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A small change

Negroponte's move doesn't necessarily mean the administration is preparing to unveil a new policy.

January 05, 2007

NEVER MIND THE new faces on Capitol Hill, where Congress has changed hands for the first time in 12 years. The real action is at the White House, in Foggy Bottom and across the river at the Pentagon, where the Bush administration's game of musical chairs seems to be over for now. For all the new jobs, however, there are precious few new faces, and anyone expecting new policies is bound to be disappointed.

It has been a busy few weeks. Today, President Bush is expected to name John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, as deputy secretary of State. Replacing Negroponte will be retired Vice Adm. J. Michael McConnell, a 25-year intelligence veteran. Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, Robert M. Gates has just started using his new "Secretary of Defense" stationery. Gates is a former director of the CIA, where the current chief, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, was Negroponte's deputy until May.

What does it all mean? First, lest anyone doubted it, Vice President Dick Cheney remains a force to be reckoned with. There is no reason to believe these changes in personnel presage a major change in policy, which by all accounts Cheney opposes. In each case, the administration has turned to trusted men who pass muster with Cheney.

Which is not to say they are unqualified. Negroponte, 67, should be a superb replacement for Robert B. Zoellick, who left for Goldman Sachs in July. On paper, Negroponte's move -- from being the nation's top spy to being Rice's No. 2 -- is a demotion. He reportedly had turned the deputy's job down once before, and accepted it this time only after being asked by the president.

His acceptance of the job may be more a reflection of the problems of his previous position than the promise of his new one. The director of national intelligence, a position created by Congress after 9/11 to oversee the nation's 16 spy agencies, has responsibility but very little authority -- almost three-quarters of the nation's intelligence budget is controlled by the Pentagon. If the administration wants the director of national intelligence to have any influence, it might want to consider giving him more power.

The more interesting question, however, is why Bush, acting through Cheney (or is it the other way around?), wanted Negroponte at State. Word inside and outside the State Department for months has been that Rice has been unable to fill top jobs because her choices have either declined to sign up for a stint likely to be best remembered for the debacle in Iraq or have been vetoed as too liberal by the White House.

Negroponte, who has served as ambassador to Iraq and the United Nations, reportedly was the only person acceptable to both Rice and Cheney. That he already had a job was apparently just another detail to be worked out by the apparatchiks in the White House -- and the Old Executive Office Building.

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