HONOLULU | When Adm. Dennis C. Blair was in China as commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, a Chinese admiral confronted him rather aggressively on the issue of Taiwan, warning the United States not to interfere in China’s campaign to gain control of the self-governing island.
Admiral Blair listened for a minute, then said: “Admiral, let me tell you a couple of things. First, I own the water out there,” gesturing toward the Pacific Ocean. “And second, I own the sky over the water out there. Now, don’t you think we should talk about something more constructive?”
The anecdote, confirmed by Adm. Blair, illustrates the sort of plain speaking that characterizes the man President-elect Barack Obama has nominated to be the nation’s top intelligence officer. As Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the retired admiral would be responsible for setting objectives and standards for 16 disparate intelligence agencies including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, and for coordinating their sometimes conflicting operations.
Adm. Blair, who turns 62 on Feb. 4, began his intelligence career as a young officer whose collateral duties included taking pictures of other nation’s ships in ports his destroyer visited or encountered at sea. As a senior officer, he was the first associate director of military support at the CIA, with a desk in the executive offices on the seventh floor at Langley, the agency’s headquarters across the Potomac from Washington.
His main connection with intelligence, however, has been as a consumer. He absorbed intelligence on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House, as director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, and especially as commander of the Pacific Command from 1999 to 2002. With headquarters in Honolulu, it is the world’s largest military command, with 300,000 people operating from the West Coast of the U.S. to the East Coast of Africa.
After he took charge in Honolulu, Adm. Blair was a demanding taskmaster. Dissatisfied with the command’s war plans, he ordered them updated to account for China’s acquisition of modern Russian warplanes and ships.
“That was laborious stuff,” said one officer who spoke on condition he not be named. “It took thousands of man-hours. Some of the staff had to work so hard they started calling it the ‘Blair Witch Project,’” the name of a popular horror movie.
Adm. Blair’s organizational duties as DNI will parallel those of the Pacific commander. In Honolulu, Adm. Blair had reporting to him the commanding officers of the Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force components in this region. In addition, his subordinates were leaders of U.S. Forces Japan, U.S. Forces Korea, U.S. forces in Alaska and the Special Operations Command. There were also five smaller units, including the Joint Intelligence Center.
In almost every case, each unit had another boss besides the Pacific commander. The admiral in charge of the Pacific Fleet, for instance, also reported to the Chief of Naval Operations, who largely controlled the fleet’s budget. Contrary to outsiders’ impressions, which regard the military services as having clear-cut lines of authority, much bureaucratic tugging goes on that the top commander must sort out with other bosses.
This is similar to the hydra-headed intelligence community in which 15 percent of employees work for the CIA and 85 percent for the other agencies. Adm. Blair and former California Rep. Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff, who is the nominee to direct the CIA, have not worked together before and have had markedly different experiences. How they will mesh, with Adm. Blair in charge and Mr. Panetta reporting to him, is an open question.
Adm. Blair’s experience includes much exposure to Asia and some to Europe as a member of the National Security Council staff. He majored in Russian studies as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, where his fellow students included future president Bill Clinton. Adm. Blair has had less exposure to the issues of the Middle East, Africa and Latin America and will necessarily rely on others in those fields.
Critics of Adm. Blair have asserted that he failed to stop the Indonesian army from committing human rights violations during East Timor’s drive toward independence 10 years ago. Adm. Blair has denied this to friends and said he was consistent in following policy set in Washington.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Obama, Brooke Anderson, said, “Adm. Blair condemned the conduct of Indonesian troops in East Timor, and he conveyed that if they behaved responsibly, the U.S. was prepared to resume normal relations. If they did not, they risked further negative consequences.”
After retiring from the Navy, Adm. Blair headed the Institute for Defense Analysis, a nonprofit organization that receives government funds. He was obliged to step down in 2006, however, after concerns were raised about a conflict of interest regarding his service on the board of a company working on the F-22 fighter plane. The Pentagon inspector-general later ruled that Adm. Blair had not interfered in the institute’s evaluation of the F-22.
Considered by some to be an aloof workaholic, Adm. Blair has occasionally shown a playful streak. As captain of the destroyer Cochrane, with home port in Japan, he tried to water ski behind the ship after it had been at sea for many weeks. Adm. Blair has told friends he thought the crew needed a bit of entertainment.
The admiral went over the side of the ship and was fed a rope by the crew of a gig, or small boat, and got into position aft of the ship to be pulled up on the water skis. When the destroyer started to speed up, however, the sea was rough and he lost control. He went head over teakettle into the ocean, much to the glee of the sailors gathered on the fantail to see their skipper dunked.