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National intelligence director resigns

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Dennis Blair

Dennis Blair

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair is resigning under pressure from the White House, ending a tumultuous 16-month tenure marked by intelligence failures and spy agency turf wars.

Blair, a retired Navy admiral, is the third director of national intelligence, a position created in response to public outrage over the failure to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

His departure underscores the disorganization inside the Obama administration's intelligence apparatus, rocked over the past six months by a spate of high-profile attempted terror attacks that revealed new national security lapses. And it comes two days after a stark Senate report criticized Blair's office and other intelligence agencies for new failings that, despite a top-to-bottom overhaul of the U.S. intelligence apparatus after 9/11, allowed a would-be bomber to board a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

In a message Thursday to his work force, Blair said his last day would be May 28.

"It is with deep regret that I informed the president today that I will step down as director of national intelligence," Blair said.

The resignation became inevitable following a meeting between President Barack Obama and Blair on Thursday afternoon, according to two senior congressional officials. During the meeting, the officials said, it became clear that Blair had "lost the confidence of the president."

Obama made no reference to Blair's rocky tenure in a brief statement Thursday night that did not acknowledge his impending resignation, one of the highest-profile administration departures.

"During his time as DNI, our intelligence community has performed admirably and effectively at a time of great challenges to our security, and I have valued his sense of purpose and patriotism," the president said. "He and I both share a deep admiration for the men and women of our intelligence community, who are performing extraordinary and indispensable service to our nation."

Two other government officials said several candidates already had been interviewed for the national intelligence director's job, which is to oversee the nation's 16 intelligence agencies.

Names mentioned as possible replacements for Blair include John Brennan, the president's homeland security and counterterrorism adviser; James R. Clapper, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and John Hamre, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In an e-mail Thursday night, Hamre said: "I have had no conversations with anyone about the job and wish to remain at CSIS."

Blair's term in office was marred by turf battles with CIA Director Leon Panetta and Blair's own controversial public comments in the wake of the abortive Christmas Day jetliner bombing.

The two congressional officials said Blair had been on a losing streak since he squared off with Panetta last May over Blair's effort to choose a personal representative at U.S. embassies to be his eyes and ears abroad, instead of relying on CIA station chiefs, as had been past practice.

Blair issued a directive declaring his intention to select his own representatives overseas. Panetta followed up shortly thereafter with a note telling agency employees that station chiefs were still in charge — a move that some construed as insubordinate and a blow to Blair's authority.

The skirmish ended up costing Blair the support of the president's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, who had been forced to mediate.

In the failed Christmas Day attack, the Senate Intelligence Committee found that the National Counterterrorism Center was in a position to connect intelligence that could have prevented it. As director of national intelligence, Blair oversaw the center.

One senior Senate staffer said it was apparent Blair had been kept on the periphery of the FBI's investigation into the Nigerian suspect in the attempted plane bombing, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Blair's later testimony before Congress did not endear him to the White House, the officials said, when he admitted that the elite interrogation team, the High-Value Interrogation Group, had not been officially deployed to question Abdulmutallab. Blair may have further damaged himself by admitting that he had not been consulted on whether the HIG unit should have been used.

The HIG team was deployed after the Times Square bombing attempt this month, administration officials said this week.

Blair also told Congress that Abdulmutallab continued to provide helpful information to investigators at a time when authorities had hoped to keep the bomber's cooperation secret. With that information divulged, FBI Director Robert Mueller confirmed at the same hearing that Abdulmutallab was cooperating.

Blair was the first Obama administration official to describe the deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, last fall as an act of homegrown extremism. The administration had previously been reluctant to call the suspect, an Army psychiatrist, a homegrown terrorist or extremist.

By law, the principal deputy director of national intelligence, David Gompert, becomes the acting director until the Senate confirms the president's nominee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, called Blair a consummate public servant.

"I had high hopes for his willingness to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis to ensure that America's intelligence professional had the tools, resources and authorities they need to help protect our homeland," Hoekstra said Thursday.

Some Republican lawmakers have criticized the Obama administration for not keeping them in the loop on key intelligence matters, often signaling out Obama's Homeland Security and Counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, as being too secretive.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden in April raised the issue, as well.

"The fact that Director Blair was not nearly as visible as John (Brennan) was in the aftermath of the December 25th thing is something that 100,000 people in the intelligence community, I'm sure, took note of," Hayden said during a panel discussion. "That was not a good thing."

Hayden and other intelligence experts are concerned that the national intelligence director position has never been given the authority it needs to effectively oversee the nation's vast and sometimes fractious intelligence system.

Hayden said Blair needed to be seen as the "primary legitimate spokesman for what goes well and what goes ill inside the American intelligence community."

The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee blamed Blair's resignation on him being overshadowed by Attorney General Eric Holder. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said he heard about Blair's resignation in news reports. Bond said, "It must have been challenging to be forced on the sidelines by the attorney general but still catch all the blame for failings," Bond said. "DNI Blair deserves this nation's thanks for his long service to our country."

When Congress created the job in late 2004 as part of an intelligence overhaul, lawmakers intentionally kept the spy chief off the president's Cabinet, adhering to the tradition that intelligence officials should eschew politics.

Contributing: Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman