Forged in the crucible of Annapolis

U.S. experience in Vietnam influenced Blair and other Obama picks in academy's Class of 1968

December 22, 2008|By David Wood | David Wood,

WASHINGTON - With the expected selection of retired Adm. Dennis Blair to be the nation's senior intelligence officer, President-elect Barack Obama has put a spotlight on the Naval Academy's Class of 1968, which would fill three of the most influential national security positions.

Blair would serve with 1968 classmate Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president's top military adviser, and with Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat who wields key influence on the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services and joint economic committees.

Their careers were forged in Annapolis against a backdrop of soaring American casualties in Vietnam. Awareness that previous graduates were dying in battle sobered the class, a colleague said, and left these three men in particular with a heightened and personal sensitivity to the risks and costs of war.

If confirmed by the Senate as director of national intelligence, Blair would oversee the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and 14 other U.S. spy agencies in the Pentagon, State and Energy departments, and elsewhere.

He would be the principal intelligence adviser to the president, and a member of his staff would provide the president's daily intelligence briefing.

Blair's primary responsibility, intelligence officials said, would be to continue to break down institutional barriers to intelligence-sharing and coordination among the agencies, a process begun after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but by no means finished.

Obama transition officials have been reported as saying Blair has been chosen, but the decision hasn't been made public.

His expected selection to serve in a senior leadership position, along with Webb and Mullen, exposed some quiet satisfaction among the 836 members of the Class of 1968. They term it the "legendary leadership" class because of its high-profile members, said Randy Bogle, a 1968 graduate who retired as a Navy captain.

"I'm not a bit surprised that these three individuals have risen to the top of the pyramid," said Terry Murray, a 1968 classmate who retired as a two-star Marine general.

Blair, 62, earned a 4.0 average at the Naval Academy and was a Rhodes scholar along with a young Bill Clinton, who later served two terms as president.

He went on to command destroyers, serve on White House and Pentagon staffs, did a tour at CIA headquarters as a military liaison officer and from 1999 until his retirement in 2002 headed the U.S. Pacific Command, where he championed more open relations with China.

During that tour, Blair got to know Richard Danzig, who was Navy secretary until 2000. Danzig, a key Obama adviser, is expected to take a top job in the Pentagon and eventually succeed Robert M. Gates as defense secretary.

Blair is also known for a stunt early in his career when he attempted, unsuccessfully, to water-ski behind his destroyer.

"He's brilliant, but he's also an average guy who loves sports, a regular guy," said Stephen Haines, Blair's roommate for four years at Annapolis.

"His mind is a steel trap. He had a 4.0 studying Russian, which is about the hardest thing you could do, and he didn't even have to study very hard," Haines said.

Blair was Pacific commander in March 2001, when a U.S. EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese interceptor in international airspace. The Chinese pilot was killed; the U.S. plane made an emergency landing in China. Its 21-person American crew was held for 11 days before being released.

The aircraft eventually was dismantled and flown back to the United States in pieces after China's intelligence officials had dissected its listening gear.

The incident was the first foreign crisis for the new Bush administration, but analysts said at the time that a major confrontation had been averted.

"What could have been a huge problem disappeared because Denny knew the generals over there and called and said, 'Hey, we know each other, let's work this thing out,' " said Haines.

Blair, Webb and Mullen, together with their classmates, matured in the academy's pressure-cooker atmosphere amid intense social and political upheaval. As the Vietnam War escalated, inner cities were torn by riots, the anti-war movement exploded, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.

It was during that time, some recalled, that the academy erected a display for announcements of alumni killed in action in Vietnam.

"You walked by it on your way to class. It had a huge impact on folks," said a 1968 classmate, a retired admiral who asked not to be identified.

Of the three, only Webb chose ground combat and served as a Marine rifle platoon and company commander. He was decorated for heroism in combat, earning a Navy Cross, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Heart medals. After serving as secretary of the Navy and as a successful novelist, he was elected to the Senate in 2006.

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