Blair Fails to Find the Philosopher’s Stone – Will Obama Keep Looking?

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The recent resignation of Dennis Blair, President Obama’s national intelligence “czar”,  is no surprise, given the near impossible job he was tasked to do. Blair lasted barely a year as Obama’s chief intelligence officer, after taking office amid much fanfare and promising to change the intelligence gathering system. Although media reports blamed his resignation on the fallout from the Christmas Day crotch-bombing incident, its roots – as I’ve suggested in previous posts on this topic – run much deeper.  Blair’s demise is a reminder that bureaucracy may be the less sexy side of presidential politics, but in important ways it often determines whether presidents succeed or fail.  As evidence, consider the major events of the Bush presidency: the intelligence failures underlying 9-11, the mistaken belief that Iraq possessed WMD’s, the botched response at all levels of government to Hurricane Katrina – these are all fundamentally bureaucracy failures.  Similarly, in addition to the Crotch Bombing incident, we see Obama suffering political fallout from charges of lax government regulation of mines and of off-shore drilling.  In both instances, his response has been to shake up the relevant bureaucracies.

So bureaucracies matter in ways that presidents rarely understand when they take office, but inevitably discover when they are suddenly held accountable for the organizational failures that take place on their watch.  In Blair’s case, a Senate committee investigating the Crotch-Bomber incident focused on two areas: the failure to share information across intelligence agencies, and the FBI’s handling of the Crotch Bomber’s interrogation.  But these were only the most immediate manifestations of a more fundamental problem: finding the means to fulfill the coordinating role entrusted to Blair is, as the great public administration expert Harold Seidman put it more generally, the equivalent of the search for the philosopher’s stone.  That is, it doesn’t exist.

As Director of National Intelligence, Blair was ostensibly responsible for coordinating the 17 federal agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, including the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.  His office included the National Counterterrorism Center (NCC).  In its analysis of the Crotch Bombing, however, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded  that the NCC was “not organized adequately to fulfill its missions.”

Although Blair had responded to these criticisms by making a number of organizational changes, they did little to overcome the fundamental problem that led to his resignation: he had a near-impossible job. The reason is that the various operating agencies responsible for gathering intelligence see little reason to compromise their autonomy by “coordinating” their efforts with other agencies.  Nor do they want to cede authority to a coordinating office, and with good reason.  Despite his lofty title, Blair had few tools to enforce that coordination.  When he tried to intervene on the CIA’s turf by clearing decisions regarding placing agents overseas, CIA director Leon Panetta rebelled and the White House backed Panetta. And, by blurring responsibility for decisionmaking and slowing the dissemination of information, the DNI’s office arguably impeded the ability of intelligence agencies to make use of actionable intelligence when they had it.  Moreover, much of the nation’s intelligence apparatus is run out of the Pentagon, which lies outside the DNI’s purview.

History shows that coordinating agencies work best, if at all, when they remain small, engage in no operational activities and posses the political clout – especially presidential backing – to enforce decisions.  (I’ve written about one such success: FDR’s appointment of James Byrnes to coordinate war production during World War II.) The best coordinators act much like judges, adjudicating disputes between agencies, but not trying to make decisions for them or to absorb their operational functions.  To do so, however, they must have the President’s unqualified support.  The DNI’s office, as it developed under Blair, possessed none of these qualities.  Instead, he seemed determined to expand its operational capacities.  And Obama repeatedly backed other agencies in their disputes with Blair.

The frustrating part of this story is that it was all too predictable. Indeed, this is latest in a string of efforts by presidents – almost all of which have failed – to bring bureaucracies to heel by entrusting coordinating authority to a White House-level czar.   In Obama’s defense, he inherited the coordinating structure from the Bush administration, which reluctantly established the DNI and NCC under pressure from Congress in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks.  But I see no evidence that Obama recognizes the root of the problem.  Why should he?  Among modern presidents, he took office with perhaps the least amount of executive experience, and thus far has shown little evidence that he understands how government agencies work. Having nominated Blair amid much promise of change, Obama then undercut his authority by backing Panetta and other intelligence agencies that resisted DNI oversight.  And the White House was quick to shift blame to Blair’s office in the aftermath of the Crotch Bombing attempt.  These actions eroded what little authority Blair had.

It is easy to blame the President for bureaucracy failures. (See Bush!) In truth, the intelligence coordinating system Obama inherited was designed in large part by Congress, although it has subsequently evolved by growing larger and taking on operational duties in ways that its legislative creators did not intend.  But if Obama lacks the expertise to fix the problem, there are those in Congress who understand the issues (Representative Jane Harman comes to mind).  So far, however, their advice seems to have been largely ignored.  As a result, I’m afraid Obama will continue his fruitless pursuit for the philosopher’s stone, with consequences that are likely to be far reaching for his presidency, and for the nation.

6 Responses to Blair Fails to Find the Philosopher’s Stone – Will Obama Keep Looking?

  1. Tarsi says:

    I remember the lecture or two about the dangers of expanding bureaucracy and the insignificance of adding to it in an effort to look as though one is addressing a problem. Given the lack of tools, and eventual support, could one perhaps suggest that the Obama Administration did it primarily for show, hoping it might actually work? Given the impossibility of the task, they still had to look like they were addressing the issue of coordination and went ahead with it unwilling to see the difficulties it posed, or ignoring them altogether for the short-term. Long-term, or later on, it is easy to see how it would never hold up and how just one person/office coordinating so much information (trying) actually holds up action and response. You mentioned at the beginning that Obama’s response has been to shake up relevant bureaucracies (comprised of agencies), but it seems with the expansiveness and sheer number of them, that reforming from the bottom up, cutting them down and consolidating them would be a more effective means of organization to fulfill missions of individual organizations. On a separate note, at the end you mention Congress’s role, and pressure to create various bodies or commissions or agencies – it seems like both branches play a role in continuing a systemic growth in bureaucracy, but who can or should be responsible for executing reform that ultimately would move in the opposite direction?

  2. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Tarsi – You pose an interesting question. I do not think Obama appointed the DNI for pure political show. This is a statutory position, inherited from reforms implemented under Bush. Instead, I think Obama simply went along with the plan, and doesn’t really recognize the limits inherited by Blair when he assumed the DNI role. As now constituted, the position can’t work, something Blair’s successor will undoubtedly discover.

    You are right, of course, that the blame must be apportioned to both President and Congress – more to Congress, in my view. If reform is to come, it will have to be because Congress acts.

  3. Tarsi says:

    Any chance that the successor will propose reforms to address some of the organizational problems Blair confronted? Obviously, having the support of the president is something that would help, but he will have little control of….

  4. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Tarsi,

    If reforms are to be made, they will have to address the role of the person slated to replace Blair (whoever that may be). It will be difficult for that person to in effect recommend that her or his position be phased out. Real reform, I think, will have to come from Congress – not the President or his appointees.

  5. Matthew,
    The problem is not the structure of the bureaucracy. Management theory emphasizes the difference between formal and informal organization. If you are studying an organization it is mildly interesting to look at the formal organization charts. But, to really know how an organization works, you need to find how the organization actually works.
    Like a sergeant who actually runs an Army company headed by an ineffective officer, the question is always who is really in charge. I agree that Obama’s lack of experience is critical here. Also, there is a question about his actual interest in the subject. All kinds of things can happen in areas which do not concern the President.
    Whether it is true or not, Obama’s detractors believe he is not really interested in protecting the nation. If there is a successful attack, that will be the argument they use.

  6. Matthew Dickinson says:

    Dale,

    You are correct to emphasize the importance of informal networks in explaining organizational effectiveness. These are particularly important in overcoming organizational deficiencies that otherwise impede coordination. But that doesn’t mean formal structural properties are unimportant. The problems Blair had, I believe, are primarily due to the lack of real coordinating authority – particularly his lack of control over budget and personnel – combined with the natural tendency of the operating intelligence agencies to resist coordination. Informal networks can only go so far to mitigate these deficiencies. Obama’s lack of executive experience is not, in my view, contributing to this problem. It does, however, make it difficult for him to understand what the problem is, and how to remedy it.

    One need not question Obama’s motives (and I don’t) to understand that he will be held responsible for the consequences of a successful attack.

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