President Bush's appointment Thursday of John D. Negroponte as the first director of all the nation's intelligence services gives a skilled diplomat a daunting mission: wresting billions of dollars away from the Defense Department's control. His road map in the post is the huge, cumbersome congressional edict intended to carry out the most sweeping overhaul of the intelligence apparatus in half a century.
Bush said Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq who successfully held the course to elections, will have daily access to the president and will "set the budgets" for the intelligence services. Access and money always add up to power, especially in Washington. The 15 agencies charged with collecting intelligence from spies and satellites have a budget of about $40 billion a year. The new law would trim the Pentagon's share greatly from the current 80% or so. But Negroponte will first have to out-duel the most adept bureaucratic in-fighter in government: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who's more interested in expanding the Pentagon's intelligence-gathering capabilities.
The previous notion that the director of the Central Intelligence Agency could also coordinate the activities of other agencies was little more than a bureaucratic fiction. The Sept. 11 commission demanded the creation of a new intelligence-czar post -- above the CIA director -- when it concluded that a failure to share intelligence weakened the country's counter-terrorism fight. The White House originally opposed the idea, then agreed to it. But when Rumsfeld and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, objected to elements of such a proposal, leaders in the House of Representatives blocked it until some language was changed. The two had insisted that the military receive immediate information from satellites and other sources.
Congress finally passed the bill in December, even then conceding that its language was murky -- especially on the extent to which the director could decide how Pentagon dollars got spent -- and that its effectiveness would depend on the personal power and abilities of the first director. Relying so much on individuals is cause for concern. So is the delay in filling the post. The White House has denied the widely held belief that several potential directors declined the job.
It isn't clear how the new directorate, no matter who runs it, will substantially improve the performance of the FBI, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and kindred bureaucracies. The Department of Homeland Security, established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has shown that moving pieces around the chessboard isn't likely to resolve long-standing tensions between government agencies.
Negroponte's years as an ambassador make him an experienced consumer of intelligence. He served in the war zones of Vietnam and Iraq and, with great controversy, in Honduras when the contras battled the Sandinistas in next-door Nicaragua. The appointment of the head of the National Security Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, as Negroponte's deputy should prove useful to him as he undertakes the toughest mission of his career.