Who Would Want the Job?

President Bush has finally named the first director of national intelligence even as congressional grumbling about the delay was beginning to rise. The post was created last Dec. 17 as part of the intelligence reform bill.

The White House said the president took his time because he wanted to get the choice right. But he is known to have been turned down by three candidates, including former CIA Director Robert Gates, apparently over reservations about the actual powers of the job.

In the end, he turned to John Negroponte, 65, a career diplomat who has served the Bush administration in two demanding posts, currently as the U.S. proconsul to Iraq and before that as ambassador to the United Nations when the United States was increasingly at odds with the Security Council over how to deal with Saddam Hussein.

The key question as he awaits Senate approval is: What kind of job is Negroponte getting?

The White House was a late and lukewarm convert to the cause of intelligence reform, a politically popular idea that grew out of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

However, the job of director of national intelligence that emerged from Congress was much weaker than the one endorsed by the commission. As originally envisioned, the director would have line and budget authority over the personnel and spending of the 15 different intelligence agencies. He would have the power to cut out overlap, settle turf battles and enforce cooperation.

The Pentagon especially bristled at this intrusion, and the director’s powers were scaled back. Now it’s not entirely clear what Negroponte can and cannot do. Bush described the job as “the principal adviser to the president on intelligence matters” and his agency as a “clearinghouse.”

While Negroponte would not be based in the White House, Bush promised that the new director would have “daily access” and “he’ll be my primary briefer.” The director would also set budget priorities for the intelligence community, a job already done in part by the White House budget office.

Asked about the real power of the job, Bush replied that “people who control the money, people who have access to the president generally have a lot of influence.” There is a real difference, as intelligence bureaucrats undoubtedly were quick to note, between influence and actual authority. It does not appear that Negroponte will have much of the latter.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)