Intel Czar Dennis Blair's Embattled Appointments

Add president Obama's national intelligence czar, Dennis Blair, to the list of embattled top-level appointees. Blair, a retired four-star Navy admiral who attended Oxford with Bill Clinton, courted controversy among pro-Israel and anti-China activists this month when he named Charles (Chas) Freeman, an outspoken former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to chair the National Intelligence Council, a committee of the government's top intel analysts. After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other pols complained to the White House, Freeman abruptly withdrew. Now both Republican and Democratic intel experts are raising questions about another Blair pick: John Deutch, a former CIA director once accused of major security lapses, who's been appointed to a temporary panel reviewing troubled, top-secret spy-satellite programs.

After Deutch resigned as CIA director in 1996, agency officials discovered he had stored hundreds of pages of classified files on his home computers, despite repeated warnings that they could be intercepted via the Internet. Because of the incident, Deutch was stripped of his high-level security clearances, and a criminal probe into the matter culminated in January 2001, when the ex-spy chief agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of mishandling classified material. (The next day, Clinton, in one of his final acts as president, pardoned him.) Given Deutch's history, congressional officials want to know why Blair placed him on a panel so sensitive that its work should require an ultra-top-secret security clearance known as SI/TK (Special Intelligence/Talent-Keyhole). "The decision to grant [Deutch] a security clearance again is an affront," GOP Sen. Kit Bond, the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NEWSWEEK, adding that it "should be reversed immediately." An agency spokesman acknowledged that former CIA director Michael Hayden restored Deutch's security clearance a couple of years ago so Hayden could consult with him and other ex-spy chiefs on "classified CIA matters." But Blair also has broad power to grant security clearances. (Deutch did not respond to requests for comment.)

Congressional critics, including some Democrats, say the two appointments illustrate Blair's tin ear. As he vigorously defended Freeman, Blair also underplayed evidence of substantial financial ties between the Middle East Policy Council, a think tank Freeman used to run, and Saudi interests. Blair had told Congress that "no more than one 12th" of the council's $600,000 budget came from the Saudi government. But Freeman told NEWSWEEK that the council had also received a $1 million endowment from Saudi King Abdullah in 2005, plus another $1 million pledge for operating support from Saudi Prince Alwaleed. "Director Blair was asked by the president to … seek the best expertise, and to provide the best intelligence," says Wendy Morigi, a spokesperson for the intel czar. "That's exactly what he's doing."

Join the Discussion