July 29, 2011 -- Former intelligence chief Dennis Blair said in an interview Thursday that the terror threat from al Qaeda is a "narrow problem" and questioned the amount of money spent to capture or kill a small number of people.
Blair's critical comments on Obama administration policy were the harshest yet from the former Director of National Intelligence, who was pushed out of his post by President Obama in May 2010 after just 16 months on the job.
Blair, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, estimated there were 4,000 al Qaeda members around the globe, with much of a yearly intelligence budget of $80 billion devoted to catching them.
"That's $20 million for every one of these 4,000 people," said Blair. "The objective is to disrupt and destroy al Qaeda. … You think, wow, $20 million is a lot, is that proportionate?"
Blair noted that in the past decade terrorists have killed fewer than 20 Americans inside U.S. borders, most of them in a single attack at Fort Hood Texas in late 2009. He contrasted the terror body count with deaths from car accidents and street crime, which killed more than one million Americans in the same time frame.
"What is it that justifies this amount of money on this narrow problem versus the other ways we have to protect American lives?" asked Blair. "I think that's sort of the question we have to think ourselves through here at the 10th year anniversary."
Said Blair, "I think we need to reexamine what our fundamental goals are. I think by concentrating only on al Qaeda itself we get ourselves in this numbers game ... and I don't think that we can kill al Qaeda members and end this threat from Jihadist terrorism."
Blair also said he felt the unmanned CIA drone program, in which terrorists are targeted by missiles in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, was counterproductive. The former Navy admiral said that the drone strikes are more of a nuisance to al Qaeda than a threat, and that they harm the relationship between Pakistan and the United States.
"We're alienating the countries concerned because we are treating the countries just as places where we go attack groups that threaten us," said Blair. "We are threatening the prospects of long-term reform."
He suggested giving Pakistan more say in picking targets. "We should offer the Pakistanis to put two hands on the trigger," said Blair. "That would make our job in Afghanistan more difficult for a while but it would make it a lot easier over the long term."
Pakistan has come under serious criticism since the successful Navy SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden for allegedly sheltering terrorists and tipping off militants to upcoming U.S. attacks. Bin Laden was able to live in Abbottabad, Pakistan for years without interference by Pakistani officials, and when the U.S. forces raided his compound and killed him, the raid was conducted without Pakistani cooperation.
After the raid, CIA director Leon Panetta confronted Pakistani officials with photographic evidence that they had allegedly tipped off Islamic militants in advance of other U.S. raids.
The Director of National Intelligence is designated as the principal intelligence to the White House and the chief of 16 different federal intelligence agencies, including the CIA and the National Security Agency. Blair, who was forced to resign from his post and was replaced by James Clapper, said in Aspen that the White House had chosen to side with the CIA over him in an internal power struggle.
"They sided with the CIA in ways that were public enough that it undercut my position," said Blair.
On Friday, when asked about Blair's contention that drone attacks may do more harm than good, White House press secretary Jay Carney told Jake Tapper of ABC News, "Without addressing specific methods, I would say simply that we believe our relationship with Pakistan is essential to fighting terrorism and terrorists, fighting al Qaeda, and that's why we work hard on that relationship, even though it is complicated and difficult at times."
"We also make no apologies for the need to go after terrorists, members of al Qaeda, wherever they are," added Carney, "and that is certainly true about the mission to eliminate Osama bin Laden."