President-elect Barack Obama is moving toward an announcement this week on his two top intelligence officials, a decision delayed by internal debate and concern over candidates' ties to Bush-era policies on interrogations and torture.
Obama's apparent top pick to be national intelligence director was called into question this week, said two current intelligence officials and a former official familiar with the Obama transition effort.
Retired Adm. Dennis Blair, reportedly the lead prospect for director of national intelligence, may now be out, said the officials. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the Obama transition's emphasis on keeping its internal deliberations confidential.
Blair met with the transition team on Tuesday and there was no hint of trouble at that point, a Democratic Party official familiar with the meeting said.
But the officials said the transition team and Blair appear to be split over who would choose his deputy. They also are said to disagree over the scope and purpose of the national intelligence director's office. The Obama transition is said to be discussing plans to downsize the office.
The search for a new CIA chief has been stalled since November, when John Brennan, Obama's transition intelligence adviser, abruptly withdrew his name from consideration. Brennan said his potential nomination had sparked outrage among human and civil rights groups, who believed Brennan was not outspoken enough in his condemnation of Bush policies.
The Obama transition team's delay in selecting a new national intelligence director and a new CIA chief is a reflection of the complicated demands of the jobs and Obama's own policies and priorities, say several current and former intelligence officials.
Obama hopes to send an unequivocal signal that controversial Bush administration policies approving harsh interrogations and waterboarding, renditions — the secret transfer of prisoners to other governments with a history of torture — and warrantless wiretapping are over, they said. All the officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because the Obama transition team has insisted on confidentiality in its internal deliberations.
At the CIA, the officials say, Obama is looking for a professional intelligence officer with experience in clandestine operations, rather than analysis. That nominee ideally should also be free of any taint from the Bush administration.
But nearly all qualified intelligence officials with operations experience have, by professional necessity, had some connection in the last decade to either Bush-era policies or 9/11, which many consider to have been a major intelligence failure.
Obama already has announced his intention to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and his desire to develop a new procedure to try terror suspects captured overseas. Obama also has indicated he will end harsh interrogations.
Obama, according to a current intelligence official, is looking for a national intelligence director who will agree to pare down the office and focus on giving strong direction to the country's 16 intelligence agencies.
Congress followed the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission and created the DNI office in 2004 to knit together the missions, priorities, resources and analysis of the 16 intelligence agencies under his command. It initially was envisioned to have a staff of around 500 people, but that has grown to 1,500.
The most direct command the national intelligence director has is over the CIA, which has at times caused conflicts between the offices about mission priorities and spending.
Blair, a possible choice for the position, headed the U.S. Pacific Command during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He crafted what many intelligence and military officials say was an effective international counterterrorism strategy in southeast Asia.
But he could face an uncomfortable confirmation hearing before the Senate if he is nominated. In 2006, Blair resigned from his top position at the Pentagon-funded, nonprofit Institute for Defense Analyses after the Senate Armed Services Committee raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest because Blair served on the boards of two defense contractors.