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For months, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair has been a dead man walking — and he knew it. So constant and vicious were the leaks from the White House and Congress of his imminent departure that he opened a recent speech on intelligence reform with a joke that his replacement would be Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb.
The crowd’s laughter was just a little uncomfortable, as Blair himself spotlighted the elephant in the room by suggesting that even the just-traded NFL star was being mentioned to fill the job.
Everyone seemed to know this just wasn’t working.
His 16-month tenure had been studded with public intelligence failures, turf wars and that uniquely inside-the-Beltway ritual humiliation via leaks to the press.
Blair’s official decision to step down came Thursday after an Oval office meeting with President Barack Obama, according to two senior congressional staffers. They said it became clear by the end of the meeting that Blair had “lost the confidence of the president.”
In a message to his work force, Blair said his last day would be May 28.
“It is with deep regret that I informed the president today that I will step down as director of national intelligence,” Blair said.
Obama released a brief statement Thursday night that did not acknowledge Blair’s impending resignation.
“During his time as DNI, our intelligence community has performed admirably and effectively at a time of great challenges to our security, and I have valued his sense of purpose and patriotism,” the president said. “He and I both share a deep admiration for the men and women of our intelligence community, who are performing extraordinary and indispensable service to our nation.”
Blair, a retired Navy admiral, is the third director of national intelligence, a position created in response to the failure to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
His departure highlights the continuing disarray and competition among the disparate elements of the intelligence community — the very same issues the 9/11 Commission identified and that the national intelligence director was supposed to make a thing of the past.
Two other government officials said several candidates already had been interviewed for the DNI job, which is to oversee the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies.
Names mentioned as possible candidates include current top White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan and James R. Clapper, the defense undersecretary for intelligence.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Blair’s term in office was marred by turf battles with CIA Director Leon Panetta and Blair’s own controversial public comments after the failed Christmas Day jetliner bombing attempt.
The two congressional officials said Blair had been on a losing streak since he squared off with Panetta last May over Blair’s effort to choose a personal representative at U.S. embassies to be his eyes and ears abroad, instead of relying on CIA station chiefs, as had been the practice.
Blair issued a directive declaring his intention to select his own representatives overseas. Panetta followed up shortly thereafter with a note telling agency employees that station chiefs were still in charge — a move that some construed as insubordinate and a blow to Blair’s authority.
The White House did nothing to back Blair over Panetta, which sent a message to the rest of the intelligence community that Blair could be ignored, according to one senior congressional staffer. Worse, the skirmish ended up costing Blair the support of Brennan, who resented being forced to mediate, according to another staffer familiar with the issue.
In the failed Christmas Day attack, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that the National Counterterrorism Center was in a position to connect intelligence that could have prevented it. As director of national intelligence, Blair oversaw the center.
One senior Senate staffer said it was apparent Blair had been kept on the periphery of the FBI’s investigation into the Nigerian suspect in the attempted plane bombing, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Blair’s later testimony before Congress did not endear him to the White House, the officials said, when he acknowledged that an elite interrogation team known as the High-Value Interrogation Group had not been deployed to question Abdulmutallab. Blair may have further damaged himself by admitting that he had not been consulted on whether the HIG unit should have been used.
The HIG team was deployed after the Times Square bombing attempt this month, administration officials said this week.
Blair also told Congress that Abdulmutallab continued to provide helpful information to investigators at a time when authorities had hoped to keep the bomber’s cooperation secret. With that information divulged, FBI Director Robert Mueller confirmed at the same hearing that Abdulmutallab was cooperating.
Blair was the first Obama administration official to describe the deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, last fall as an act of homegrown extremism. The administration had previously been reluctant to call the suspect, an Army psychiatrist, a homegrown terrorist or extremist.
By law, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, David Gompert, becomes the acting director until the Senate confirms the president’s nominee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, called Blair a consummate public servant.
“I had high hopes for his willingness to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis to ensure that America’s intelligence professional had the tools, resources and authorities they need to help protect our homeland,” Hoekstra said Thursday.
Some Republican lawmakers have criticized the Obama administration for not keeping them in the loop on key intelligence matters, often singling out Brennan as being too secretive.
Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press