Dennis Blair, Obama's Spy-in-Chief, Brings a Tactical Eye to the Job

As the director of national intelligence, Blair conducts President Obama's daily intelligence briefing.

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Every morning, Barack Obama receives a report called the "President's Daily Brief," updating him on the country's most pressing international threats. The contents—even the titles—of these short summaries are highly classified, but it's not a stretch to imagine recent PDBs covering the deteriorating situation in Pakistan, the cartel wars in Mexico, and updates on Afghanistan and Iraq. At the top of the list in recent days has been North Korea, which just celebrated the launch of a missile it says was aimed at putting a communications satellite into space. The spy community called it a ruse to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile that could be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The man in charge of the PDB is Dennis Blair, the new director of national intelligence. As President Obama's principal intelligence adviser, Blair oversees the CIA and the 15 other intelligence agencies that employ 100,000 people and annually absorb some $45 billion in taxpayer dollars. He's only the third person to hold the office of DNI, a post created after 9/11 in an effort to better coordinate the disparate intelligence community and to improve how secrets are gathered, analyzed, and presented to top policymakers.

On any given day, Blair's daily briefing covers the full breadth of national security threats, from al Qaeda's latest missive or a coup in Madagascar to cyberattacks or climate change, not to mention the current hot topic of North Korea's missile antics. "Most of the world understands the game they're playing," Blair says. "I think they're risking an international opprobrium and hopefully worse when they, if they, successfully launch it." The Obama administration added another task to Blair's job description: preparing a regular Economic Intelligence Brief in addition to the PDB to track the global financial crisis and how it may affect U.S. policy.

The 62-year-old retired admiral left the Navy after a three-decade career that culminated with running U.S. Pacific Command, but he kept a commander's eye for the tactical. Raw data are of little use, he says, unless they can be the foundation for a course of action. As a result, he's changed the way the daily briefings are given, often passing the substance of non-urgent PDBs to the relevant policymakers ahead of time. That allows his other advisers time to prepare viable policy options to present to Obama at the same time. "I try to put myself in the president's shoes and make the intelligence useful to him," Blair says.

As a commander, one of Blair's pet peeves is having subordinates show up unprepared for meetings. "He'd rather hear an 'I'll get back to you, sir,' when he asks a question than some BS that he can see through," says a former senior military officer who served with him. Regarded as a highly capable manager, if a bit of a taskmaster, Blair spent 34 years climbing the ranks, from a midshipman at the Naval Academy to commanding Pacific forces at Pearl Harbor. It was the culmination of a life at sea and a family tree deeply rooted in the fleet.

He was born in Kittery, Maine, while his father served at the nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. He followed his father into the Navy and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, before winning a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he met fellow Rhodes recipient Bill Clinton, the start of a lifelong acquaintance.

Friends and former colleagues regard him as cerebral with a dry sense of humor, the kind who delves into World War II history books between Carl Hiaasen novels. "He has an incredible capacity for interpreting a complex set of facts and storing them in his head like a file cabinet, sometimes for months, before bringing them out," says retired Rear Adm. T. McCreary, who once served with Blair.

But he's not without a wild streak. His friends like to recall the image of then Captain Blair on a pair of water skis, clinging to a rope tied to a speedboat for 20 minutes as he tried to transfer, unsuccessfully, to a line on the back of a destroyer.