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Looking For A New Fall Guy

With unemployment as high as it is, you would think somebody would be interested in the Obama administration’s help wanted ad seeking a new national intelligence chief.

But, having seen the way the president and his lackeys treated the recently departed Dennis C. Blair, nobody is rushing to take the job. What the president really seems to want is someone unsullied by past failures who can take the fall the next time a terrorist comes close to killing a bunch of Americans — or succeeds.

This is consistent with what we have seen of President Obama’s character thus far. The buck always stops someplace else, which he hastens to explain as he expresses his outrage at the target of the day. So even though the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service (MMS) has been touched by scandal for years, it was not until oil spilled all over the Gulf of Mexico that the president got around to reorganizing that agency while he collected the resignation of Chris Oynes, its head of offshore drilling.

Obama was outraged when Edward Liddy, who agreed to run AIG on the government’s behalf (for $1 per year) after the financial conglomerate ran aground in 2008, paid bonuses in 2009 to AIG employees who were contractually entitled to receive them. Liddy, too, was gone shortly thereafter, demonstrating that no good deed goes unpunished. Of course, the federal government held a nearly 80 percent stake in AIG and Obama’s own Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, was made aware of the bonuses before they were paid. But that is a little too close to the top man for comfort, so the White House pinned the blame for doing something legally required but politically unpopular on Liddy instead.

The administration’s dire need for a scapegoat after the near-miss in Times Square and the attempted underwear bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day made it inevitable that Blair would go. He left his post last Friday, after only 16 months on the job.

But Blair did not have much chance of sticking around in any event. His position, which was created by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 in a post-9/11 attempt to improve coordination between the nation’s 16 separate intelligence agencies, is the bureaucratic equivalent of standing on a banana peel. Blair is the third intelligence chief to come and go since the post was created five years ago, following on the heels of John D. Negroponte and John “Mike” McConnell.

Blair’s resignation came just days after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a report on the Christmas Day bombing attempt listing 14 steps that could have been taken to prevent the attempted attack. It would be fair to hold Blair responsible for those failures if the administration had actually given him the authority to do his job. But it didn’t. Instead, the White House repeatedly pushed him aside.

Blair told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he believed a special team of elite interrogators should have been used to question the Christmas Day bombing suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The unit was created for exactly such situations, he said. But the special interrogation unit was not yet ready for the field, which, apparently, nobody had bothered to mention to Blair.

Earlier, Blair tried to put his own personnel in U.S. embassies abroad in order to give himself access to information unfiltered by the agencies he was supposed to supervise, notably the Central Intelligence Agency. But CIA Director Leon Panetta opposed the effort, issuing a memo to CIA employees telling them that CIA station chiefs were still in charge. The White House sided with Panetta, undermining Blair’s authority and robbing him of any way to keep an eye on Panetta’s spooks.

It is worth noting that Abdulmutallab’s father visited a U.S. embassy in Nigeria to warn American authorities about his son. The message went unheeded. Perhaps if Blair had his own sources in Nigeria, American intelligence performance might have been better.

Following the deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, last fall, Blair was the first in the administration to say the action was an example of homegrown terrorism, which others had been reluctant to admit. The bureaucratic knives took aim at Blair soon thereafter, indicating that the White House resented this departure from the party line.

When the end finally came, the president was barely civil toward Blair in public. In brief remarks the president commented that during Blair’s tenure “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.” In Washington, that’s how they say “I couldn’t wait to get rid of this schlemiel.”

The 9/11 Commission had excellent reasons for insisting that Congress create the national intelligence director’s post. Intelligence failures led directly to the deaths that day of nearly 3,000 innocent people. Dennis Blair may not have been cut out for the job, though this is unknowable given the lack of support he received from the president.

In any event, the fact that this post has turned over three times in five years is not a good sign. We need the administration to do better; countless lives depend upon it. If the next intelligence chief does not pan out, don’t blame him or her. Blame the outraged president who did the hiring.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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