”
Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), its ranking member, have said they are considering legislation that will give the DNI more budget authority and specific oversight authorities over all the intelligence agencies.
Lieberman has clashed with the administration’s counterterrorism policies, especially on its handling of the Fort Hood shooting by Army Maj. Nadal Malik Hasan, which left 13 dead. Lieberman issued a subpoena to the Justice Department last month for more documents related to the attack, but the agency so far has failed to produce the information requested.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking member of the House intelligence panel, has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the administration’s decision to try 9/11 suspects in federal courts, rather than military commissions, as well as its attempt to shutter Guantanamo Bay and move remaining detainees to a prison facility in Illinois.
If the Obama administration names Clapper to the position of DNI, it can expect harsh criticism from Hoesktra and other Republicans, Hoekstra indicated.
Hoesktra said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) who sits on the Homeland
Security panel, would be an ideal choice to fill the DNI post even
though he and Harmon have policy differences.
“She knows the intelligence business very well and has respect for her colleagues on the Hill and would continue working with us,” he said.
At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing earlier this week before Blair’s resignation, Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, emphasized the need for President Obama to clarify the role of the DNI, a point he’s been trying to hammer home during several recent appearances before Congressional Committees with jurisdiction.
“The burden is on the president now to clarify who is in charge of the intelligence community, where the final authority lies on budget, personnel and other matters,” Hamilton said. “As long as you leave it to the inter-agency process without clear direction from the president, you are not going to have an integrated intelligence product.”