White House Praises Ousted Intelligence Director, Denies Internal Confrontations

"The president decided to make a change. I'll let that speak for itself."

That was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' final answer when it came to questions surrounding the abrupt resignation of Admiral Dennis Blair, President Obama's director of national intelligence who will officially step down next Friday.

President Obama asked for Blair's resignation just 16 months after appointing him to the position of top counterterrorism chief.

The president's press secretary on Friday praised Blair's tenure and credited him with refocusing the government's attention on terrorism and threats of radicalization, never once indicating that the White House was displeased with his performance record.

But some Republicans accuse the administration of making Blair the scapegoat in the wake of several intelligence failures that have put the country at risk.

"The problem was not with Dennis Blair, but with the White House itself," said New York Congressman Pete King, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee. King charged that the Obama administration has tried to "control intelligence policy beyond the scope of congressional oversight while withholding necessary information from Congress."

Blair faced intense scrutiny in the wake of the Fort Hood massacre in November, and was criticized after the attempted airline bombing on Christmas day, as well as this month's failed car bombing in Times Square.

Observers say the government dropped the ball in the last two situations and got lucky only because the would-be attackers failed to carry out their actions.

"They're leaving counterterrorism on auto pilot and they're only paying attention when it fails," said security expert James Carafano, who blames the White House for running a lackadaisical operation but also points to flaws in the structure of the intelligence community that hamper information sharing.

Blair's post was created after the 9/11 attacks, as a result of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The legislation essentially split responsibility between the national intelligence director and the CIA director, with one assigned to serve as presidential adviser and one tasked with running the War on Terror. But the DNI eventually took on the responsibility of overseeing counterterrorism operations.

Carafano says this put Blair in direct conflict with CIA Director Leon Panetta and does not think that a personnel change will solve the problem.

"We've got to make a break there between somebody who's an operator and somebody who's big picture. I think there will be real problems regardless of who it is. The Bush White House made it work because the personalities made it work. You're never going to get the right personalities in this White House because this is a very power-centric White House."

Gibbs told reporters Friday that internal confrontations are not the issue. "There's no ambiguity as to who the principal intelligence adviser to the President of the United States is," he said. "There are a series of laws and structures in this country that provide for a very robust intelligence effort by the federal government. I don't think that in any way we lack any sort of capacity."

Blair is said to have had a shaky relationship with Panetta from the start, due to conflicting ideas as to who was responsible for appointing intelligence officers overseas.

The rift was highlighted in February when Blair testified before a congressional panel on the failed Christmas day attack and was asked about the administration's handling of the would-be bomber.

"The political dimension of what to me ought to be a national security issue has been quite high," Blair said at the time. "I don't think it's been particularly good from the inside in terms of us trying to get the right job done to protect the United States."

Blair was prodded about whether he had signed off on a hastily-called background briefing with reporters in which senior administration officials revealed that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been cooperating with investigators after they tapped his family members to facilitate the process. Blair told the congressional panel he would have to refrain from commenting on such internal matters.

The White House denies that there are any plans to restructure the office of the national intelligence director, and says the administration will continue to work through the challenges presented by the 2004 law. Gibbs however told reporters Friday that the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, an independent group within the executive branch that oversees the intelligence community's compliance with the Constitution, has made recommendations about how the DNI could be reorganized.