Spooked by red tape

Who's bungling U.S. intelligence reform -- Bush's new spymaster, or the politicians who designed his job?

By Michael Scherer
April 21, 2006 8:13PM (UTC)
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Spymasters, as a rule, make poor salesmen, being more suited to the shadows than the overbright glare of television lights. Their talents lie in the black arts of tapped phone calls and midnight kidnappings, double agents and classified briefings. Perhaps President Bush had this in mind one year ago when he appointed John Negroponte, a career diplomat of nearly half a century, as the first director of national intelligence, the nation's top spook, who is charged with supervising, reforming and marketing the intelligence community.

But if the plan was to put a friendly face on the intelligence world, it has not exactly worked. In recent public appearances, Negroponte has adapted all the cagey obsequiousness of his newly adopted trade. Hunched and slow-speaking, he displays a terrapinlike charm, delivering each sentence in a monotone droll, as if he has carefully chosen every word to obscure as much as it informs.


But Negroponte has been hitting the media circuit anyway, attempting to rival the fervor of a Hollywood movie star peddling a summer blockbuster. He gave Time magazine an "exclusive" interview this week, granted an "exclusive" sit-down with "NBC Nightly News," and then had his senior deputies give a "rare on-the-record" briefing with various newspaper reporters. Why the sudden publicity push from the commander of America's 100,000-person-strong intelligence community?

To put it simply, Negroponte needs money.

In recent weeks, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been balking at the spy chief's plans to build his new bureaucracy, known as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, into a sprawling behemoth of 1,500 employees with a $1 billion budget. After all, the critics say, Negroponte's office was designed by Congress to streamline the intelligence community after the failures that brought about September 11 and the faulty intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs. "The DNI was going to be a lean, mean fighting machine," said one Democratic House aide.


Under a 2004 law, Congress gave the director of national intelligence responsibility for coordinating and overseeing the 16 government agencies that collect and analyze intelligence. This included some budget authority, the ability to transfer personnel and a clear charge to provide a better forum for dissenting views to be heard. But the size and scope of the DNI's new office was left undetermined under the law. "The DNI's role could have been a purely coordinating position, with a limited staff and authority to match," reads a recent federal report on intelligence by former Virginia Sen. Charles Robb and Judge Laurence Silberman. "Or it could have been something closer to a 'Secretary of Intelligence,' with full authority over the principal intelligence agencies and clear responsibility for their actions." In the end, Negroponte's office was neither, the report found: "The office is given broad responsibilities but only ambiguous authorities."

This confusion helped set up the current showdown between Negroponte and congressional leaders. In early April, Michigan Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced his concern that Negroponte was "putting in more layers and slowing down the process" of intelligence collection and analysis. California Rep. Jane Harman, the senior Democrat on the same committee, echoed those concerns. "We don't want more billets, more bureaucracy, more buildings," she told the Los Angeles Times, discussing her closed-door reviews of Negroponte's operation. "We want more leadership."

In response, Negroponte has launched a public charm offensive, which brought him Thursday to the belly of the media beast, the grand ballroom of the National Press Club, where, for nearly an hour, he stood at a lectern attempting to make his case to the assembled journalists and guests. He began by directly addressing his critics in Congress. "Intelligence reform has not been a theory-based experiment or an exercise in bureaucratic bloat," he announced boldly.


It was a hard pitch, to say the least. Unable to delve into many classified details of his operation, Negroponte was forced to sell the sizzle because the steak is classified. But that left him to talk about the theoretical basis for the bureaucratic institutions he is building, even as he said he was not building bureaucratic institutions as a theoretical exercise. There was, he said, an "ongoing agenda for change" to synthesize the "competing objectives of the intelligence community's constituent parts," which would harness "a powerful integrating force." He then described a seemingly unending stream of acronyms that are doing the people's work.

Take, for example, the new NCTC (National Counterterrorism Center) that integrated 28 systems and conducts intragovernment teleconferences three times a day. The NCTC, Negroponte explained, is different from the new NCPC (National Counterproliferation Center), which works on threats from WMD (weapons of mass destruction) in part by deploying a new biological threats advisor (BTA). Over at the new National Clandestine Service (or NCS for short), intelligence assets have been recoordinating the recruitment of HUMINT (human intelligence) sources, while at the FBI the new NSB (National Security Branch) has begun meeting with the other "Big 5" intelligence agencies, like the CIA, the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) and the INR (the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research). To top it all off, Negroponte assured everyone that he was involving most of these agencies in the presidential daily briefing (known as the PDB), which Negroponte most days personally delivers to the president.


"We have come a long, long way in terms of moving information from left to right across the horizon of the intelligence community," he calmly announced to an understandably bewildered audience.

With all these words in the way, it was hard to tell what Negroponte was really saying, or if his claims of success are reflected in reality. Unlike the Department of Homeland Security, which was also invented by Congress to overcome bureaucratic failures by creating a new bureaucracy, the intelligence community's activities are shrouded in nearly absolute secrecy. Intelligence officials, like Negroponte, have boasted of improved communication between agencies and new processes that entertain dissent, but others in the intelligence world continue to complain about mismanagement and bloat.

Just last month, the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, pointed out that John Russack, the manager appointed in Negroponte's office to oversee information sharing among federal, state and local agencies on terrorism-related information, had recently resigned, leaving his work incomplete. "More than 4 years after September 11, the nation still lacks government-wide policies and processes ... to improve the sharing of terrorism-related information," the GAO concluded.


If there is significant bungling in Negroponte's new bureaucracy, careful observers of the intelligence world point out that the responsibility extends beyond one man to the lawmakers who are now denouncing him. "I don't think this is a Negroponte issue," Jessica Mathews, a national security expert who is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an interview. "The model that Congress adopted was a mistake. It does build a bureaucracy on top of a bureaucracy."

But for now, Congress has yet to turn inward in its search for a new intelligence bungler. The politicians are too busy arguing with Negroponte over whether the Office of DNI deserves its own building. No word yet on whether the planned hush-hush building will come with an acronym of its own.

Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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9/11 Cia Iraq Middle East