Guessing Game Begins Over Intel Czar's Replacement

Serving as director of national intelligence may be a mission impossible, but President Obama's effort to find a successor to the outgoing Dennis Blair may not be much easier.

In the wake of Blair's abrupt decision on Thursday to resign—a move that had been rumored for months but surprised some of his own staff—the "intelligence community" has already begun the latest round of one of Washington's favorite parlor games: guessing the replacement. Declassified has heard speculation about 15 names, most of whom would at least be theoretically qualified to take over one of the government's most difficult, and problematic, posts, though many of whom might neither want the job nor necessarily excel at it if they got it.

Obama is believed to have chosen Blair as his intelligence czar because of the retired four-star admiral's record as an effective Navy commander. But Blair's prowess as a military leader did not translate well to the more subtle, and perhaps vicious, world of intelligence community politics, in which the intelligence czar has not only to act as a referee and CEO among 16 historically antagonistic agencies, but also has to offer himself up as a fat target for public criticism in case anything goes wrong during his watch.

Intelligence-community insiders say that Obama's estrangement from Blair had been building up for months in the wake of assorted public and private missteps by Blair. These included picking, and losing, turf fights with CIA Director Leon Panetta, making politically awkward comments in the wake of the Christmas Day attempted underpants bombing, and simply having the bad luck to be intelligence czar during an outbreak of jihadist plotting by U.S. citizens and residents, even if most of the plots were unsuccessful.

Sorting through the rumor mill, Declassified has categorized potential successors into the following groups:

Political and bureaucratic heavyweights: Rumored candidates who would fit into this category include FBI Director Robert Mueller, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. Any of them might well fit the job's most important requirements: exceptional management and political skills and having the president's confidence. But it's hard to imagine why any of them would want to exchange their current jobs for what is becoming something of a poisoned chalice. One other intriguing candidate in this category: Marine Gen. James Cartwright, deputy chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who might be more open to a promotion than the others.

Intelligence and defense technocrats: Rumored candidates in this category include retired Lt. Gen. Jim Clapper, currently Defense Department intelligence supremo; Michael Vickers, assistant defense secretary for special operations; John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary; Harvard academic Joseph Nye, also a former senior Pentagon official; and John McHugh, a former GOP congressman whom Obama named as secretary of the Army.

High-profile intelligence politicos: This category could include John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism and Homeland Security supremo; or Rand Beers, a former career intelligence official who left his job as a senior counterterrorism adviser in the George W. Bush White House to become national security adviser to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, and now serves as undersecretary of Homeland Security. However, Brennan arguably has more influence in his current job than he would as intelligence czar, and when Obama floated his name as possible CIA director, it was shot down by human-rights campaigners who criticized him for defending former CIA colleagues who carried out controversial Bush interrogation policies.

High-profile politicos: In this category, the rumor mill has already nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican close to Obama; former congressman and intelligence-reform campaigner Lee Hamilton; former Indiana senator Evan Bayh; and former representative Tim Roemer (another intel-reform campaigner who is now U.S. ambassador in India). These could be among the candidates who might want the job most but whose bureaucratic skills and stamina might place them among less appropriate suitors.

According to The Washington Post, the White House discussed the intelligence czar's job with Hagel, Clapper, and Hamre even before Blair's resignation was announced. According to this speculative roundup posted on an Atlantic blog, Clapper is an early media favorite, although intelligence insiders say he is not quite as popular among some key political players, including people on Capitol Hill.