Obama picks his intelligence chief

Sources say Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be named to position

December 20, 2008|By Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama has selected retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair to serve as the nation's next intelligence director but has not concluded his search for someone to lead the CIA, according to government officials familiar with the selection process.

Blair's nomination would make him Obama's point person on an array of highly charged intelligence issues the incoming administration will inherit from President George W. Bush. Among them are the allocation of resources amid two wars, the operation of secret CIA prisons overseas, and the wiretapping of e-mail and calls that pass through the United States.

Officials close to the Obama transition team sent mixed signals on when the president-elect might announce Blair's appointment, prompting some members of Congress to issue statements on the nomination even before it has been made official.

Missouri Sen. Christopher S. Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised Blair's "long record of distinguished public service," and said the position called for a "strong leader who can work on equal footing with the Pentagon."

The confusion is the latest indication that the Obama team has struggled to assemble its intelligence team. Obama finished filling out the remainder of his Cabinet-level candidates yesterday before departing for a holiday vacation in Hawaii.

Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a California Democrat, was introduced as Obama's choice for labor secretary, and Obama introduced Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, as his nominee for transportation secretary. Their names had been leaked earlier in the week.

Obama also named Ron Kirk, Dallas' former mayor, to be U.S. trade representative and Karen Mills, a Maine venture capitalist, to head the Small Business Administration.

All four appointments are subject to confirmation by the Senate.

In a 34-year career in the Navy, Blair served as head of the United States Pacific Command, and spent a year at the Central Intelligence Agency in the mid-1990s as the agency's first associate director of military support, a position created to bolster cooperation between the agency and the Pentagon.

Thomas Wilson, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, described Blair, a former Rhodes scholar, as "very smart, very knowledgeable and very decisive."

Blair is a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. His classmates that year included Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, and former Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Blair's record is not unblemished. After his retirement, he was forced to resign as president of the Institute for Defense Analysis, a military think tank, over conflict-of-interest complaints. At the time, he was serving on the board of a defense contractor whose work on the F-22 fighter jet program was being evaluated by the institute.

But congressional officials said they would not expect Blair to face serious difficulty being confirmed for the intelligence post.

A senior congressional official said Blair now is expected to play a larger role in the selection of a CIA director. Among the candidates being considered is John Gannon, who served as deputy director of the agency during the Clinton administration. Gannon declined to comment.

Obama also has a host of sub-Cabinet selections to make. Among them: Oregon State University professor Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and a top expert on overfishing and climate change, is a leading contender to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, according to colleagues at the school.

And Harvard physicist John Holdren has emerged as Obama's likely pick for White House science adviser. These announcements could come as early as today.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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