War Stories

What NID Needs

Bush’s bold choice for national intelligence director?

Negroponte: for serious?

Does John Negroponte’s appointment as the new national intelligence director suggest that President Bush might, finally, be serious about intelligence reform?

Nothing till now has signaled anything but the contrary. The president tried to obstruct the creation of the 9/11 commission, which ended up recommending the new post. When a Senate-passed bill creating a powerful NID came to the House, he allowed—if not ordered—the speaker to block it from coming to the floor for a vote and relented only after it was heavily watered down. When House and Senate delegates met in a conference committee to hammer out a compromise, White House aides attended the meetings to ensure that it stayed watered down.

The key passage in the final bill was a provision that the national intelligence director will not “abrogate the statutory responsibilities” of any existing agency handling intelligence matters.

In other words, the NID can’t strong-arm the Department of Defense, whose “statutory responsibilities” involving intelligence are considerable. According to Title 10 of the U.S. Code (Chapter 21) and DoD Directive 5100.20, they include the personnel, operations, and spending authority for not just the Defense Intelligence Agency (and the individual services’ spy branches) but also the National Reconnaissance Office (which controls spy satellites), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency * (which picks the routes for those satellites), and the National Security Agency (which handles electronic intercepts and code-breaking).

All told, as a result of these statutes, the Pentagon controls about 80 percent of the U.S. intelligence community’s budget. This control is what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his longtime ally Vice President Dick Cheney insisted on preserving. Thanks to that key passage written into the intelligence “reform” bill, the new national intelligence director cannot “abrogate” that arrangement.

President Bush said at his press conference this morning that Negroponte would have budgetary control over the intelligence community. You can bet that someone from Cheney’s office or the Pentagon quickly reminded the president that this explicitly isn’t so.

It took more than two months for President Bush to find a willing candidate for this post. Reportedly three people turned him down. One of them was Robert Gates, who had been his father’s CIA director. The fact that he even considered Gates was pretty fair evidence that Bush sees the NID as a purely advisory slot, to be filled by a loyal, respected fellow who has no access to real power—Gates has been out of government for over a decade—and probably no itch to grab any.

Yet now Bush has gone and picked someone who might actually turn the NID into at least a force of influence, if not quite a powerhouse. For the past six months, Negroponte has been ambassador to Iraq. By some accounts, and some measures, he’s done a remarkable job, transforming Baghdad’s “green zone” from the den of corruption and cronyism—which marked Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority—into a highly professional U.S. Embassy. Before Baghdad, Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and, back in the 1980s, ambassador to Honduras. He knows how to run a complex operation.

There are controversies surrounding the substantive policies Negroponte pushed at those jobs—the CIA-sponsored “death squads” in Honduras, the disastrous WMD briefing at the U.N. Security Council, the still poorly run reconstruction effort in Iraq.

But here’s the point: Negroponte is no milquetoast, content to shuffle paper on a meaningless advisory board. He’s, for better or worse, an energetic, hands-on operator who’s not shy about knocking heads. As part of the deal to take the job, it’s not inconceivable that he demanded some de facto authority—and that Bush gave him some.

Bush said this morning that Negroponte would be the man who gives him his daily intelligence briefing, and that Porter Goss—who was named CIA director just a few months ago—would report to Negroponte. So this NID will have direct and daily access to the president, which is no mean measure of influence and potentially power.

Equally interesting is the choice for deputy director, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, who is currently the director of the National Security Agency. The NSA is the largest U.S. intelligence agency, with 45,000 employees. Hayden also has close contact with fellow officers in the Pentagon’s spy branches. In short, Negroponte may not be familiar with the intelligence bureaucracy, but Hayden—who, if he’s like most deputies, will be running this shop’s day-to-day operations—knows all the dark corners and back alleys.

Still, the question remains: What will Negroponte be able to do with his access? What will Hayden be able to do with his knowledge? Negroponte’s briefings to Bush will be based on exactly the same intelligence materials as Goss’ briefings are now. If he emphasizes different things, they’ll be the result of personal perceptions or interests, not institutional ones. Hayden has an insider’s knowledge of where all the intelligence money is going and might be able to recommend some rerouting. But John Pike, director of Global Security and a longtime intelligence-watchdog, asks: Where are the misallocations today? Are there really instances where the CIA or NSA has been wanting to do something, but the Pentagon won’t allow it?

The 9/11 commission concluded that a national intelligence director was needed to supervise and coordinate the far-flung, often conflicting agencies of the “intelligence community.” The narrative of events leading up to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, revealed that terrorists had slipped into the country as a result, in part, of our own internal chaos. The FBI and CIA didn’t share information with each other; neither of those agencies shared their “watch lists” with the FAA; and so forth.

However, it is by no means clear that the NID—as laid out in the final bill that Congress passed—will be able to tie the loose threads either. Negroponte and Hayden will have a staff of 300 people, absurdly small for the task. They will have no power to order, control, or veto intelligence operations. They will have no firing or hiring power over intelligence agents or analysts. And, again, they have no power to exert leverage by cutting, raising, or reallocating budgets. Negroponte’s daily briefing notwithstanding, they will not have offices in the White House. In short, even if they wanted to do something differently (and that’s not clear), they don’t have the statutory or institutional means.

Nor is it clear that reorganization alone will “reform” U.S. intelligence. Most of the mistakes leading up to 9/11 were due not to poor coordination between agencies but rather to stupidity or incompetence within individual agencies.

So why is there a glimmer—and that’s all there is, a glimmer—of possibility that the appointments today might lead to some results, some stabs at reform? Advisers are only as influential as the person they advise wants them to be. Negroponte is such a forceful personality that Bush might not only listen to his briefings but heed his advice. Hayden has complained about shortages of vital resources—linguists to translate all the conversations the NSA has been intercepting, special equipment to decode modern digital transmissions. In the past he’s made his pleas to the Pentagon; he’ll still have to do that now, but he’ll also have a direct line to the Oval Office. If Bush wants to listen to them, real changes may finally be in store.

That’s the ultimate question—whether Bush is interested in reform, whether he thinks it’s necessary, much less worth kicking up a fuss about.

Correction, Feb. 18: This piece originally referred to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the name by which it was known until Nov. 24, 2003. (Return to the corrected sentence.)