Dennis Blair Right Choice for U.S Spy Chief

Retired Navy Admiral and former commander of U.S. Pacific forces, Dennis C Blair, has reportedly been chosen as Barack Obama’s next Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the country’s senior intelligence job.

Blair, a 6th generation, Oxford-educated naval officer, occupies a number of teaching posts and once served as the first associate director of CIA for military support. He also ran the federally-funded Institute for Defense Analysis before being forced out after a conflict of interest dispute.

But it is his role as the Deputy Director of the Project on National Security Reform, a bi-partisan, Congressionally-funded reform initiative, that may say most about how, if confirmed, Blair intends to manage the U.S intelligence community. For despite the misgiving of some like Bob Baer, the former CIA analyst, Blair is both a manager and a reformer.

During my time in Washington, DC, I spent a little time with Blair, who struck me as a reformer with deep insights into how both soldiers and spies work and think. See this clip where he argues that the U.S government needs to work on the basis of “integrated, agile, collaborative, inter-agency teams” rather than the departmental stove-pipes currently in existence. Not the sound of a status-quo thinker.

Being reform-minded, however, will only go so far. Blair will need to will reform, demand reform, and pursue reform. For most intelligence-watchers believe that the Bush administration’s post 9/11 intelligence reforms were hurried and have created as many problems as they have solved. The current spy chief, Admiral Mike McConnell has done what he could to improve the situation, launching a 100-day initiative when he took over from John Negroponte, to improve “integration and collaboration” across the many intelligence agencies. Meanwhile Robert Gates has scaled down the Pentagon’s footprint on intelligence.

Yet most people believe the situation needs to improve further if the U.S is to get more for the $43 billion it spends annually on intelligence. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has become a large bureaucratic contraption with hundreds of personnel camped out in a Washington airbase. Many staff are unclear about their roles vis-à-vis their CIA colleagues.

The DNI himself, though he briefs the president daily, has only limited authority over the 16 agencies in the intelligence community as the reform legislation did not give the spy chief the kind of budgetary muscle needed to lead the intelligence community. In spite of the efforts of Gates and McConnell the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office remain under Pentagon’s command. 

Then there is the question of domestic intelligence. Many believe the U.S should create a domestic intelligence agency like Britain’s Security Service. But how to do so and avoid adding complexity to the intelligence system, slowing down rather than promoting information flows among the existing agencies, while respecting civil liberties? And who would run such an agency – the DNI, the Homeland Security Secretary, the FBI, the CIA?

Finally, there is a need to look again at Congress’ role. Oversight has deteriorated amid battles between different committees. The President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and the Intelligence Oversight Board have also atrophied in the last eight years while the Bush administration failed to create a Civil Liberties Board, despite being mandated to do so by Congress.

Blair seems well-placed to lead a reform process without allowing it to descend into something like the Church Committee hearings, which investigated intelligence-gathering by the CIA and FBI after the Watergate affair, but ended up encouraging many of the intelligence community’s bad traits. No doubt his confirmation process will drag up the conflict-of-interest case that forced him out of his last government-funded job, as well as his controversial role in opening diplomatic ties with Suharto’s Indonesia.

But the real question is: how ambitious will Obama be in leading changes in Congress; and reforms in the Executive Branch to ensure a well-functioning intelligence apparatus that can deal with foreign and domestic threats, produce politically-neutral assessments, work with other government departments and guarantee civil liberties. Obama’s choice of Blair shows the President Elect wants to reform, but also wants to keep the intelligence community on board.

Deadlock in Ghana

One of Africa’s few shining lights, Ghana, is on tenterhooks as it awaits the result of an incredibly closely-fought general election. Publication of the results has been delayed, as the remote outpost of Tain in the west has yet to vote in the second round because of problems with voting materials. The national result is so tight that Tain, with just 23,000 voters, could be decisive. The poll there will open on Friday.

Ghana is important not just because it is one of very few West African countries that is not mired in corruption, civil strife and abject poverty (although there is plenty of the latter and not a little of the former if you look hard enough). It is also one of only a handful of countries on the entire continent that has regular peaceful democratic elections (it has had five since 1992). After the debacles in Kenya and Zimbabwe in the last two years, and after the recent coups in Guinea and Mauritania, it is crucial that Ghana’s poll passes off peacefully.

So far, there has been relatively little unrest, but as Chris Blattman reports, tensions are rising by the day:

My friend Naunihal sends me this dispatch, cobbled together hastily this afternoon (he urges me to tell you):

The situation is starting to look like Bush v. Gore. The election commissioner just said that the opposition leads by 23,000 votes and that there is one constituency where there was no election for security reasons which has over 50,000 votes that will vote just after new years.

But it gets messier. The incumbent party (NPP) points out that 2 big constituencies in Kumasi (its key area of support) were not included in the officially counted votes (probably because they are contested) and that it won one of those by over 51,000 votes.

In addition, they point out that in 11 constituencies in the opposition’s key area of the Volta region, NPP poling agents were thrown out and did not sign the election returns. I’ve seen the violence done to one of the party election observers – he was beaten and stoned and may lose his eye.

Right now fear is running high in Accra. Makola Market, the main market, is closed because of fear of violence. I’m getting reports right now from people aligned with the NPP, so I’m only hearing about NDC “Machomen” riding around in empty streets.

The constituency that has yet to vote for the President, voted against the incumbent party at the Parliamentary level, thus kicking out the incumbent MP. So it looks good for the opposition in that area, but everything is really too close to call.

And rumors are spreading that the election commissioner is under pressure from the incumbent government to throw things their way.

None of this is good in terms of street level tensions and legitimacy for whichever candidate gets declared.

Update: Fortunately, the election concluded peacefully, as Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party graciously conceded defeat to John Atta Mills’ National Democratic Congress. A rare example of a peaceful democratic transition, then, from one African party to another, and further evidence that Ghana really is a beacon of hope for the region. Let’s hope leaders in other parts of the continent take note.

Dumb kids in charge at State

There are many reasons why American foreign policy has been so teeth-grindingly awful during the Bush years, but the hiring policy for ambassadors probably didn’t help.

Thomas Schweich had three senior diplomatic jobs under Bush. Each time, he had to run the gamut of the politically-appointed ‘kids’ (sons and daughters of Bush supporters, campaign workers etc) who had taken over the personnel department. What they lacked in experience, they made up for in attitude, he says.

“For two of these jobs, my appointment was preceded by an effort by a 20-something in personnel to place an unqualified friend in the job,” he writes. “In the third instance, the State Department went out of its way to avoid the personnel office by appealing directly to a senior assistant to the president.”

Others had a similar experience:

Another top foreign service officer called me after his interview to be ambassador to a volatile African country. “The problem was,” he told me, “the kid interviewing me could not pronounce the name of the country I was being interviewed for. It made for an awkward interview until he just started saying ‘the country we are considering you for.'” 

Incoherence in Poznan

The climate talks in Poznan were never going to be a dazzling success – but, away from the nitty gritty of text, three big things need to happen for a reasonable result to be achieved.

First, the Europeans have to set out their stall (again) – but this time show that they can match aspirational targets with domestic delivery. Second, the Americans need to be begin the process of re-engaging: some sense has to emerge of what the post-Bush era should look like. And finally, we desperately need the emerging economies to begin to talk openly about where they think they fit into climate control. What does a good deal look like for them – not just between now and 2020, but over the next generation or two?

Unfortunately, the news doesn’t look good on any of these fronts. The Europeans – staggeringly, unbelievably – have allowed squabbles over their own climate package to spill over into the broader international negotiation. How’s this for showing united leadership to the rest of the world?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy failed to end deadlock with ex-communist European Union states on an EU climate package on Saturday but predicted a deal would be reached by a December 11-12 summit.

“Things are moving in a good way … I am convinced we will arrive at a positive conclusion,” Sarkozy, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said after meeting Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and eight other east European leaders.

Poland, which relies on high-polluting coal for more than 90 percent of its electricity, has threatened to veto an EU plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 unless Warsaw wins fossil fuel concessions.

“There is still a lot of work ahead of us” before the summit, Tusk said after the talks in the Polish port of Gdansk.

Poland argues it needs until 2020 to curb carbon emissions, for example by using more efficient boilers and carbon-scrubbing equipment and possibly building its first nuclear plant.

Tusk said Sarkozy and the EU Commission agreed to extend a period limiting mandatory purchases of greenhouse gas emissions permits for east European coal plants, in an offer which would need the backing of all EU leaders.

And Tusk hinted at a willingness to compromise at the summit. “At the very end, maybe at the very last minute, we may decide this is a solution we may accept,” Tusk said.

Meanwhile, the American negotiating team appear not to have even talked to the Obama transition team (h/t Andrew Kneale). If true, this is worse than stupid:

As I’m sure the Obama Administration transition team is aware, Poznan, Poland is currently hosting a very important UN-sponsored climate change conference. At stake is nothing less than the next round of emissions reduction commitments (a Kyoto successor) — which Barack Obama has said he wants the U.S. to participate in.

If they haven’t already, the Obama folks need to make contact with the U.S. delegation in Poznan immediately. One would think that the U.S. Del. would take the initiative itself, but I’m getting word that they feel that the ball is in Obama’s court.

Apparently, current U.S. delegation members — mostly career people with honorable intentions and a willingness to continue to serve (with some notable exceptions) — are waiting for the call. This is no time to fight about protocol, or who is supposed to call who. It’s time to start turning the ship around.

Things are going to slow down for the weekend and then pick up again on Tuesday. The framework that comes out of this week can still be quite ambitious and, at the same time, workable in the U.S. and in the Senate. The Obama people have from now until Tuesday to make their goals for Poznan clear, but the sooner, the better.

Finally, as I posted a few days ago, developing countries seem resistant to even talking about the long-term – even though they have the most to lose through lots of itsy bitsy short term deals…

Happy days.

(For more, see all GD’s Poznan posts, our broader coverage on climate, follow the #poznan feed on Twitter or check out benkamorvan’s list of Poznan related blogs and other sites.)