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Dumb intelligence
Concerns about the director of national intelligence go far beyond John Negroponte’s bloody past

ALMOST IMMEDIATELY after John Negroponte was announced as George W. Bush’s pick for director of national intelligence (DNI), the blogosphere exploded with postings and articles exhuming Negroponte’s dark, proconsul-like stint as Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. This is, of course, entirely proper and germane: it’s certainly worth reminding the world that the guy who will have ostensible control of the entire US intelligence apparatus — elements of which are currently operating a global archipelago of clandestine interrogation centers — has a history that includes enabling death squads and sacrificing facts on the altar of political convenience.

But the sad fact (to liberals, anyway) is that none of this is news — and rehashing it isn’t likely to impede Negroponte’s Senate confirmation. According to a number of active and retired career intelligence officials, however, Negroponte-haters need not worry. Actually, they say, a stint as DNI could very well be the career diplomat’s Waterloo, illustrating just how poorly conceived the "bipartisan reforms" meted out by the 9/11 Commission and Congress really are.

LET’S START with Negroponte himself. According to the optimists in administration circles, the diplomat’s history as a forceful troubleshooter-in-chief on projects requiring a mix of secrecy and interagency diplomacy makes him a natural for DNI. In theory, they have a point. But Negroponte’s position on the list of preferred candidates may reflect a harsher reality. According to both political and intelligence-community sources familiar with the DNI search, Negroponte was approximately eighth on the White House’s list of candidates who were either asked if they wanted to be considered or offered the job. In addition to previously disclosed names such as former CIA director Robert M. Gates, former senator Sam Nunn, and ex–attorney general William P. Barr, others who declined consideration include Retired General Tommy Franks, former CIA deputy director John McMahon, former NSA director and former CIA deputy director Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, and former NSA directors William Studeman and William Odom.

As a career military man with no intelligence-community (IC) experience, Franks would have been horribly miscast (as he himself reportedly recognized), and Gates would not have been the most reassuring choice, given the criticism he received from veteran CIA analysts for politicizing intelligence in the 1980s. But aside from Franks, the prospective candidates were not only true IC veterans, but people who have publicly and privately made some of the most thoughtful and potentially useful recommendations on intelligence reform. While all are undeniably politically conservative, veterans like Inman, Odom, and McMahon not only appreciate the IC’s long-standing systematic shortcomings; they’ve also done a lot of thinking about the IC’s role in American democracy. They’re by no means soft on intel issues, but they’ve all demonstrated that they recognize boundaries.

Given the thrust of their critiques, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that any of those guys would welcome the once-in-a-lifetime chance to serve as the nation’s first intelligence czar and rejigger the IC to reflect his vision. So why take a pass? As some have noted, one of the inherent flaws in the 9/11 Commission–driven "reform" of the intelligence community is that while it has created a dedicated DNI, it has done so in a way that could make the hapless Department of Homeland Security look like a model of efficacy by comparison.

Among the many reasons intelligence veterans see disaster on the horizon is that the new DNI is charged with completing myriad missions in an incredibly short time with woefully inadequate staff. Under the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, the DNI must serve as the president’s chief intelligence adviser; the vanguard for improving personnel policies and technology programs across the entire IC; the hands-on quality-control and waste, fraud, and mismanagement cop for each of the 15 IC agencies; the principal liaison with the intelligence services of other nations; the creator and steward of an unprecedented "Information Sharing Environment" among agencies; and the author of the entire IC budget — among other duties. In theory, this makes for a powerful position.

In fact, however, that power may not amount to much. Legislation limits the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to a permanent staff of a mere 500 people. Three hundred will be transferred from the "community management" staff at Langley. But for the rest of the spaces, only 150 can be transferred from existing IC agencies — and they can be detailed to the DNI’s office only for two-year stints. While the law does allow the new office a potential temporary location at the CIA’s Langley headquarters, it also mandates that it not be located in the White House or any existing IC facility. So in reality, the DNI has not only a paltry staff, but a location removed from its subordinate agencies and its primary customer.

"Setting aside the logistics of finding space and physically setting up a new operation, which is pretty time-consuming in and of itself, and the issue of pulling some people out of existing agencies where agency heads will fight to keep them, you then have the issue of, within the first year, not only producing a slew of reports Congress has mandated be presented to them about what to fix and how to fix it, but actually beginning to fix things," says a veteran intelligence officer friendly with one of the DNI candidates who declined consideration for the job. "Just getting off the ground is a challenge enough, and we’ve seen how well it’s gone at Homeland Security. But in addition, is a staff of 500 really enough to do everything ordered? In the context of the intelligence community, the DNI has no troops. Who in their right mind would want the job under these circumstances? For hell’s sake, they’re going to have the DNI briefing the president, and they didn’t even give him the DI."

The "DI," or the CIA’s directorate of intelligence, is the arm of the CIA that does nothing but intelligence analysis. Almost every group charged with making intelligence-reform recommendations over the past 50 years has argued not only that the roles of CIA director and DNI should be separate, but that the DI should be taken out of the CIA and put directly under the DNI. "The DI is the one place in the IC that does all-source analysis and has the most analytic resources," says a recently retired senior CIA official. "If the DNI is going to be the president’s briefer, it makes sense he should have the DI in his office, not just because he’s briefing the president, but because it gives him a real center of gravity in terms of power and manpower. But for reasons I and a lot of other people don’t get, the 9/11 Commission didn’t recommend this, and Congress didn’t do it, either."

So, Negroponte’s new office is likely to lack enough people, and enough of the right people, to carry out one of its principal missions — once, that is, it actually gets up and running.

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Issue Date: February 25 - March 3, 2005
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