Dennis C. Blair, the president’s most senior intelligence adviser, became the first high-profile departure from President Obama’s national security team on Thursday.
Mr. Blair, director of national intelligence, announced his resignation, effective May 28 in a five-sentence statement that ended with praise for the national intelligence bureaucracy he will no longer command. “Keep it up - I will be cheering for you,” he said.
A U.S. official in a position to know said, “We have been interviewing several strong candidates to be his replacement.”
Among the candidates are former Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre, now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper, the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence; and Michael G. Vickers, a former CIA official and currently the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for special operations.
Mr. Blair, a retired Navy admiral who served under President Clinton as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, was at times viewed by analysts as out of step with the White House. Mr. Blair’s first choice to chair the National Intelligence Council, Charles “Chas” Freeman was pressured to resign. Mr. Blair also had to retract criticism he made publicly about the administration’s decision to pursue a civil trial for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, charged as the would-be Christmas Day jetliner bomber.
For example, Mr. Blair told a Senate hearing in January that Mr. Abdulmutallab should have been interrogated by a special unit created for high-value terrorism suspects.
Hours after the unusual public criticism during the Senate testimony, Mr. Blair’s office released a statement saying he had misspoken, and noted that the interrogation unit, known as the High Value Interrogation Group or HIG, had not yet been established. The statement also praised the FBI for conducting the solo interrogation, stating that valuable information was obtained, despite the fact that other government interrogations specialists were excluded from the debriefing.
Sometimes, Mr. Blair in his job was particularly candid in his remarks. In testimony in January, he told the House Intelligence Committee that the United States had the authority to send drones to kill U.S. citizens suspected of joining al Qaeda. It was the first time a senior official had discussed the sensitive issue in public.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was sad to see Mr. Blair go.
“[Director of National Intelligence] 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,” Mr. Bond said.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Blair lost two key political turf battles with the CIA. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created from the recommendations of the September 11 commission, which sought to streamline the management of 16 agencies that make up the intelligence community by placing it under a single director.
Before that, the CIA director served as both the agency’s head and the nominal director of all other intelligence agencies.
According to U.S. officials, Mr. Blair ran into resistance from the CIA when he tried to appoint his own intelligence community representatives at U.S. embassies. Traditionally, the director of national intelligence representative is the CIA station chief, but Mr. Blair sought the authority to choose his own representative beside the station chief.
The dispute became so disruptive that Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. intervened. The result was that CIA station chiefs remained the director’s representative at the embassies and the agency retained most of its authority over covert operations.
Mr. Blair also attracted criticism from Congress after he appointed Mr. Freeman, a former Pentagon official, to be his chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the most senior analytical unit.
Mr. Freeman, who was serving on the board of China’s national oil company at the time, was opposed by many in Congress because of his financial ties to foreign countries.
Mr. Freeman withdrew his name from the post and then issued an open letter in which he blamed the pro-Israel lobby for losing out on the job.