US spy czar Dennis Blair yesterday said he would quit, paying the price for a string of intelligence failures after a 16-month tenure marred by rumblings of infighting in the clandestine services. Mr Blair, who will be the most high-profile figure yet to leave president Barack Obama's national security team, was heavily criticised after the attempt by an al Qa'eda linked group to bring down a US airliner on Christmas Day.
Some of the 16 US intelligence agencies he was charged with co-ordinating also came under fire for failing to join the dots before the Fort Hood massacre in November, and the failed Times Square bombing earlier this month. Some Republicans however charged that Mr Blair had been made a scapegoat for wider Obama administration flaws on intelligence, and used the shake-up to open a new row on national security with the White House.
"It is with deep regret that I informed the president today that I will step down as director of national intelligence effective Friday, May 28th," Mr Blair, a retired admiral, said in a statement to US intelligence workers. "I have had no greater honour or pleasure than to lead the remarkably talented and patriotic men and women of the Intelligence Community," he said, praising them as "true heroes."
"Every day, you have worked tirelessly to provide intelligence support for two wars and to prevent an attack on our homeland." A US official said on condition of anonymity that Mr Obama had already interviewed several "strong" candidates to replace Mr Blair as DNI, a post set up to plug intelligence failures after the September 11 attacks in 2001. There have long been months of rumours that Mr Blair was losing the confidence of the White House.
Just this week, Mr Obama dispatched CIA director Leon Panetta and his national security adviser James Jones to Pakistan, to discuss antiterror co-operation and intelligence following the failed Times Square attack this month. Mr Blair, nominally the top US intelligence officer, did not make the trip. There have in recent months been leaked accounts in the US media of turf wars and clashes between rival centres of power in the shady intelligence world especially alleging rows between Mr Panetta and Mr Blair.
Mr Obama has also leaned heavily on his top White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, who has often been the public face of the White House's efforts to keep Americans safe and head off future terror attacks. Mr Blair's departure comes just days after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a damning report on failures leading up to the attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Northwest jet over Detroit.
In an unclassified summary of its investigation into the attack, the committee said "systemic failures" opened the way for the accused plotter, 23, who allegedly had explosives sewed into his underwear and has been linked to al Qa'eda. The committee, which launched its investigation on December 31, noted failures to revoke Abdulmutallab's visa, place him on the "no-fly list," connect and correlate different pieces of information, as well as the CIA's failure to share information about suspicions he was plotting an attack.
The DNI has also come under fire for failing to piece together telltale signs ahead of the November 5 shootings at Fort Hood army base in Texas. An army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hasan, has been charged with carrying out the shooting spree that killed 12 soldiers and one civilian. Both Hasan and Abdulmutallab were believed to be inspired by a radical US-born Islamic cleric now in Yemen. Republican lawmakers assailed Mr Obama's handling of intelligence matters as they heard of Mr Blair's departure.
Mr Blair "deserves this nation's thanks for his long service to our country. It must have been challenging to be forced on the sidelines by the attorney general but still catch all the blame for failings," said Senator Kit Bond, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. His counterpart in the House of Representatives, Pete Hoekstra, said the decision to step down rather "than continue to serve as America's top intelligence officer is a disturbing sign" of Mr Obama's approach.
Mr Hoekstra accused Mr Obama of "micromanagement" of intelligence, "sidelining" Mr Blair, and "rampant politicisation of national security." * AFP