WASHINGTON — John D. Negroponte, who in 2005 became the first director of national intelligence, overseeing the 16 U.S. spy agencies, will give up that job to become deputy secretary of State, U.S. officials said Wednesday evening.
A veteran diplomat, Negroponte, 67, joined the new agency at a time of growing concern over the failures of U.S. intelligence to anticipate the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and to accurately assess Iraq's illicit weapons programs before the 2003 U.S. invasion. By moving to the No. 2 diplomatic post, vacant since July, he would be returning to more familiar terrain.
A replacement for Negroponte has not been selected, a U.S. official said. But there was speculation that the post could go to J. Michael McConnell, a retired vice admiral who headed the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996. Attempts to reach McConnell, now a senior vice president at the McLean, Va., consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, were unsuccessful.
Negroponte's office declined to comment on why the director would cut short his service, which includes giving President Bush his daily intelligence briefing, for what is considered a lower-ranking position. But people close to Negroponte, who spent 37 years as a Foreign Service officer, said they believed he was not happy trying to better integrate sometimes-rivalrous organizations in a specialty outside his own.
The creation of the office Negroponte is leaving was the principal recommendation of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. It was designed, in part, to ensure that the 16 spy agencies shared crucial information.
Some U.S. officials expressed surprise at the news of Negroponte's departure, first reported by NBC, since only last month he seemed to have silenced rumors that he might be taking the State Department job. In an interview broadcast Dec. 3 on C-SPAN, Negroponte said he expected to remain in his current post "through the end of this administration, and then, I think, probably that'll be about the right time to pack it in."
A formal announcement of his change in jobs is expected later this week.
Negroponte's talents will be welcome in the senior ranks of the State Department, which has been stressed by simultaneous crises in the Middle East and elsewhere and has lost several top officials in recent months. Some foreign diplomats have complained that it has became increasingly difficult to win top-level attention on even urgent issues, except for critical items related to the Middle East.
The previous deputy secretary, Robert B. Zoellick, focused mostly on the issues of China, East Asia and trade. Negroponte, who earlier served as the first U.S. ambassador to Iraq, would come to the State Department as the Bush administration formulates a new strategy for U.S. involvement there.
Traditionally, the deputy functions as a kind of chief operating officer for the State Department, in charge of budgets and policy planning. But in practice, the assignments of those in that post have varied widely, depending on the wishes of the secretary and the deputy's own talents.
One State Department official said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials would "obviously love to have" Negroponte, who "has had about every kind of big job there is. His resume is pretty hard to top."
The official noted that Negroponte had been ambassador to Mexico, the Philippines and Honduras as well as Iraq. He was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations before the Iraq invasion and was a deputy national security advisor during the Reagan administration, serving under then-national security advisor Colin L. Powell.
His new position requires Senate confirmation. That is not seen as an obstacle, even with the Democrats in control of the Senate; he won confirmation to his current job by a 98-2 vote.
John Brennan, a former senior CIA official and former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, said it would be natural for someone with Negroponte's background to want the deputy State Department post.
"The deputy secretary of State position is usually the aspiration of all officers," Brennan said. "I think that's where his heart is: I think that's where his talent is and his knowledge is."
Some intelligence specialists predicted that Negroponte's departure from the intelligence post would not create great turmoil, as he has been there only a relatively short time.
Mark Lowenthal, a former high-ranking CIA official, predicted that if McConnell was chosen for the intelligence post, the spy agencies would find him "very different from Negroponte. He has more background in intelligence. He comes in fresher than Negroponte -- he's had the chance to see how this thing has run without being involved in it.
"I think what's missing right now is a sense of leadership and direction," he said. "After all the community has been through in the last several years -- from 9/11 to Iraq to the creation of the DNI -- they could use a more inspirational leader."
After joining Booz Allen, McConnell initially sought to steer clear of contracts dealing with the intelligence community, focusing instead on e-commerce and Internet security initiatives. But colleagues said he had become increasingly involved in intelligence-related contracts and was recently approached by the Bush administration about becoming Negroponte's deputy -- a position that opened when Michael V. Hayden was confirmed as CIA director. McConnell turned down the offer, but remained on the Bush administration's radar.
Brennan said that if McConnell was given the job, his "objective would be to try to steady the intelligence ship, to continue to have it move forward on coordination and integration, not do a lot that's going to disrupt things or try to put something in place that might not have the legs to be realized under his tenure."
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.