Does John Negroponte's appointment as the new national intelligence director suggest that President Bush might, finally, be serious about intelligence reform?
Nothing till now has signaled anything but the contrary. The president tried to obstruct the creation of the 9/11 commission, which ended up recommending the new post. When a Senate-passed bill creating a powerful NID came to the House, he allowed—if not ordered—the speaker to block it from coming to the floor for a vote and relented only after it was heavily watered down. When House and Senate delegates met in a conference committee to hammer out a compromise, White House aides attended the meetings to ensure that it stayed watered down.
The key passage in the final bill was a provision that the national intelligence director will not "abrogate the statutory responsibilities" of any existing agency handling intelligence matters.
In other words, the NID can't strong-arm the Department of Defense, whose "statutory responsibilities" involving intelligence are considerable. According to Title 10 of the U.S. Code (Chapter 21) and DoD Directive 5100.20, they include the personnel, operations, and spending authority for not just the Defense Intelligence Agency (and the individual services' spy branches) but also the National Reconnaissance Office (which controls spy satellites), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency * (which picks the routes for those satellites), and the National Security Agency (which handles electronic intercepts and code-breaking).
All told, as a result of these statutes, the Pentagon controls about 80 percent of the U.S. intelligence community's budget. This control is what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his longtime ally Vice President Dick Cheney insisted on preserving. Thanks to that key passage written into the intelligence "reform" bill, the new national intelligence director cannot "abrogate" that arrangement.
President Bush said at his press conference this morning that Negroponte would have budgetary control over the intelligence community. You can bet that someone from Cheney's office or the Pentagon quickly reminded the president that this explicitly isn't so.
It took more than two months for President Bush to find a willing candidate for this post. Reportedly three people turned him down. One of them was Robert Gates, who had been his father's CIA director. The fact that he even considered Gates was pretty fair evidence that Bush sees the NID as a purely advisory slot, to be filled by a loyal, respected fellow who has no access to real power—Gates has been out of government for over a decade—and probably no itch to grab any.
Yet now Bush has gone and picked someone who might actually turn the NID into at least a force of influence, if not quite a powerhouse. For the past six months, Negroponte has been ambassador to Iraq. By some accounts, and some measures, he's done a remarkable job, transforming Baghdad's "green zone" from the den of corruption and cronyism—which marked Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority—into a highly professional U.S. Embassy. Before Baghdad, Negroponte was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and, back in the 1980s, ambassador to Honduras. He knows how to run a complex operation.
There are controversies surrounding the substantive policies Negroponte pushed at those jobs—the CIA-sponsored "death squads" in Honduras, the disastrous WMD briefing at the U.N. Security Council, the still poorly run reconstruction effort in Iraq.
But here's the point: Negroponte is no milquetoast, content to shuffle paper on a meaningless advisory board. He's, for better or worse, an energetic, hands-on operator who's not shy about knocking heads. As part of the deal to take the job, it's not inconceivable that he demanded some de facto authority—and that Bush gave him some.