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Wanted: Spymaster to Protect Country ... While Handcuffed

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In this file photo taken Wednesday, April 21, 2010, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence James Clapper listens to remarks by Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair at a ceremony marking the ODNI's fifth birthday at its headquarters in McLean, Va., just outside of Washington. (AP)

HELP WANTED: Someone willing to quarterback the nation's 16 intelligence services, keep the country safe from its enemies and keep Congress happy – all with one hand tied behind the back.

No wonder there's not too many candidates lined up to be the next national intelligence director.

After Dennis Blair was forced to resign last week, effective Friday, following a tenure marked by frequent clashes with CIA Director Leon Panetta over the agency's covert activities, the White House has struggled to find a replacement.

The list is short because so many candidates have turned down the job, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the vetting process.

Despite the prominence of the job, it doesn't offer much glory or power but plenty of responsibility -- and blame in the event of intelligence failures. Even the White House admits the job is no walk in the park.

"There is probably no harder job in Washington, besides being president, than being director of national intelligence," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said last week after Blair resigned.

After a spate of high-profile attempted terror attacks revealed national security lapses, Republican lawmakers say Blair took the fall for other top officials Obama chose to protect and that his authority had been systematically weakened during his 16-month tenure.

The administration transferred intelligence oversight to the White House and the Justice Department with its creation of a specialized interrogation unit under the purview of the FBI and subject to oversight from the White House-based National Security Council.

And according to the two former officials, the White House rebuffed Blair's efforts to establish an oversight role for the DNI after he complained that the CIA engaged in too many covert activities.

Blair is the third person to hold the job since it was created in response to the failure to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"They've already tried a diplomat, another general and an admiral" in the role, said former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, now of the Brookings Institute, who noted that each was found less than successful at one of the key roles of the job, working with the CIA.

Now the White House is having second thoughts about nominating the leading candidate, James R. Clapper, after lawmakers expressed stiff opposition, a senior congressional staffer and a former U.S. official say.

National security adviser James Jones reached out to Congress' senior intelligence leadership this week, both sources said, getting an earful from Democrats and Republicans alike on Clapper's possible nomination.

The objections to Clapper, currently the Defense Department's intelligence chief, center on whether his military background and its emphasis on hierarchy is the right skill set.

With the DNI's limited funding and oversight authority, anyone who fills the role, the officials said, needs to be an adept negotiator and conciliator.

The Obama administration is now considering other options, but the list is short, because so many other candidates already have turned down the job, the officials said,

The Senate's intelligence leadership -- Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Kit Bond, R-Mo. -- both have publicly expressed reservations about Clapper. Two congressional staffers added that Clapper has alienated leaders in both parties, saying he doesn't answer questions or make himself available for questioning.

Feinstein and Bond are openly leaning to another option for the job: Panetta, whose lobbying prowess comes from years as a California congressman and White House official.

But Panetta is believed to be happy with his current job and well-liked within the CIA. The White House also believes Panetta has mended a previously fractious relationship with leaders on Capitol Hill, according to two current intelligence officials, making lawmakers reluctant to break with what's already working. Both the congressional and intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

One dark horse choice in the running for the DNI post who would be comfortable dealing both with the CIA and its covert arm is Mike Vickers, an assistant defense secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict.

Vickers would not comment on the report that he was being considered for the job. But his candidacy also may face objections on Capitol Hill because of his military background, the two senior congressional aides said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.