Who Now Will Read to the President in the Morning?

Senate skids have been greased for John Negroponte to be confirmed as the first director of national intelligence. Never mind that he deliberately misled Congress about serious human rights abuses in Honduras where he was ambassador from 1981 to 1985.

That dissembling enabled the White House to circumvent the congressional restrictions that would have denied use of Honduras as the primary base for the "Contras" – the counterrevolutionaries organized and armed by the US to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

Negroponte’s opposite number in Washington during those rogue-elephant, Iran-Contra days, then-Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, was convicted for lying to Congress but then promptly pardoned by George H. W. Bush, who explained that Abrams was motivated by "patriotism." No less "patriotic," Negroponte had simply been luckier, in that he was not required to testify as frequently to Congress.

Abrams is now deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, and it is a safe bet he had a hand in recruiting his erstwhile partner-in-crime, so to speak – for the top intelligence job. On the day Negroponte was nominated, Fox News Channel commentator Charles Krauthammer noted that Negroponte "was ambassador to Honduras during the Contra War…and he didn’t end up in jail, which is a pretty good attribute for him. A lot of others practically did."

Mornings With Bush

That our supine senators should choose to ignore all this is scary enough. But it is the scene visualized by President Bush for his morning briefing routine, once Negroponte is confirmed, that stands my hair on end. And White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has said that Negroponte’s portfolio will include responsibility for producing, as well as briefing, the President’s Daily Brief. At the announcement of Negroponte’s nomination, the president made it clear that Negroponte would control who and what gets to the president, adding:

"He will have access on a daily basis in that he’ll be my primary briefer. In other words, when the intelligence briefings start in the morning, John will be here. And John and I will work to determine how much exposure the CIA will have in the Oval Office. I would hope more rather than less."

Bush did some backtracking yesterday during his visit to CIA headquarters, saying "Porter Goss comes every morning with the CIA briefer to deliver the briefing. And that, of course, will go on." But the president then immediately noted that Negroponte had not been confirmed yet, raising once again the question as to how much longer the CIA director will have daily access to the Oval Office.

Small wonder that Goss allowed himself just the day before to complain publicly that the intelligence reform rushed to passage by Congress in December has "a huge amount of ambiguity in it," and that he was not sure what his relationship with Negroponte is supposed to be. The president’s remarks have not been much help. He may be waiting for Vice President Dick Cheney to tell him how to sort this all out.

The President’s Daily Brief

Until now the PDB has been not only the CIA’s premier intelligence publication, but also its best assurance of access to the White House. That entreé gave intelligence officers unique, first-hand insight into the most pressing foreign policy concerns of senior US policymakers and made it possible for those concerns to drive both collection and analysis.

I did such morning briefings for the Vice President, the Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Assistant from 1981 to 1985, each of them one-on-one – a procedure begun under President Ronald Reagan at the suggestion of then-Vice President (and earlier CIA director) George H. W. Bush. Our small team of briefers was comprised of senior analysts who had been around long enough to earn respect and trust. We had the full confidence of the CIA director, who, though himself very opinionated, rarely inserted himself into the PDB process.

When I first learned that former director George Tenet had chosen to piggyback on those briefings, hitching a ride to the oval office with the morning briefer, I asked myself, "What is that all about?" The last thing we briefers needed was the director breathing down our necks. And besides, didn’t he have other things to do in the morning?

We were there to tell it like it is and, perhaps best of all, in those days we had career protection for doing so. And so we did. If, for example, one of those senior officials asked if there was good evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and we knew that professional analysts we trusted thought not, we would say "No sir."

But, you ask, "Even if the director had said it was a ‘slam dunk?’" Yes. Even after the director had said it was a slam dunk. But bear in mind that in those days the task was not so heroic. We did not have the director looking over our shoulder.

The president’s assertion that his "primary briefer" will be Negroponte – the man farthest removed from substantive intelligence analysis, not to mention from the sourcing and other peculiarities of the PDB articles chosen for a given day – is cause for concern. Is the director of national intelligence to be super-analyst as well as intelligence czar reigning over 15 intelligence agencies? Will he not have other things to do in the morning?

President Bush reportedly does not read the President’s Daily Brief, but rather has it read to him. Will Negroponte choose which items to read on a given day? Who will do the actual reading? Will Goss be there? Does he, too, not have other things to do in the morning? Will there be a senior analyst there, with career protection, should it be necessary to correct Negroponte when he attempts to answer the president’s questions?

And, with Negroponte as gatekeeper, who else will get an early-bird crack at the president? Is it likely that courtiers/partisans like Elliot Abrams will be there to "help" at the PDB briefings? And who is the president more likely to listen to concerning, say, the status of Iran’s nuclear program?

It is impossible to overstate how much rides on the answers to those questions. Someone should tell President Bush to listen to what his earthly father has to say on all this. He knows.

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).