ASPEN, Colo.—Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair unloaded on the White House Thursday evening, strongly criticizing the administration’s reliance on U.S.-directed drone strikes and saying officials have failed to implement the lessons of Sept. 11 by backing away from efforts to integrate the intelligence community.
Blair, who was essentially fired by President Barack Obama last year, said the administration should curtail U.S.-led drone strikes on suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia because the missiles fired from unmanned aircraft are fueling anti-American sentiment and undercutting reform efforts in those countries.
“Pull back on unilateral actions by the United States, except in extraordinary circumstances,” Blair urged during an onstage, hourlong interview with CBS’s Lesley Stahl at the Aspen Security Forum. “I think we need to change — in those three countries — in a dramatic way.”
“We’re alienating the countries concerned, because we’re treating countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us. We are threatening the prospects for long-term reform raised by the Arab Spring … which would make these countries capable and willing allies who could in fact knock that threat down to a nuisance level,” Blair said.
Blair said drone strikes in Pakistan have hampered Al Qaeda and other militant groups there but they will never succeed in reducing them to a mere nuisance.
“I think that they can sustain their level of resistance to an air-only campaign long enough to continue to pose this threat,” the ex-DNI said. “I just see us with that strategy walking out on a thinner and thinner ledge and if even we get to the far extent of it, we are not going to lower the fundamental threat to the U.S. any lower than we have it now.”
As he elaborated on his views on drone strikes Thursday, Blair conceded that giving the Pakistanis veto over such operations would complicate U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, but he said it would be wise to do, nonetheless.
“That would make our job in Afghanistan more difficult for a while, but it would make it a lot easier over the long term,” he argued.
The former DNI also said he wasn’t suggesting that the U.S. should never act unilaterally, as it did in May when a joint U.S. military-CIA operation killed Osama bin Laden in a raid that took place on Pakistani soil without the prior knowledge of the government there.
“That was a gotta do,” Blair said.
Blair also urged a markedly new approach to the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, which has been particularly strained in recent months.
“We should offer the Pakistanis to put two hands on the trigger,” Blair said, while adding that the U.S. should again press Islamabad to send troops into ungoverned areas along the border with Afghanistan. “Pakistan with American assistance could bring peace to the valleys and it would benefit both of us. … That is the only way that we are going to get that witches brew of terrorist groups in the northwest part of Pakistan under control.”
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Under questioning by Stahl, Blair also confirmed some of the disagreements that led to his ouster as DNI in May 2010. He said the White House’s decision to side with the CIA over him in several turf battles left his authority diminished.
“They sided with the CIA in ways that were public enough that it undercut my position. That’s true,” Blair said. He called the outcome “bad for the country” because it limited efforts to combine forces from across the intelligence community in a centrally directed way.
“When this administration came in, there just weren’t many people on the president’s staff or the president himself who had been through the consequences of a stove-piped intelligence community. They saw that the sharing that went on seemed to be OK — for them. They didn’t see the opportunity cost of not pushing it. They were happy with what they saw and wanted to stick with it,” Blair said.
He brushed aside Stahl’s queries about reports that his exit was due in part to a lack of personal chemistry with Obama. “I try to keep the personalities out of it,” the former DNI said.
However, he said the intelligence system Obama has opted for will deliver “an attenuated, least common denominator response to important questions instead of the prioritized, directed response that I think the country needs.”
Asked how Obama would balance the personalities of new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, new CIA Director David Petraeus and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Blair said: “The White House will probably continue to do what they did, which is — we’d like to ask a number of people to get their opinion and we’ll coordinate it in the White House.”
“My experience is the White House is not a very good place to coordinate intelligence much less to integrate it,” Blair added, to a sudden smattering of applause from the audience consisting largely of former intelligence personnel, retired military officers and business people involved in the counterterrorism fight.
A White House spokesman declined to comment on Blair’s remarks.
Obama administration officials and even some of Blair’s allies have said that he picked unwise battles with the CIA and its then-Director Leon Panetta, a veteran Washington operator. He had barely met Obama before being selected for the job and reportedly didn’t mesh well with National Security Council officials.
However, Obama’s decisions to undercut Blair’s authority seriously complicated the White House’s search for a replacement. Several high-profile figures reportedly rejected the job before Obama nominated the Pentagon’s top intelligence official, retired Lieut. Gen. James Clapper, to the post.
Blair has generally kept a low-profile since he was dismissed last year. The retired admiral made a couple of public appearances in May — doing an interview with Charlie Rose and testifying before a Senate committee. In neither case was he as critical of the administration as he was Thursday.