Republican lawmakers from the top national security committees in Congress roundly criticized the White House for forcing the resignation of Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, saying the spy chief took the fall for other top officials President Obama chose to protect.
Blair, who had a reputation as a "know-it-all" on Capitol Hill, was not the most popular member of the Obama administration. He also had been feuding with CIA Director Leon Panetta and other officials. His off-the-cuff public comments have caused problems for the administration and a scathing report released just days ago outlining intelligence failures before the attempted Christmas Day bombing -- one of three major security breaches since last fall -- could have put the nail in the coffin.
But top-ranking Republicans called the change-up a crass political move by Obama that ignored more entrenched intelligence problems in the administration. They said Blair's authority had been systematically weakened during his 16-month tenure and pointed the finger at Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.
"Blair's resignation is the result of the Obama administration's rampant politicization of national security and outright disregard for congressional intelligence oversight," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. "Dennis Blair was the one person you could count on for rationality among Holder, Napolitano and Brennan -- and he's the one the president let go."
The lawmakers slammed the administration for transferring intelligence oversight to the White House and Justice Department -- in an apparent reference to the decision to create a specialized interrogation unit under the purview of the FBI and subject to oversight from the White House-based National Security Council.
"It must have been challenging to be forced on the sidelines by the attorney general but still catch all the blame for failings," Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Fox News.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs rejected accusations Friday that Blair was taking the fall. He noted that Obama took "direct responsibility" for the failures in the run-up to the Christmas Day attack.
"The notion that anybody has shirked that responsibility -- they clearly haven't been paying attention to what the president has said," Gibbs said. He offered little explanation as to why Blair was removed. He said the president wanted to "transition" but praised Blair for his performance in the job.
The White House has already begun interviewing potential successors. An administration official told Fox News that "several strong candidates" are in the running -- The Associated Press reports that James R. Clapper, the top intelligence official at the Pentagon, is the leading candidate.
Some lawmakers, while praising Blair for his service, withheld criticism of the administration's decision, suggesting a change in leadership was needed after a string of high-profile plots against the United States.
A report from the Senate Intelligence Committee this week found 14 intelligence failures that allowed suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to allegedly board a plane to Detroit on Christmas Day armed with explosives. That came after the deadly Fort Hood shooting in November. Then on May 1, suspect Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen of Pakistani descent, allegedly tried to blow up a vehicle filled with explosives. As with the Christmas Day attempt, the explosives failed to properly detonate and the vigilance of bystanders helped defuse the situation.
"This type of failure cannot be tolerated," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said.
Senators are apparently eager to hear Blair's side of the story. His resignation is effective May 28.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement that he looks forward to meeting with Blair "to understand why he is leaving his office now and whether he thinks the DNI needs more statutory authority than it currently has."
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, accused the administration of stifling Blair.
"It is unfortunate that the Obama administration did not allow him to do his job and tried to make him the scapegoat for the administration's intelligence failures. The problem was not with Dennis Blair, but with the White House itself, which, under John Brennan, attempts to control intelligence policy beyond the scope of congressional oversight while withholding necessary information from Congress," he said.