John Negroponte — Policy Hack or Intelligence Reformer?

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte (right) speaks at a press conference with President Bush

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte (right) speaks at a press conference with President Bush last month. (Photo: Tim Sloan / AFP-Getty Images)

The C.I.A. has long been caught in the crossfire from the left and the right. Human rights critics and left-center internationalists have charged that the C.I.A. has engineered coups and trained paramilitary units. On its right flank, the agency has been accused by militarists, old guard conservatives, and neoconservatives of dangerously underestimating threats to United States national security and of being permeated with liberals, Arabists, and socialists.

The C.I.A. has also faced fire from forces inside government that have been critical of the C.I.A.’s “threat assessments” and “national intelligence estimates” — including militarists in Congress and the Pentagon, other intelligence agencies such as the National Reconnaissance Office, and even the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Hawks inside and outside the administration have, since the late 1940’s, teamed up in campaigns to emasculate, sideline, and control the C.I.A.

At the start of the second Bush administration, hawks — in Congress, the neocon think tanks, and the Pentagon — can point to two major achievements in their campaign to seize command of the government’s intelligence apparatus. First was the appointment of Porter Goss, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a longtime ally of Vice President Dick Cheney, to head the C.I.A. and direct its reform. Second was the nomination of John Negroponte to be the first Director of National Intelligence (D.N.I.).

The Negroponte appointment, preceded by that of Goss, signaled the end of the C.I.A.’s dominant position among the government’s 15 intelligence agencies. A diplomat with a four-decade history as a ruthless and highly effective foreign policy operative, Negroponte has most recently served as the ambassador to Iraq. Negroponte, who received quick Senate confirmation for his positions in Iraq and at the United Nations, can count on bipartisan support for his latest nomination.

Announcing the nomination on February 17, President Bush said that Negroponte will be the official who ensures that “our intelligence officials work as a single, unified enterprise.” As a result of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act passed by Congress in late 2004, the newly created office of D.N.I. — with a staff of 500 — will exercise oversight over the budgets of the diverse intelligence agencies.

C.I.A.’s Skeleton

The appointment of Negroponte brings to an end the 58-year history of the Director of Central Intelligence (D.C.I.) as the presumed top intelligence chief. Since the creation of the C.I.A. at the onset of the Cold War, the authority of the D.C.I. has been unclear. The chief of the C.I.A. has also been the government’s central intelligence director.

Only on rare occasions (notably during Allen Dulles’ tenure from 1953-61) has the D.C.I. exercised control over the Pentagon’s intelligence agencies. The authority of most C.I.A. chiefs hasn’t extended beyond the C.I.A. itself, although the C.I.A. director has — as D.C.I. — been responsible for providing the president with his Daily Intelligence Briefing.

The D.N.I. is the director of all intelligence offices, including the C.I.A. and those under the purview of the State Department and the Defense Department. According to the president, Negroponte in his new position will “report directly to me” and “will make our intelligence efforts better coordinated, more efficient, and more effective.”

Creating a unified and efficient intelligence apparatus will be a major challenge given the turf wars that proliferated during the Bush’s first term.

These interagency disputes ranged from the creation of new intelligence operations tightly controlled by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (and other ideological allies among the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, including Stephen Cambone, Paul Wolfowitz, and Douglas Feith), to the sidelining of the State Department and the C.I.A. by the Pentagon, White House, and Vice President’s Office, and the alliance between congressional hawks and the Pentagon to successfully modify the intelligence reform bill so as to reduce the power of the D.N.I. over the Pentagon.

Negroponte’s deputy will be Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, who directs the Pentagon’s National Security Agency — which is dedicated to satellite and other high-tech espionage. The Pentagon controls 80 percent of the United States government’s intelligence budget, which is estimated to exceed $40 billion annually.

Presumably, Hayden’s new position at the D.N.I. office will result in a further downsizing — and perhaps collapse — of the C.I.A.’s own science and technology division. As an active-duty officer, Air Force Lt. Gen. Hayden will presumably help Negroponte ease the tensions that have kept the armed forces, the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, and the State Department at odds with one another, especially over Iraq policy.

Negroponte’s appointment came on the heels of Rumsfeld’s announcement that the Pentagon will allow the military to organize highly classified squads to collect intelligence overseas. The Defense Department will also use its newly gained congressional authority to recruit foreign agents in the field, thereby eroding the C.I.A.’s own authority over human intelligence operations.

The appointment of Negroponte as D.N.I. comes at a time when new C.I.A. chief Goss has signaled that he intends to rid the agency of those who do not fall into line with Bush administration policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, leading some high officials to leave the agency and to widespread morale problems. In the view of one former intelligence official, “The C.I.A. is a wounded gazelle on the African plain. It’s a pile of bleached bones.”

Negroponte Not a Neocon

Negroponte is not an ideologue, and certainly not a neoconservative. Since the 1960’s Ambassador Negroponte has earned a reputation as a ruthless and determined political operative who always gets the job done — however “dirty” or undiplomatic. Unlike most of President Bush’s foreign policy team, Negroponte has no direct connections with the network of conservative policy institutes, think tanks, or foundations that have set the administration’s foreign and domestic policy agenda.

Not a theorist or strategist, Negroponte instead is commonly regarded as a pragmatic realist with decidedly hawkish inclinations. Negroponte has throughout his career maintained a low public profile despite his high-profile positions — rarely writing or speaking about United States foreign or military policy, apart from diplomatically worded statements issued by his office. Ever the flexible diplomat, Negroponte has proved comfortable in adopting whatever foreign policy language — from idealist to realist — is deemed most appropriate and effective for the job he has been assigned.

Negroponte, 65, comes well prepared to his new position, after having served as a junior officer in Vietnam during the war, and as ambassador to the Philippines, Honduras, Mexico, the United Nations, and most recently Iraq.

Over the past four decades, Negroponte has moved around the globe doing whatever is required to further what successive United States administrations have defined as United States economic interests and national security — including such diverse roles as advising the puppet United States government in South Vietnam during the war, supervising the Reagan administration use of Honduras as its logistical center for the counterinsurgency and counterrevolutionary campaigns in Central America, ensuring good United States-Mexico relations during the Nafta negotiations, managing relations with United Nations Security Council members in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and overseeing United States nation-building and counterinsurgency operations in the lead-up to the Iraq elections in January 2005.

Tough Yes, But Independent?

Negroponte comes to the new position with many assets, including his wide experience and his many accomplishments in implementing diverse United States foreign and military policy strategies. There is, however, a major difference between being an effective instrument of bad United States policy and providing good intelligence for good policymaking.

Critics charge that Negroponte has — both as a member of the National Security Council and during his various ambassadorships — covered up damaging information so as to further bad policies. Melvin Goodman, a former C.I.A. official, warned: “Negroponte is tough enough. The question is: Is he independent enough?” Referring to his history of covering up human rights abuses in Honduras , Goodman said: “I think of the role of intelligence in telling truth to power” and then Negroponte’s appointment “doesn’t fit.”

The potential power of the new intelligence czar will likely be determined by how well he works with the inner circle of the foreign policy team. This team — led by Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz — dominated the national security, foreign policy, and intelligence policies of the first Bush administration.

If Negroponte attempts to assert his independence, he may face strong opposition that could undermine the potential power of the D.N.I.’s office and weaken his influence over and access to the president. In close collaboration with its congressional allies, the Pentagon successfully blocked the original intelligence reform bill that would have given the D.N.I. complete control over the budgets and personnel of military intelligence agencies.

One sign of the power of the new D.N.I. office will be Negroponte’s ability to assert control over the budgets and directors of the various intelligence agencies, particularly those that reside within the Pentagon and the rump intelligence operations created by Rumsfeld and associates.

But it will be his independence as an arbiter of good intelligence, not his ability to assert power over the policy process, that will determine if Negroponte is really a director of national intelligence — or instead just another policy hack turning out daily intelligence briefings and national intelligence estimates that serve predetermined policy agendas.

Originally published March 1, 2005. Tom Barry is policy director of the International Relations Center, online at, and director of the I.R.C.’s Right Web program.