WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama needs to reassess the role of the director of national intelligence and consider expanding his powers following Dennis Blair's departure from the post, the chairman of a key Senate committee said on Monday.
Blair's 16-month tenure as director of national intelligence (DNI) was marked by infighting with the CIA and the White House over his office's authorities, as well as by sharp criticism of the intelligence community's failure to prevent a botched Christmas Day attempt to blow up a U.S. passenger airliner.
James Clapper, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, has emerged as the leading candidate to replace Blair, whose resignation takes effect on Friday, officials said on condition of anonymity.
The DNI serves as head of the intelligence community and as principal adviser to the president on intelligence matters with ultimate responsibility for integrating foreign, military and domestic intelligence.
But Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Blair's resignation, announced last week, put a spotlight on long-standing concerns that the DNI post has "more responsibility than authority."
"After five years and three DNIs, it is clear that the law calls for a leader but the authority provided in law is essentially that of a coordinator," the Democrat said.
"The president needs to decide what he wants the DNI to be, and then work with the intelligence committees (in Congress) to see that the necessary authority is, in fact, in law."
Defense and intelligence officials say Blair's often blunt style irked some in a White House that prizes staying on message. But they say the underlying tensions can be traced back to a 2004 intelligence overhaul that created the DNI position without clearly delineating all of its powers.
Supporters of the office of the DNI now say Obama should step in to give the position real authority, including sway over the intelligence community's purse strings.
Critics say the DNI's creation has merely added a new layer to an already top-heavy bureaucracy, causing more problems than it solved.
Clapper has the support of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has considerable sway with Obama, officials said on condition of anonymity.
Without mentioned Clapper by name, Feinstein cautioned against any one agency, particularly the Department of Defense, controlling the flow of intelligence to the president.
The majority of the intelligence budget already falls under the Defense Department, but Feinstein said: "It will be important that any nominee is not beholden to the Pentagon's interests and can, as needed, provide balance to civilian and military interests in carrying out the nation's intelligence missions."
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