Transforming the world of US spies
John Negroponte, famous for subtlety, takes first steps toward reforming intelligence apparatus.
WASHINGTON — Five months after President Bush signed into law a sweeping intelligence-reform bill, the espionage community is in the midst of a tumultuous transition.
For one thing, the constellation of agencies is getting used to a new chain of command. From temporary quarters near Lafayette Square, John Negroponte, the nation's first director of national intelligence (DNI), has begun building a staff and is slowly asserting his authority.
For another, the biggest star in the spy firmament, the CIA, is struggling to find its place in this new order. The agency - stung by recent reports critical of its pre-Sept. 11 and Iraq war performance - is losing employees to other federal agencies and the private sector.
Meanwhile, the new National Counterterrorism Center doesn't yet have a director and isn't sure to whom it should report. The bottom line: Intelligence-reform legislation may yet fulfill its promise, but for now, patience might be the order of the day.
"I think one of the things that [Mr. Negroponte] might profitably do is to say to all of his constituents, 'Take a deep breath, folks, and tell me how we can help you do your job,' " said former US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh on June 6 at a panel organized by members of the 9/11 commission.
The development of Negroponte as the nation's first true spy czar is by itself a huge change in the federal bureaucracy, and hiring staff has been one of his top priorities. There are now 300 to 350 people working in the DNI's office, with some 700 empty slots. Ex-CIA clandestine officers have been tapped for the key posts of chief of staff and deputy director of operations for counterintelligence. The DNI's top intelligence analyst, however, will be not a CIA alumnus, but a State Department veteran: Thomas Fingar, former head of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department.
Negroponte is a forceful person - he was ambassador to Iraq, after all. But that does not necessarily mean he is overbearing, say co-workers. A government official who worked with him in Baghdad says he can be hard on staff but is generally pleasant. As a diplomat, he had a reputation for being understated. "People are always hanging on the end of their seats straining to pick up any signal or message he sends because he does it in such a subtle way," says the official.
Negroponte's relations with the intelligence community reflect this polite-but-strong personality. He's visited other agencies and held town-hall meetings for their employees. But he has also supplanted CIA director Porter Goss as the intelligence representative at National Security Council meetings, and as the top official present at President Bush's daily intelligence briefings.
As DNI, Negroponte will have more power than any past director of the CIA, points out a recent analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). However, the extent to which the new spy czar will be able to get the intelligence community to follow his lead may depend on a number of factors, according to the CRS.
These include his assertiveness with his new powers, his degree of congressional and presidential support, and his success in making and enforcing budget decisions.
"Whether the DNI's authorities under the new [intelligence-reform] statute are sufficient to meet the demands of effective management remains to be seen," concludes the CRS study.
The group whose recommendations led to the bill isn't taking any chances. The 9/11 commission has reconstituted itself as the private 9/11 Public Discourse Project to assess US intelligence-reform progress. Members say they'll hold at least eight open hearings as part of this effort.
The current reshuffling of the intelligence community isn't exactly marching ahead in crisp order, according to testimony at 9/11 Discourse Project hearings. A proliferation of analysis departments may have put experienced analysts at a premium, for instance. The new National Counterterrorism Center is supposed to report to the president for some functions, and to the DNI for others - and it's already clashing over turf with the CIA's counterterrorism unit. President Bush nominated retired Vice Adm. John Redd to head the center just last week; he has not yet been approved by the Senate.
Getting the FBI more involved in intelligence may be harder than anticipated, as well: In part because many field agents don't want to move to Washington, 200 counterterrorism jobs in the FBI remain unfilled.
Nor has the DNI broken as much bureaucratic furniture as some 9/11 project members would like. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman complained at a June 13 panel that Negroponte hasn't begun building a new culture.
"It's still in the early days, but the job that we on the 9/11 commission were most concerned about ... has not yet been addressed," Mr. Lehman said.