Negroponte Pick as Intel Chief a Win for Realists

In choosing Ambassador John Negroponte as the country’s first national director of intelligence (NDI), U.S. President George W. Bush has opted for a hawkish, tough, ruthless realist who could very well clash with more ideological forces in the administration.

Currently Bush’s envoy in Baghdad, Negroponte had never been mentioned as a candidate over weeks of media speculation. The surprise choice carries a lot of uncertainties, if for no other reason than it remains unclear precisely how much power the NDI will wield over the budgets and operations of Washington’s 16 intelligence agencies.

The nominee may also find it rough going in Senate confirmation hearings, primarily due to still-unresolved charges that as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, Negroponte played a key role in setting up the "contra" army that waged war against Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua.

He has been accused of promoting the most authoritarian and brutal elements within the Honduran army to positions of near-unassailable power, and misleading the media and Congress about both actions, as well as about the existence and operations of a CIA-trained military death squad.

"I wish we had found someone less controversial to get this off to a smooth start," former CIA director Stansfield Turner told the Christian Science Monitor after Bush’s announcement.

But Negroponte’s controversial tenure in Honduras has to date failed to derail what is widely regarded as one of the most impressive careers in the foreign service of the last generation. After Honduras, Negroponte served as ambassador to Mexico, the Philippines, the United Nations, and, since coming out of retirement last July, in Iraq, winning praise in each locale for shrewdness, discretion, and effectiveness.

As important, perhaps, in the present context is his association with the "realist" faction within the administration. A longtime friend of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, for whom he served as deputy national security adviser under Ronald Reagan, Negroponte is generally considered to be a pragmatist – albeit one with a hawkish reputation that dates to his work as a young diplomat in Vietnam in the 1960s and later as an aide to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

As ambassador in Baghdad, he oversaw the effective transfer of U.S. policy in Iraq from the Pentagon to the State Department.

With Powell’s departure, an ongoing purge by CIA director Porter Goss of the top operational and analytical ranks of the agency, and the pro-democracy, missionary – not to say messianic – rhetoric of Bush’s inaugural and State of the Union addresses, many analysts have concluded that the more-ideological wing of the administration, concentrated in the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, have a clear field in Bush’s second term.

But that conclusion may yet prove premature. Despite her adoption of Bush’s rhetorical style, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made a series of appointments – specifically Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to be her deputy and NATO Ambassador Nicholas Burns to the number three post at State – that suggest Foggy Bottom will remain a realist stronghold in the second term.

Moreover, the fact that Bush was inclined to choose a realist as his DNI – before Negroponte, he had asked his father’s first choice for CIA director, Robert Gates, to take the job – adds to the notion that he remains open to advice from people who may not necessarily share the worldview of aggressive unilateralists like Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, neoconservatives, and the Christian Right.

That assessment is further reinforced by Bush’s choice to serve as deputy DNI, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, who currently heads the National Security Agency (NSA) and is also regarded as pragmatic and close to the leadership of the uniformed military, another realist, if hawkish, bastion.

The Pentagon, which currently controls about 80 percent of the intelligence budget, has been especially concerned about the DNI’s authority to influence the allocation of the intelligence budget and priorities to be pursued by the intelligence agencies under its control.

"[Unlike] Negroponte, Hayden knows the Pentagon and he knows intelligence," one Congressional aide told IPS. "That will be critical to Negroponte’s ability to exert his control over the intelligence community."

Indeed, the Pentagon largely succeeded in watering down the sweeping statutory powers originally proposed for the DNI by the 9/11 Commission and supported by the Senate as the intelligence-reform legislation made its way through Congress in the latter part of last year. The Pentagon’s success in diluting the DNI’s authority has been cited as one reason why Gates and former Attorney General William Barr reportedly rejected Bush’s appeal to take the job.

To what extent Negroponte can restore those powers – which included the authority to allocate money among the intelligence agencies and hire and fire the heads of those agencies – will be a big test of his bureaucratic clout.

Bush, who lacks a longtime personal relationship with Negroponte of the kind he has built up with Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice, however, indicated in making the nomination that he intends to give him real access.

The CIA’s Goss will be reporting to Bush himself through Negroponte, the president said, adding that "people who control the money, people who have access to the president generally have a lot of influence. And that’s why John Negroponte is going to have a lot of influence. He will set the budgets."

He also said Negroponte will be "my primary briefer," ensuring that the diplomat will get daily face-time with his boss, something that only Rice, as national security adviser, former CIA director George Tenet, and Cheney have enjoyed to date.

The impact of that on actual policy remains to be seen, but Negroponte, unlike some senior officials around Bush, is considered much less likely to shade the intelligence according to what he believes the president wants to hear.

Since he resigned his position under Kissinger to protest what he considered to be his boss’s betrayal of South Vietnamese leaders during the Paris peace negotiations in the early 1970s, he has gained a reputation for supreme self-confidence and speaking his mind in private, even if he hews to the official line in public.

"John is a very conservative, very prudent, and very tough diplomat who plays his cards close to his chest," said one retired foreign service officer who has been close to Negroponte since his Vietnam days. "You can be sure he will be hawkish in policy preferences, but definitely on the realist side of the spectrum."

"If Cheney and [his chief of staff I. Lewis] Libby and the Pentagon civilians tried to cherry-pick the intelligence and send it up to the White House as they did before the war in Iraq, he would resist it. This is the guy who stood up to Henry Kissinger."

On the other hand, his major weakness, according to this source, is his lack of a political base within the administration.

"If Negroponte threatens to quit, it would be a big deal, but if Rumsfeld threatens to quit, it would be a [really] big deal," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.