Funding for fighting al Qaeda could be cut, ex-spy chief says

FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2009 file photo, National Intelligence Director-designate Dennis Blair delivers his opening statement on Capitol Hill in Washington, during the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination. Sources say that Blair is resigning. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Susan Walsh
Dennis Blair
Susan Walsh

Dennis Blair, one of only four men to have held the post of Director of National Intelligence since it was created after 9/11, suggests that the amount of money spent to fight al Qaeda terrorism -- which he estimates at $80 billion per year, not counting Iraq and Afghanistan war costs -- could be cut substantially.

Blair was DNI, supervising the CIA and over a dozen other intelligence agencies, from January 2009 until President Obama fired him in May 2010. Blair says the White House apparently "wanted a less aggressive, less integrating Director of National Intelligence" -- someone "not as strong."

When I interviewed him for CBS Radio News and for the French quarterly journal Politique Internationale, I wondered if the United States -- during this time of government spending cuts -- could afford the kind of intelligence and security we need. (Read a transcript of the interview.)

Blair, a retired Navy admiral who still has a keen interest in America's defense requirements, estimates that there are only 4,000 al Qaeda activists in the world. So he does the simple math and declares: "That is $20 million per terrorist, per year. Does that sound proportionate to other security priorities?"

Other analysts might say that the point of anti-terrorism spending is to prevent a major attack in the United States -- because bombings, for instance, in shopping centers could cause trillions of dollars of economic damage.

But Blair told me that security expenditures should be re-examined -- considering, even, that many more Americans fall victim to traffic accidents and murders, yet politicians do not call for huge programs in response to those.

"I think it is time to have that discussion on a rational, realstic basis, rather than the political basis of the past ten years," Blair said.

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    Dan Raviv is a correspondent for CBS Radio News based in Washington, host of CBS News Weekend Roundup, and co-author of "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars"