The Inexplicable Timing of Dennis Blair’s Ouster

I’m thoroughly unsurprised by the news of Dennis Blair’s ouster. After all, it’s an impossible job that appears to serve one purpose: to provide a deck chair you can rearrange every two years as a scapegoat for our continuing inability to detect terrorists even with all the surveillance toys we’ve got.

(Actually, if you’re Michael McConnell, it serves a second, more personal, purpose: giving you means to privatize intelligence for the benefit of your once and future employers.)

But I’ve got a few questions after I read the following on Twitter:

Chuck Todd: MT @SavannahGuthrie POTUS asked for Blair’s resignation; Blair appealed to Chief of Staff to make a rebuttal — an offer that went nowhere.

Major Garrett: + Feinstein: “I look forward to working with the President as he identifies his nominee.” Feinstein Cmte rpt final straw for Blair

That is, if you believe the tweets of the White House Press Corps, Blair was ousted by Obama (thoroughly unsurprising news) in response to the SSCI report on the Undie Bomber.

Now, that someone would be canned in response to the SSCI report is also thoroughly unsurprising. It’s a damning report, showing we’ve made little progress since 9/11. Now, several people–like Marc Ambinder and Jeff Stein–seem to think National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter should be the one canned over this report (and that’s even before you consider that Leiter went on vacation right after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack). Whoever gets canned, though, I’m actually a bit pleased that someone will be held responsible for some pretty big failures.

So I understand all that.

It’s the timing I don’t understand. As Ambinder reported earlier this week, this report is not new. It’s just new to us. The White House has had this report for two months.

The SSCI gave its report to the White House and the intelligence agencies two months ago, and an official told me last night that the the IC had made progress implementing many of its regulations. The new budget contains more authority for the DNI to make technical decisions more quickly, which should help with the database issues. A DNI official said that Blair “accepted” blame and is making necessary changes.

If the White House were going to fire Blair in response to the report, why didn’t he get fired two months ago? Why let him start fixing thing (you know, shifting his deck chair), and then fire him?

Or did Rahm and Obama hold off on firing him until this report was declassified so he could serve as a very public scapegoat shortly after its release?

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

48 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    One should consider the politcal aspects to this as fundamental.

    There are a couple of crucial factors here:

    1. Weakness on National Security has been and continues to be the pre-eminent achilles heel policy issue driving Democratic paranoia.

    2. The Obama administration has a National Security track record over the last 2+ years that has given the Repugs oodles of joy. Name almost any area of National Security/Foreign Policy, and you will find that Repugs see nothing but failure:

    – Intelligence policy – total fail.
    – Terrorism policy – total fail.
    – Terrorism prosecution policy – total fail.
    – Guantanamo policy – total fail.
    – Interrogation policy – total fail.
    – Detention policy – total fail.
    – Afghan/Pakistan policy – total fail.
    – Israel/Palestinian policy – total fail.

    And on and on and on.

    The sensitivity of the Obama White House occupants to National Security perceptions is almost without peer.

    Remember, Obama and his political campaign team made a deliberate decision to vote for Retroactive Immunity for Telcos in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 in order to take a perceived Repug attack strategy off the political table for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign bid.

    If one were to keep that same Obama administration sensitivity in mind, the firing of Admiral Dennis Blair as DNI can be seen as another political move to shore up what the White House perceives as their paramount weakness with respect to Repug attack strategy.

    In the same vein, one might view most, if not all, other Obama administration National Security issues in the very same light.

    In short, the Obama administration makes their National Security decisions with a distinct political eye on trying to disarm what they perceive as the Repug’s toughest attack strategy.

    • manys says:

      If one were to keep that same Obama administration sensitivity in mind, the firing of Admiral Dennis Blair as DNI can be seen as another political move to shore up what the White House perceives as their paramount weakness with respect to Repug attack strategy.

      I don’t think it’s so much to defuse any Republican strategy as it is to eliminate debate and haranguing over the report. Neither party wants terrorism to become a matter of public concern, and this makes Blair the central story and keeps strategy off of TV.

      If Blair remained after the release of the report, Repubs–sure–would be asking for someone’s head. The talk shows would bat different names around, perhaps Rahm’s might come up, comparative analyses of effectiveness of the projects Blair was supposed to implement, so on and so forth…putting the administration under a microscope. That’d be bad news in O’Rahm-aland.

      • MadDog says:

        …Neither party wants terrorism to become a matter of public concern…

        While I think you’ve made a good point, I’m less convinced that the Repugs aren’t gleeful about their “Terrorism! Terrorism! The Terrorists are coming!” opportunities.

        Past history suggests the Repugs delightfully wallow in this stuff regardless of the truth of the matter or how it affects the public.

      • michtom says:

        “makes Blair the central story and keeps strategy off of TV

        Since I don’t watch TV, I may be missing things, but is strategy ever discussed on TV?

      • b2020 says:

        “Neither party wants terrorism to become a matter of public concern..”

        Good one. I mean, you nearly had me there for a moment.

        In other news, the current Threat Level is: Orange.

    • atillathebun says:

      In this President we have some real leadership. We have not had that for ten or more years so it takes getting used to.

      Economy, rebounding. War, fixed. Priorties, done. Financial reform, done. Health Care Reform, done. Human Rights, done. Oil companies, regulated. Renewable energy, new priority….and on and on …Thank You Obama !!!

      So there you have it. Real leadership !! for the 21st century !!!

  2. boltbrain says:

    Does this explain why Panetta and Jones, and not Blair, or at least Blair and Panetta, on recent trip to Pakistan on the Shazhad case? Maybe just the SSCI report; or could be something with the ISI?

  3. PJEvans says:

    They may be hoping it will be a distraction from all the other stuff going on (although I think they should consider it to be a minor distraction, compared to BP’s gusher).

    • prostratedragon says:

      although I think they should consider it to be a minor distraction, compared to BP’s gusher

      I think you’re right about this, but that might not have been the staff view of every precinct with which they are concerned.

      • PJEvans says:

        Well, they know we’re watching them, but they also know we don’t have a lot of influence over the majority of voters.

  4. MadDog says:

    Obama’s statement on Blair:

    Dennis Blair has a remarkable record of service to the United States, and I am grateful for his leadership as Director of National Intelligence. Over the course of many decades, Admiral Blair has served with great integrity, intellect, and commitment to our country and the values that we hold dear. 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. 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.

    Sounds like “What’s the minimum I can get away with saying?”.

    • patrickhenrypress says:

      Sort of like, “Blah, blah, … and for your years of loyal service to the nation we offer to you this fine wrist watch as a small token of our esteem. Now, kindly get the hell out of here before we take it all back, including the watch.”

  5. phred says:

    I dunno EW. Maybe Obrahma’s just a slow reader and needed two months to sound out all the words as he went ; )

  6. rosalind says:

    ot: from today’s Toyota hearing in Henry’s House:

    Waxman questioned Toyota’s statement that Exponent was conducting a comprehensive and independent review…”Toyota’s lawyers appear to be involved in every aspect of Exponent’s work, and the lawyers have the right to approve publication of all of Exponent’s work.”

    James Lentz, president of Toyota’s U.S. sales arm, testified that the automaker changed its relationship with Exponent this week. The firm no longer will report to product liability attorneys but to Toyota’s chief quality officer, he said.

    well that’s…progress.

    • emptywheel says:

      Yeah, Henry didn’t have much patience for Exponent:

      Toyota says that Exponent’s work is “comprehensive” and “independent,” but the documents reviewed by the Committee do not support these assertions. On the screen is the only record that either Exponent or Toyota produced to the Committee that explained the relationship between the company and the consulting firm or described the scope of Exponent’s work.

      It’s a contract between Toyota’s litigation defense counsel and Exponent for “engineering consulting services related to class actions filed against Toyota.” Nowhere in this document do Toyota’s lawyers ask Exponent to conduct a “comprehensive” examination of sudden unintended acceleration. In fact, the words “sudden unintended acceleration” do not even appear.

      When the Committee interviewed Dr. Shukri Souri, the Exponent engineer who oversees this work, what we learned was astonishing. Exponent has no written work plan for this project, no written time line, and no written specifications for the experiments it has run or plans to run. Exponent has no written list of the potential causes of sudden unintended acceleration that it plans to study. And though he is personally responsible for the hardware, software, and electronic interference testing Exponent has done or will do for Toyota, Dr. Souri takes no written notes on Exponent’s work.
      We asked Dr. Souri what could explain this remarkable lack of documentation. He explained that writing down what Exponent does would “limit the creativity” of the engineers working on the project.

      • PJEvans says:

        Even better, they apparently were testing prototypes, not production models.
        (The stupid involved there is deeper than we even suspected.)

        • emptywheel says:

          Well, that’s separate from the Exponent stuff. And frankly most of the heavy duty testing is on prototypes, largely bc the contractors do the testing and they only get the prototypes. That said, it’s not clear how rigorous Toyota’s testing requirements were. Some of the stuff they appear not to have tested should have been tested.

      • rosalind says:

        He explained that writing down what Exponent does would “limit the creativity” of the engineers working on the project.

        oh, to have been a fly on the wall when The Waxman was informed of that little nugget.

  7. harpie says:

    Obama Asks Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to Resign; Jonathan S. Landay; 5/20/10; MacClathchy Newspapers

    […] Among the possible candidates to succeed Blair are retired Air Force Gen. James Clapper, the under secretary of defense for intelligence; former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican who co-chairs the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board; and Marine Gen. James Cartwright, the deputy chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. […]

    • MadDog says:

      And this “odd” tidbit in the NYT’s latest piece:

      …American officials said that Mr. Blair had also angered the White House in recent months by pushing for closer intelligence ties to France, an arrangement opposed by Mr. Obama…

      Shorter Obama administration: “Just say no to Frogs!”

  8. Hugh says:

    This is just about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. They are all incompetents. From time to time, they feel they need to sacrifice one of their own as a distraction from their more general incompetence. The sacrificial lamb is usually pretty easy to spot. It is the one with the fewest political connections and/or the one who honked off someone higher placed.

    Just to throw this out from my Obama scandals list:

    41. Chas Freeman was DNI Dennis Blair’s choice to head the National Intelligence Council. Freeman, a career diplomat, was a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Bush I. Because Freeman had a perspective that included the Arab world, he was vigorously opposed by the usual AIPAC noise machine. He withdrew.

    With an Israel nutcase like Rahm as Chief of Staff, this was just asking for trouble. I have no sympathy for Blair, but I think he was fired, not over issues of competence (I mean just look at idiots like Summers and Geithner) but over politics, of which the above is just one example.

  9. bobschacht says:

    Rachel’s talking tonight about Virginia’s AG Cuccinelli, who has apparently decided not to investigate a notorious alleged crime (fake charity scam) involving Bobby Thompson. Oh, and Cuccinelli just happened to get $55,000 campaign money from Bobby Thompson.

    I guess he’s just “looking forward.”

    Bob in AZ

  10. Dissenta says:

    Too bad MSM didn’t pick up on Alan Nairn’s reporting on Amy Goodman’s show over a year ago about Blair’s role in the East Timor massacre.

  11. skinla says:

    This message is primarily for the writer of the blog (emptywheel)

    “someone would be canned…So I understand all that…It’s the timing I don’t understand.
    If the White House were going to fire Blair in response to the report, why didn’t he get fired two months ago? … Blair appealed to Chief of Staff to make a rebuttal — an offer that went nowhere.”

    It is a very simple scheme to understand if you are not being led to believe (as is President Obama) that Obama is firing Blair for failed terrorist attempts.

    Blair’s firing has nothing to do with terrorists just like Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Invasion of Iraq was already planned before 9/11. In fact the reasons (and people) behind invasion of Iraq and Blair’s firing are the same.

    Blair was apparently fired because he was honest and an obstacle in neocons’ (Israel firsters) plan to push Obama to start a war with IRAN.

    It was known for the last year, for the readers of and, that from the beginning neocons were trying to get Blair fired and were doing everything to make it difficult for Blair to function. Blair won’t cooperate with a false National Intelligence Report on Iran, a report on which Obama will heavily rely. However, neocons had managed to get control over Obama with the help of belligerent statements by Secretary Clinton and by getting congress to pass ridiculous sanctions on Iran. Now, they had taken it to UN Security Council and were confident to get it approved and, therefore, find a reason to make the U.S. attack Iran for the benefit of Israel.

    What happened this week was a surprise development which foiled neocons’ plan to launch an attack on Iran. Brazil and Turkey brokered a deal with Iran to transfer some of the raw uranium to Turkey and in return get enriched uranium to Iran to run the reactor. This resolved the phony nuclear crisis with Iran that was claimed by Israel and neocons (and the US). This also drove them crazy and they (administration & Israel) still want the UN to impose sanctions on Iran. Having realized that they are losing opportunity to attack Iran, and because to these developments Obama can quickly come to his senses, they removed the first man Obama will consult for war related matters, Blair, Director of Naional Intelligence. Of course, Obama and general public are being made to believe that Blair is being removed because of terrorist attempts on US soil.

    Remember, you said “Blair appealed to Chief of Staff to make a rebuttal — an offer that went nowhere.”

    Chief of Staff (Rahm Emanuel) is likely to be the point man of Neocons and Israel. Apparently, during the first gulf war he, an American citizen, took a leave from Clinton’s white house staff and voluntarily served in the Israeli military (but not in the US military). Why would he give Blair a chance to explain it to Obama? Blair was the only man standing in the way of Neocons/Israeli plans to use President Obama to attack Iran.

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      Your comment has a spooky resonance; it is consistent with the few things that I’ve been able to glean, and it is also consistent with what we’ve seen of the neocons.

      I had wondered where (?Dennis) Ross is operating in all of this; he’d been rumored among those undercutting Blair. It would be interesting to know what the US military thinks of all this, although I don’t expect to ever find out.

      Your linkages about the Turkey-Brazil move creating panic among the neocons (who risk losing their war) makes sense.


      However, I came to leave EW and regulars a link to Guardian UK article about a just-announced British judicial inquiry into torture.

      The judicial inquiry announced by the foreign secretary into Britain’s role in torture and rendition since September 2001 is poised to shed extraordinary light on one of the darkest episodes in the country’s recent history.

      It is expected to expose not only details of the activities of the security and intelligence officials alleged to have colluded in torture since 9/11, but also the identities of the senior figures in government who authorised those activities.

      I’ll believe it when I see it.
      If such a thing were ever to occur…. well… it would be a miracle.

    • Mason says:

      Blair’s firing has nothing to do with terrorists just like Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Invasion of Iraq was already planned before 9/11. In fact the reasons (and people) behind invasion of Iraq and Blair’s firing are the same.

      Blair was apparently fired because he was honest and an obstacle in neocons’ (Israel firsters) plan to push Obama to start a war with IRAN.

      I agree.

      The Supreme Leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khameini, recently agreed to the deal proposed by the US last October that would involve Iran transferring most its uranium out of Iran to be enriched by Turkey and Brazil by 20% for use in nuclear power plants, and returned to Iran, which doesn’t have the capacity to enrich uranium by 90%, a necessary requirement to build a nuclear bomb. This unexpected good news infuriated Hillary Clinton, the neocons, the Israel Firsters, and the endless-war enthusiasts because they’ve known all along that Iran does not pose a nuclear threat and they’ve just been using that rhetorical mushroom cloud to beat the war drum and, with the MSM’s help, setup Iran for an attack.

      As skinla said, Blair is in the way and had to go.

      With Obama reeling against the ropes from the onslaught of criticism that he so richly deserves for his shameless nonstop whoring for offshore drilling and his protection of BP at the expense of all life in and around the Gulf of Mexico and possibly the world from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, he desperately needs to distract public attention by creating a new shock. In his neoconservative, corporatist, and paleo-political mind, what better shock is there than starting a war with Iran?

      He’s already proven in Afghanistan that he has no values or principles, and he certainly doesn’t care about slaughtering innocent women and children.

      Brace for War!

  12. bobschacht says:

    Geez, at this late hour you guys are into serious discussion!

    I’m about ready to totter off to bed, but before I go, I wanted to leave my pet peeve for the evening, if you will indulge me:

    A penny isn’t worth much, these days, but I wish I had a penny for every second that tabs in my browser here at the wheel house have been “waiting for” I have learned that I cannot leave more than one tab at a time in “refresh” mode, but even then, the much loathed adjuggler can take its own sweet time to finish whatever it is that it is trying to do.

    And no, I do not want to drop everything else that I’m doing so that adjuggler can have my computer all to itself. Ptooey.

    And now, ladies and gentlemen, please go back to the serious discussion that you were having.

    Bob in AZ

  13. scribe says:

    This twigged me:

    ChuckTodd: POTUS asked for Blair’s resignation; Blair appealed to Chief of Staff to make a rebuttal — an offer that went nowhere

    The question everyone seems to be overlooking is this:

    Given that the report tells us Blair got the word he was to go and his first reaction was to go to Rahm and see if he could get the decision reversed, one has to ask

    (a) how many times someone else (or Blair) has seen fit to go to Rahm to get a presidential decision reversed or changed,
    (b) who can get that kind of second hearing,
    (c) which decisions have been reargued and changed (or not changed) and
    (d) for each such example, why the decision was changed (or not).

    One of the things I learned (the hard way, like all lessons that stick) in the military was this statement: “Decision’s made. Carry it out.” What Blair, a lifer, did by going back to Rahm was the essence of insubordination. He would have gotten the news from one of Obama’s underlings, probably (I haven’t seen this reported anywhere) someone like NSA Jones or the like – someone who would be between Obama and him in the heirarchy. Keeps Obama’s (or any president’s) hands clean to have subordinates do the firing – it’s the way that’s always been done.

    This is not the first time we’ve seen the military being insubordinate to this President and likely we’ve not seen even more examples. That tendency should have been nipped in the bud over a year ago. (If that episode of Petraeus and McChrystal telling Obama via the media how many troops he had to surge had happened to President Scribe, those two would have been reassigned to help with global warming, by placing them in charge of climatological studies in the Arctic and Antarctic. That’s called “counting snowflakes in Greenland and Antarctica” to the laymen here. But I digress.) I remember when people were all worried about Cheney’s stay-behinds in the bureaucracy; they have continually failed to appreciate that all flag officers (generals and admirals) on active duty gained that status (or were promoted to a higher flag rank) during the Bush admin, and every one of them was an individualized decision on the part of that president (and Cheney). Given what we’ve seen of their personnel policies elsewhere, it should be assumed that they only appointed reliable Bushies (or the politically supple) to those ranks. And that would include Blair.

    That Blair thought he could go to Rahm to help carry out his insubordination could not have been an idea which sprang fully-formed from his forehead; he (especially as a lifer) would have to have known there was a well-worn path to Rahm’s door of other people having done similar things in the past before he even thought he could try to get away with it.

    So, the questions remain: Who did it, when, what decisions did they try to get overturned, and which times were they successful, which not, and why?

  14. SouthernDragon says:

    Or did Rahm and Obama hold off on firing him until this report was declassified so he could serve as a very public scapegoat shortly after its release?

    I’ll take this one.

  15. TarheelDem says:

    I vote for “well deserved public scapegoat”.

    The reality is that if you need a DNI, your intelligence bureaucracy is too fragmented, too large, and engaged more in internal politics than intelligence gathering. In addition, there seems to be too much data gathering and too poor analysis.

      • TarheelDem says:

        The first step to analyzing the data is to recognize what is salient and what isn’t. The data gathering as set up is too broad to do that efficiently. The suck up everything mindset is not helping us.

      • DWBartoo says:

        The “difficulty” goes deeper than that, one suspects, SD, American intelligence agencies are fundamentally unable to discern the nature of true threats to the nation; in part that is because they are designed to be blind to certain things, both “foreign” and domestic, owing to the nature of our economic-political-military … um, “complex”. As well, those agencies are designed to “go after” those things which are deemed to threaten this complex, especially so that the people will never be able to realize that the “bright and shiny” things are to divert their attention from murder, engineered coups, deliberate “runs” on national economies, “pretexts” for illegal wars, a “homeland security systems” which are primarily designed to protect those “too big to fail, too big to nail, and too big to go to jail” (my thanks to whomever it was who coined that, BTW.

        Besides, Admiral Blair is well-placed to join some “contractor” working for the “complex” a further “benefit” of our “leader’s”, our”representative’s” current confused, and incompetent, but very, very “successful” grasp of the intelligence “business”. It MUST be successful, as they don’t intend to change it. When “musical chairs” is a favorite party-favor, and there are an infinite number of chairs on deck, it a makes “perfect” and “good” dollars and sense.


    • spanishinquisition says:

      The thing is that Obama himself is guilty of fragmenting it. Obama has put the DNI where it isn’t in charge of the different agencies, so the obvious result will be maintaining the status quo of the broken fragmented system. I say that with how Obama let Panetta overrule Blair, which told all the intelligence agencies that Blair could be ignored. Then to exacerbate the situation you’ve got Brennan who doesn’t like having to work out differences that Obama himself encouraged. Obama has made the DNI impotent to do anything while at the same time being held responsible – a totally thankless job.

      • Mason says:

        Obama is more dangerous to our health, safety, and welfare than any terrorist because his decisions create the terrorists that we’re supposed to fear.

  16. alank says:

    NPR had better coverage of this than this blog. He resigned over the inability to get the cooperation expected from the agencies involved, in particular, the CIA. The whole concept of all of these agencies under one roof is counterintuitive. Each is its own fiefdom with preservation at the heart of every decision taken. The gathering of these tribes cannot be a pleasant business to manage for anyone.

    • Hugh says:

      He resigned over the inability to get the cooperation expected from the agencies involved, in particular, the CIA.

      Well, except he was really fired. As for cooperation, why was Panetta not fired for his failure to cooperate with Blair rather than the other way around? Afterall, Blair was his superior. The answer is that Panetta was a lot better politically connected than Blair and able to promote programs like the drones that the White House really liked. Similarly, Brennan was a lot better placed being in the White House to get his message across to Obama. And with Rahm you had both connection and position.

      You have to understand how the intelligence apparatus is put together. A huge chunk of analysis and ops is run out of the Pentagon. On the analytical side more generally, most of it has been outsourced to private contractors. DNI is a big title, but with little power to enforce decisions. Without the ability to hire and fire and to punish wayward agencies, it all comes down to political connections and Blair didn’t have any.

  17. Frank33 says:

    Blair wanted his spies to take over law enforcement. He wanted his High Value Interrogation Group to interview Underwear Bomber. But the Group did not exist and the FBI did not need torture as they got Abdulmutallab to talk immediately.

    It seems Blair wanted more spies spying on spies. There are lots of coverups to maintain including the testimony of the passengers on Flight 253 which was ignored in the SSCI. So who spies on Blair’s spies?

    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.

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