Negroponte’s mission impossible

Good luck, Ambassador Negroponte. You will need all you can get if you are to succeed in resolving the turf wars and breaking down the barriers that have led to so many failures in national intelligence gathering.

But as a veteran federal agent who as a young man was assigned to Latin America in the 1980s put it, “if anyone can bring some order out of the chaos, it is this guy.” He went on to explain that the soon-to-be-confirmed director of national intelligence was ambassador to Honduras at the time and “he was an integral part of our efforts to keep communism from spreading from Nicaragua and Salvador throughout the area. This was, after all, the last great battle of the Cold War.”

At first it looked as though allegations that John Negroponte tuned out warnings that the pro-American Honduran military engaged in serious human-rights violations might cause him confirmation problems. But he said that nothing he did was beyond the scope of law or sanctioned policy. He also noted that his role there had been explored numerous times in other hearings without disapproval. The senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, including most Democrats, seemed satisfied.

Since his Honduras stint, of course, Negroponte has had other diplomatic posts _ including his last and maybe the toughest, as the first U.S. ambassador to the “new” Iraq. In his appearance before the Senate the other day, Negroponte promised tighter controls over the nation’s intelligence agencies to generate better results. There are 15 agencies that share an annual budget of $40 billion, and the DNI’s task will be to make them operate as if they were one, a big-time assignment in anyone’s book given the history of internecine warfare.

The Pentagon controls a large chunk of the budget, and there has been a reluctance to share that with anyone else, including the new DNI, who will have budgetary authority that he said he intends to use. Negroponte made it clear he expects to have direct contact with those who run military intelligence, including the head of the National Security Agency, and that he plans to meet frequently with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. CIA Director Porter Goss will report directly to him and he in turn will brief the president on a daily basis.

The law that created this post is pretty ambiguous, and if the DNI is to be successful, he will need unqualified presidential backing. Neither George W. Bush nor any of his top advisers can be in a position of listening or giving succor to those who would go around the DNI, including Rumsfeld. In fact, one of the first issues Negroponte must deal with is what seems to be an effort on the part of the Pentagon to bite into the CIA’s traditional responsibilities with the establishment of new military intelligence field commands.

Of more concern, however, is where the FBI fits into the scheme of things. It too has moved to take over some of the areas once the sole propriety of the CIA by proposing to set up its own network of intelligence-gatherers traveling abroad. Under former Director Louis Freeh, the bureau also extended its own agent presence internationally.

No one has ever quite explained whether FBI Director Robert Mueller or his boss, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, has any obligation under the law to report to the DNI. The bureau is the third leg of the intelligence stool, and it has primary authority over all domestic counterintelligence. If the numerous investigations since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have agreed on any single thing, it is that the failure of the FBI and the CIA to coordinate operations was a major reason the terrorists succeeded in such an improbable exercise.

Until the position of the FBI’s intelligence directorate is made clear and some guidelines established, it is difficult to see how the DNI can have any degree of success. One can’t sit on a two-legged stool. There also is the question of where the intelligence apparatus of the recently created Homeland Security Department fits in all this and whether the center set up there to analyze intelligence also will be reporting to Negroponte.

As competent as Negroponte has shown himself to be in the past, he clearly will need all the luck he can get to keep from becoming just another supernumerary who finds himself abandoned in the White House Executive Office Building.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)