Top spy

Recalling his years as ambassdor to Honduras, some worry that DNI nominee John Negroponte will only worsen the trend toward politicized intelligence.

By Julian Borger

Published February 18, 2005 3:28PM (EST)

John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday was nominated as America's first director of national intelligence (DNI), making him potentially the most powerful spy chief in U.S. history. Announcing Negroponte's nomination, President Bush described intelligence as "our first line of defense" in the struggle with terrorists and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

"If we're going to stop the terrorists before they strike, we must ensure that our intelligence agencies work as a single, unified enterprise," Bush said. The president made it clear he meant the DNI to be a figure of real authority, giving Negroponte control over the budgets of America's 15 competing intelligence agencies and primary responsibility for daily Oval Office briefings. "He will have the authority to order the collection of new intelligence, to ensure the sharing of information among agencies and to establish common standards for the intelligence community's personnel ... Vesting these authorities in a single official who reports directly to me will make our intelligence efforts better coordinated, more efficient and more effective," Bush said.

The position Negroponte is taking on was created as a result of intelligence failings before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the Iraq war. He is supposed to resolve interagency fights that contributed to a general air of confusion, particularly between the CIA and the Pentagon, which controls over 80 percent of the intelligence budget.

Critics of the appointment, however, said that Negroponte had a record of putting political loyalty before accurate reporting, and that his promotion would only worsen the trend toward politicized intelligence. Melvin Goodman, a former CIA official, pointed to Negroponte's role as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, when he blocked reports to Washington of human rights abuses by the Honduran government, a U.S. ally in a covert war against Nicaragua's left-wing Sandinista government. "I think of the Negroponte of the 1980s covering up humans rights abuses, and then I think of the role of intelligence in telling truth to power, and it doesn't fit," Goodman said.

While in Baghdad, Negroponte is also reported to have disagreed fiercely with pessimistic CIA reports from Iraq on the strength of the insurgency, and he sent more optimistic views back to Washington. Goodman claimed Negroponte had tried to block cables from CIA station chiefs in Baghdad. "Negroponte is tough enough. The question is, is he independent enough?" he asked.

One battle Negroponte will have to fight is with the Pentagon over the budget. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld does not want to relinquish control over spending on tactical battlefield intelligence.

Negroponte's deputy will be Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, head of the National Security Agency, responsible for part of the Defense Department, giving the Pentagon a strong voice in the new DNI's office. The CIA and its new director, Porter Goss, appear by contrast to have been downgraded with the new appointments.

Patrick Lang, a former head of Middle East intelligence in the Defense Intelligence Agency, said: "The [DNI] position is inherently weak, but if the president backs him, he will have a lot of power. But it remains to be seen whether he can make this job stick." Some intelligence experts doubt that the creation of a new office will solve the problems dogging U.S. intelligence, such as the lack of spies among terrorist groups.

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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