Dennis C. Blair, a retired United Navy admiral, was President Obama's Director of National Intelligence from January 2009 until Mr. Obama fired him in May 2010. Precise reasons for his dismissal were never publicized, though officials spoke of his insisting on an intelligence-sharing pact with France that the CIA opposed. It appears there were several clashes between CIA director Leon Panetta, who is now Secretary of Defense, and the DNI. And the DNI lost.
Interviewed by CBS Radio News correspondent Dan Raviv, Blair comments on the job and some recent events affecting America's security. This interview, in longer form, will be published in French in November in the Paris-based journal Politique Internationale.
RAVIV: Are we lucky or good? We might remember the aphorism that our security agencies have to get it right every time, but the terrorists only have to get it right once. So, in all these years since 9/11, with no major attack in the United States, are we lucky or good?
BLAIR: I would say we are 70 percent good, 30% lucky. If you look at the attacks that have nearly happened - whether it was Faisal Shahzad parking a car bomb in Times Square, Najibullah Zazi planning to attack the New York subway trains, or the Nigerian man Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab [with explosives in his underpants] over Detroit - I would turn your aphorism around.
I would say that now, the terrorists have to make only one mistake and they will be foiled.
Before 9/11 they could make multiple mistakes. They could take flying training lessons in this country in which they clearly were not interested in learning to land. They could live in San Diego for months and attend radical mosques. They could talk about their plans freely on the telephone. We were completely oblivious.
Now, if al Qaeda operators are attempting a terror attack, they have to be really good to succeed. We have squeezed their time or place for training. Abdulmutallab had about four days in Yemen. That is all these groups can now afford because we are pursuing them so aggressively.
So those being sent to attack the United States are not hardened, well trained terrorists. They are bitter young men who just happen to have an American passport or a visa, who are told to "reach the United States and kill people when you can."
That situation is not a result of luck. It is a result of hard work by American and other countries intelligence services, and the increased alertness and vigilance on the part of all Americans. The "luck" part is that when the attackers make a mistake, the alert citizen in Times Square or the brave passengers on the Detroit flight, or others recognize the situation and take action. So now it takes just one mistake on their part, and we can stop it. That is a complete turn-around from September 10, 2001.
RAVIV: Now that we are clearly in a world of limited resources - austerity, and government budgets being cut - can the United States afford to have the intelligence and security we need?
BLAIR: We should look hard at how we are spending our resources. Now the American government spends approximately $80 billion per year to fight al Qaeda, not counting the military expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan. How many al Qaeda activists are there now? Around 4,000. That is $20 million per terrorist, per year. Does that sound proportionate to other security priorities?
Think of it in a different way. There are many causes of violent deaths in America -murders and traffic accidents - that we do not approach with the same "no price too steep, no task too difficult" approach that we take toward al Qaeda. Terrorist attacks have killed seventeen Americans in the last ten years; traffic accidents and murders have killed over half a million . For these much more dangerous dangers, we tolerate a level of risk and accept that the preventive systems will not be perfect.
I think it is time to have that discussion on a rational, realistic basis, rather than the political basis of the past ten years - During that time political leaders could not be seen to be reducing the amount of resources devoted to combatting al Qaeda, and budgets shot up.
So, yes, we need to examine the amount of money we are spending and decide if it is proportionate to the goals we are seeking compared to other government responsibilities.
RAVIV: You were the third Director of National Intelligence. The 9/11 Commission said the post should be created, but is it still crucial?
BLAIR: I would often hear criticism that the DNI organization introduced an additional layer of bureaucracy that did not add value. I did not find that to be true. What I found was that the Director of National Intelligence and his staff were the only people waking up every morning and asking, "Is the total intelligence capability of the United States operating to its maximum effect?"
The directors of the various agencies were waking up and worrying about whether their individual agencies were operating well. The director of the NSA would worry about whether his agency was getting the maximum amount of signals intelligence. The director of the CIA was consumed generally with the operations of his human intelligence directorate.
These agencies worked together before the DNI was established, but, it was on a voluntary basis. There was a great deal of cooperation, because many of the good, smart people in individual agencies would reach out to their counterparts in other agencies.
But to drive to a greater level than could be achieved with simple cooperation, an organization like a DNI is essential. I was the one who would say to individual agencies: "This issue is important from a national point of view. It's going to get done. Assign more people, and put these resources on it. This is a priority."
That is a very typical central, corporate function which is needed in a big complex organization like the Intelligence Community . Intelligence is, after all, an enterprise spending $50 billion annually, with tens of thousands of officers.