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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His post atop the U.S. spy community will require as much dexterity to stay atop the waves. Blair's approach to intelligence is equal parts offense and defense. "Virtually every piece of analysis we see on an important issue will have not only a threat section but also an opportunity section," Blair recently told a small group of reporters. "How can we help policymakers find the levers in a situation which will enable us to advance our interests and our common interests?"

Blair's days are filled with both the daily briefing of the president and the oversight of a series of long-term analyses, including the National Intelligence Estimates, which reflect consensus judgments of the intelligence community. Perhaps his most arduous task will be enforcing better coordination among the 16 intelligence agencies. "What we're trying to do is work on a process in which we all contribute, rather than trying to invent new diagrams of who reports to whom," he explains.

While his managerial skills won him the DNI post, it was perhaps a lack of inside-the-beltway acumen that led to one early misstep: his staunch support of Charles Freeman to oversee the preparation of the NIEs. But the selection of Freeman, a veteran diplomat who has been critical of what he regards as unquestioning U.S. support for Israel and its impact on America's relations with the Muslim world, stirred up enough opposition in Washington that Freeman was forced to withdraw his name. Blair seems to still be sore about the episode, bemoaning the bloggers who torpedoed his candidate of choice.

Despite his military bearing and the daily exposure to reports of terrifying threats, Blair isn't as hard-edged as the trinkets in his office—a World War II bullet from Okinawa and a brick from the Hanoi Hilton—would suggest. Asked about the situation in North Korea, the DNI's face shows a glint of emotion. "When that regime finally cracks and the books are written about North Korea, it's going to be one of the saddest episodes in human history," he says in a measured tone. "The statistics on the stunted growth, physical and mental, of the overall population in Korea are just awful, unspeakable."

  • Read Explaining Obama's Mild Reaction to North Korea's Missile Launch.