As befits a former admiral in charge of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Dennis C. Blair is an experienced large-scale administrator. Out of his own personal talent, he is also an excellent strategist, as anyone can judge for themselves from the articles he published in between his time with the U.S. Navy and the secrecy of his job as director of national intelligence—at the head of all U.S. intelligence organizations, including the CIA.
But he has now lost that very important job—essentially because his nominal subordinate, CIA Director Leon Panetta, outmaneuvered Blair in the Obama White House. That Panetta is no strategist, nor an especially efficient administrator, matters not at all: Having served many terms in Congress, and then as chief of staff for President Clinton, Panetta is a skilled politician who knows that the important thing is not to offend people, and not to arouse opposition by changing anything very much.
Blair’s insistence on Navy-like accountability and actual performance collided with Panetta’s refusal of change and confrontation.
Blair’s mistake was that he actually tried to do his job, integrating and upgrading the enormously expensive and stupendously ineffectual “intelligence community,” with its grossly overfunded and mostly uncoordinated bureaucracies. It is not their fault: They grew over the decades of the Cold War to confront the immensity of the Soviet Union, with its tens of thousands of frequently upgraded armored vehicles, thousands of aircraft, hundreds of warships, ballistic missiles out the wazoo, globally active diplomacy, variously loyal communist parties around the world, and formidable espionage service. That called for a vast effort of detection and surveillance with satellite sensors, communication intercepts, open-source collection, and the analysis of the immense amounts of raw data thus gathered.
• Former Navy Secretary John Lehman: Obama’s Dangerous Spy GameNow, by contrast, there is only the exceedingly lethargic growth of China’s armed forces (they are deploying 1970s fighters in 2010), the scant Russian effort to slowly rebuild a fraction of Soviet capabilities, the small-time banditry of North Korea, meandering Iran with its disaffected and exceedingly leaky elite—and of course 25,000 ragged Taliban peasants. The vast structures still in place are grossly excessive and ill-focused for today’s threats, while it is simply futile to respond to others: There is simply no way of detecting in time the hitherto quiet-living Muslim who will decide to blow himself up, or to suppress the advocacy of jihadist violence embedded in Islam; though it is true that the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri could be a tad less lackadaisical.
That happens to be the particular responsibility of Panetta’s own Central Intelligence Agency, and it was Blair’s particular sin that when confronted with the CIA’s pathetic incompetence, he actually tried to do something about it. After all, when a warship of the fleet keeps missing the target on firing trials, smashes into docks, scrapes over shallows and collides with other vessels, the answer is not to give more money to the captain and crew—as we have been doing for years by increasing the CIA’s budget every time it failed. The U.S. Navy has been known to replace entire crews and fumigate the ship, but Blair’s initial remedy was only to replace some of the captains—by choosing the “station chiefs” who head the CIA presence in each country, appointing non-CIA officials if appropriate. At present, these key managers are usually end-of-career CIA veterans who lack the energy to launch new initiatives, and guard against the danger of ruining their last post with a failed operation by doing as little as possible—and by trying to stop others from acting as well.
The pseudonymous Ishmael Jones, a former deep-cover CIA officer with a good record, convincingly illustrates this institutionalized malpractice in his valuable The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture (an even broader malpractice he describes is the sheer number of supervisors with no field experience who over-manage in multiple layers the few operatives actually in the field). The position of director of national intelligence, complete with his own expensive staff, was created after the September 11 attacks precisely to provide leadership and coordination above the single-agency level. To appoint CIA station chiefs was therefore an obvious starting point. Yet Panetta resisted, necessarily having to pretend that all was well with the CIA, brazenly ignoring the conclusions of every post-September 11 commission, task force, and study group. Every official investigation with full access to all the information, which could not be fobbed off with claims of vast secret achievements, found gross incompetence. That it persists till now was demonstrated by what happened at “Forward Operating Base Chapman” in Khost province, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009.
A suicide bomber entered the base and blew himself up, killing outright five CIA officers, two CIA contractors, and one foreign officer, and seriously wounding several more CIA and support personnel—effectively shutting down the small base. This in itself proves nothing—such things can happen in spite of all precautions. But it turned out that the suicide bomber was not a wily Afghan intruder, he was a Jordanian doctor, Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who had been invited in and not even physically examined at the gate—contrary to standard procedures at any number of installations far less at risk than FOB Chapman, as it then was.
Al-Balawi was supposed to be a double agent, pretending to serve the jihadists while actually helping the CIA to find Dr. al-Zawahiri, the second-most-wanted man in the world. Confidence in the sincerity of the claimed defector was based on the say-so of his Jordanian case officer, Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid, who was also killed by the bomb. That captain of Jordan’s security service was not at Chapman with the CIA because of his long experience in running double agents, but rather because he was a close relative of King Abdullah.
Here we encounter malpractice No. 1. The suicide-killer al-Balawi was an earnest medical doctor who might perhaps have been controlled effectively by an experienced and charismatic father figure—but could only have been antagonized by the royal youngster. Moreover, the very name bin Zeid evokes for all Jordanians the older General bin Zeid, the uncle who led the massacre of al-Balawi’s beloved Palestinians in the "Black September” fighting of 1970. It was like appointing case officer Himmler to control an agent called Cohen.
That the CIA blindly relied on Captain bin Zeid is the result of a second malpractice: its great faith in, and persistent over-reliance on, Arab intelligence services that keep failing or betraying it—anything to avoid operating directly, as official reports have amply documented (it was information from the Egyptian service that lead to the Sudan bombing debacle under Clinton).
Next comes the question of what the dead CIA officials were actually doing at Chapman. The only reason to be at a forward operating base deep in bandit country—remotely piloted aircraft can be flown very well from headquarters at Langley, Virginia—is of course to talk to the locals, or with the agent al-Balawi, perhaps detecting the warning signs of his true allegiance from some subtleties of his speech. The senior person there, a mother of three, could not help with that: Like her former boss, the egregious Michael F. Scheuer, who ineffectually pursued the very verbal bin Laden for years while not even trying to learn the language (only the CIA would tolerate such indolence), she knew no Arabic (al-Balawi’s language), or Dari (the lingua franca of Afghanistan), or the Pashto of most Taliban, or the Urdu of Pakistan.
Evidently, she was not there to do what one does at a forward base at all, but to claim the credit when Dr. al-Zawahiri would be captured—she was normally safely stationed in Kabul, as deputy station chief. Nor could a young CIA analyst who was also killed provide any language help—she did in fact know a foreign language (or some of it), but that was Russian, a tiny expression of the outdated focus of the CIA as a whole. In other words, both of these women who died so tragically should have been somewhere else. (Panetta’s record for affirmative action is impeccable.) Not that the males present were any better—the guards evidently did not guard, and the other “operatives” did not even know enough of their trade to protect themselves from a self-declared defector who had not in fact defected, or who had re-defected (there are perfectly safe drills for meeting such agents face to face).
Instead of firing the higher CIA managers who had sanctioned the multiple malpractices that killed their subordinates, Panetta blithely denied that there was any failure of trade-craft, no doubt calculating that in deference to the dead there would be no great howl of derision. Nor was much of his abundant political skill needed to deflect demands for a definitive, externally supervised board of inquiry. President Obama sided with Panetta, presiding over a tearful commemoration ceremony at CIA headquarters with his habitual eloquence, instead of taking the opportunity of firing a layer or two of its over-abundant managers, including all who sanctioned the Chapman folly. No doubt he has learned that while ineffective abroad, CIA staffers know very well how to work the Washington press corps to smear their critics (and to claim credit for successes in fact achieved by U.S. Special Operations forces). Several other and larger issues were also in contention, but in all of them it was Blair’s insistence on Navy-like accountability and actual performance (Scheuer and his now-dead deputy were both promoted for trying to locate bin Laden) that collided with Panetta’s refusal of change and confrontation. Evidently that is Obama’s preference as well—he has enough troubles on other fronts. Blair never had a chance.
Edward N. Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the author of the recently published The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.