WASHINGTON – John Negroponte, President Bush’s choice to serve as the government’s first national intelligence director, is likely to win Senate confirmation for a job the veteran U.S. diplomat expects to be uncommonly hard.
The top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee — Pat Roberts of Kansas and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia — both praised the selection of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who has been a consumer of intelligence throughout his 40 years of government service.
But Negroponte, 65, seems acutely aware of the difficulties that lie just beyond the Senate vote. A former ambassador to the United Nations and to a number of countries, Negroponte called this job his “most challenging assignment” yet.
Negroponte is charged with bringing together 15 highly competitive spy agencies and learning to work with combative Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, brand new CIA Director Porter Goss and other intelligence leaders. He’ll oversee a covert intelligence budget estimated at $40 billion.
His U.N. nomination was held up for half a year in 2001 over criticism regarding his record as ambassador in Honduras from 1981 to 1985, the time of the Iran-Contra scandal.
He was widely believed not to have been Bush’s first choice for the new job, but officials denied the president had had trouble filling the position out of concern over how much authority the new director would have.
Some intelligence veterans remain concerned about whether the job will wield enough power to lead government elements that handle everything from recruiting spies to eavesdropping to steering satellites.
Some say the authorities of the intelligence chief, as established in legislation, are too ambiguous. The position was excluded from the Cabinet in an attempt to shield it from politics.
According to one informed administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, former CIA Director Robert Gates was the White House’s first choice, but he and other candidates declined the post over concerns about the job’s authority.
White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card rejected reports that Bush had difficulty filling the job. “It’s just not true,” he said.
If confirmed by the Senate, as expected, Negroponte said he planned “reform of the intelligence community in ways designed to best meet the intelligence needs of the 21st century.”
Sarah Little, a spokeswoman for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said Roberts believes confirmation may be weeks away.
Negroponte will have coveted time with the president during daily intelligence briefings and will have authority over the spy community’s intelligence collection priorities. Perhaps most importantly, Bush made clear that Negroponte will set budgets for the national intelligence agencies.
“People who control the money, people who have access to the president generally have a lot of influence,” Bush said. “And that’s why John Negroponte is going to have a lot of influence.”
Bush also announced he had chosen an intelligence insider to serve as Negroponte’s deputy, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, who has been director of the National Security Agency since 1999. As the longest-serving head of the secretive code-breaking and eavesdropping agency, Hayden pushed for change by asking some longtime personnel to retire and increasing reliance on technology contractors.
For years, blue-ribbon commissions have proposed creating a single, powerful director to oversee the entire intelligence community, but the concept didn’t gain momentum until recommended by the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush and other senior administration officials initially resisted, but reversed course after an exceptional lobbying effort by the families of Sept. 11 victims. Congress approved the new post in December as part of the most significant intelligence overhaul since 1947.
The president has trusted Negroponte with trying assignments before. He was U.N. ambassador when U.S. relations with the world organization were declining over the approaching Iraq invasion. Last year, Bush sent him to Iraq as ambassador during the middle of a bloody insurgency.
Negroponte has held official posts in eight countries, including ambassadorships in Honduras, Mexico and the Philippines. He also understands the intelligence demands of policy-makers, serving in President Reagan’s National Security Council from 1987 to 1989.
Some Democrats on Capitol Hill expressed concern that Negroponte’s departure from Iraq would create a crucial vacancy less than a month after the country’s first democratic elections.
During consideration of his U.N. nomination, critics suggested he had played a key role in carrying out the Reagan administration’s covert strategy to crush the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua, an element of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Human rights groups also alleged that Negroponte acquiesced in rights abuses by Honduran death squads funded and partly trained by the CIA. Negroponte said during his U.N. confirmation hearings that he did not believe death squads were operating there.