Task ahead: how to be a spy czar

Negroponte's confirmation hearing hints at strategies.

Experts to John Negroponte: If confirmed by the Senate, you'll be the first true czar of US intelligence. Make sure you act the part. Redirect a spy satellite. Change some figures in a budget. Fire somebody. Or promote them.

Don't pick a fight for a fight's sake, but throw your weight around at the first good opportunity - and make sure the White House goes along.

Otherwise, the CIA and the Defense Department may decide they can take your lunch money. And then last year's big intelligence reform bill won't have reformed much at all.

"The most important thing for him to do is to somehow establish that he's in charge, and that the president is going to back him up," says former director of central intelligence Stansfield Turner.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday, Mr.Negroponte declined to outline any specific actions he might take in his first days on the job. He said he is still poring over the recommendations of the numerous recent commissions on US intelligence, which overall have been highly critical of past intelligence agency performance.

He did say, however, that he understands the imperative that led the Congress and the White House to create the new post of director of national intelligence.

"Our intelligence effort has to generate better results. That's my mandate pure and simple," said Negroponte.

A veteran of tough US government jobs, Negroponte served most recently as US ambassador to Iraq. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of his career was his stint in the early 1980s as ambassador to Honduras. Critics claimed that he ignored death-squad activity by the Honduran military at a time when the Reagan administration was trying to roll back communist insurgencies throughout the region.

Nonetheless, Negroponte seems a lock for confirmation. Democrats on the intelligence panel said they were more concerned about recent intelligence failures than the nominee's personal history. "I am interested in mainly the massive intelligence failures of the intelligence community, and whether or not he is going to help correct and address the abysmal failures of accountability and responsibility there," said Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, a senior minority member of the committee.

That won't be an easy job. For one thing, the 200-plus page law that established Negroponte's new position is not as specific about the job's powers as it might be.

The most important ambiguities deal with Negroponte's authority over the budget, his authority with respect to the other leaders of the intelligence community, and his overall ability to conduct performance reviews, says William Webster, a former director of central intelligence and the FBI.

Mr. Webster says that when he was at the CIA, the intelligence agencies of the Defense Department listened to him with great courtesy, but they paid real attention to those in the military who wrote their report cards. To be effective as director of national intelligence, Negroponte "must assume that he has authority in those areas," says Webster.

This may not mean he has to pick a fight to show who's boss. He might be better served to simply act as if the open questions in regard to his power over, say, the new National Counterterrorism Center will be resolved in his favor.

"If somebody moves in on his territory, he should simply respond as if he has the responsibility," says Webster.

And, perhaps most important, he needs to find out to what extent President Bush will agree with him. The maxim that a top official's power is directly proportional to his relationship to the person in the Oval Office may be doubly true for the new intelligence czar.

"He's got to have enough of a relationship with the president to be confident that if he does something controversial, he'll get backed up," says Mr. Turner. "If he doesn't, he's really in trouble."

Given the current low state of morale in the CIA and other intelligence agencies, Negroponte may also have to act as something of a cheerleader. That means he needs to be both the president's senior intelligence analyst and an inspiration to analysts and operatives as whole, says Erik Dahl, a retired naval intelligence officer who is now a doctoral candidate at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.

The agencies may now be beaten down and timid and too afraid to make a mistake. This leads to groupthink, which can cause such errors as the assumed presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

"I hope Negroponte can change the culture of the intelligence community.... If we are not afraid to be wrong, we will actually be right more often," says Mr. Dahl.

And if all that isn't enough of a workload, there's always Congress itself. If Negroponte could persuade lawmakers to cut back on the number of panels and sub-panels that claim oversight over some piece of the intelligence community, he would be doing the nation a big favor, says Webster.

Webster points to the Department of Homeland Security as an example of what happens when there are too many legislators peering over your shoulder.

"There are 88 [committees and sub-committees] with pieces of oversight [over homeland security]. That's got to be a distraction," says Webster.

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