The slow road to John Negroponte

By Tim Grieve

Published February 17, 2005 3:32PM (EST)

It has taken George W. Bush two months to find the nation's first intelligence czar, but it turns out that he didn't look far. The president's pick: John Negroponte, who has worked since June as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Negroponte has a long resume in Republican administrations. Before Iraq, Negroponte was Bush's U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and, long before that, a player in the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra days. He served on Ronald Reagan's national security team in the late 1980s. And from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte served as U.S. ambassador to Honduras, where he helped the Contras fight Nicaragua's Sandinista government and, according to a series of stories in the Baltimore Sun, turned a blind eye to human rights abuses.

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee took up Negroponte's nomination to serve as U.N. ambassador, he faced questions as to whether he had acquiesced in the actions of Honduran death squads that received funding and some training from the CIA. "To this day," Negroponte told the committee, "I do not believe that death squads were operating in Honduras." He'll face those questions again -- as well as new questions about Iraq -- during confirmation hearings for the national intelligence director job.

In announcing Negroponte's nomination this morning, Bush said that it comes at a "historic moment for our intelligence services." Bush called intelligence the nation's "first line of defense," and said that his administration is working hard to "stop the terrorists before they strike."

What Bush didn't say is that he and his administration dragged their feet on every step of the process that led to today's announcement. The creation of the job of national intelligence director was one of the primary recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Bush originally opposed the creation of that commission, then supported it, then said later that he had never opposed it at all. He refused to testify before the commission, then agreed to "meet" with its members but only if Dick Cheney could come, too. He tried to keep Condoleezza Rice from testifying -- recent revelations suggest why -- before finally caving in.

When the 9/11 Commission issued its recommendations in July, Bush stalled and equivocated. While John Kerry and many others endorsed the recommendations out of the box, Bush took two weeks before coming out in favor of a watered-down version of the commission's call for a national intelligence director. Bush called on Congress then to act quickly and suggested that the matter come up for a vote in September. But despite the fact that Bush's party controls both the House and the Senate, Congress didn't get around to acting until mid-December. The White House blamed the delays on a few recalcitrant Republicans in the House, but it was also clear at the time that Pentagon staff -- and even, at times, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- were fighting the intelligence reforms on the same grounds that those renegade members of Congress are pushing.

A few more weeks will pass before Negroponte comes up for confirmation in the Senate. As Bush made his announcement this morning, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts said that he will schedule a confirmation hearing for Negroponte "as soon as his duties in Iraq are completed."

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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