Let us give Barack Obama credit, on those all too rare occasions, when credit is due. The sacking of Dennis Blair is one of his finer moves in national security. It stands in stark contrast to one of George W. Bush’s most consequential lapses.
Whatever Blair’s accomplishments in office, they were overshadowed by his failures. From the outset, he displayed poor judgment with his abortive February 2009 appointment of former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles “Chas” Freeman, as the nation’s top intelligence analyst. Freeman was pushed to withdraw after some of his wingnut views were aired in the press (including by me in the Wall Street Journal) and became an embarrassment to the White House. Among other things, Freeman had contended that China’s “response to the mob scene at 'Tiananmen' [stood] as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership.”
From there, Blair went on to commit a number of blunders, including the waging of successive and losing turf battles with Leon Panetta at the CIA. His failure to hone into effectiveness the single operational entity under his control—the National Counterterrorism Center—was brought to attention in the underwear bomber case of December 2009. A scathing Senate Intelligence Committee report pointed to “fourteen specific points of failure,” including “a series of human errors, technical problems, system obstacles, analytical misjudgments, and competing priorities,” which resulted in Abdulmutallab’s ability to fly untrammeled into the United States. More than anything else it was this judgment that sealed Blair’s ouster.
If our intelligence system is ever to get on the right track, punishing poor performance, as Obama has now done, is an essential step. It stands in sharp contrast to George W. Bush’s decision—perhaps the worst foreign policy mistake of his presidency—to retain George Tenet as CIA director in the wake of the massive intelligence failure of September 11. After the CIA’s estimate that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was revealed not to be exactly the “slam dunk” case that Tenet had advertised, Bush pinned the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his chest, a shocking reward for failure.
It’s too early to assess how Blair’s replacement, General James R. Clapper, will perform in a job that is inherently problematic, given its mismatch between responsibility and power. But at the very least, the dismissal of Blair has sent a signal that will reverberate loudly throughout the intelligence community: Failure will be met by accountability.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.