New York Times
January 4, 2007
By Mark Mazzetti
WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 — John D. Negroponte, whom President Bush installed less than two years ago as the first director of national intelligence, will soon leave his post to become the State Department’s second-ranking official, administration officials said Wednesday.
Mr. Negroponte will fill a critical job that has been vacant for months, and he is expected to play a leading role in shaping policy in Iraq. But his transfer is another blow to an intelligence community that has seen little continuity at the top since the departure of George J. Tenet in 2004 as director of central intelligence.
Mr. Negroponte had been brought to the intelligence job to help restore credibility and effectiveness to agencies whose reputations were badly damaged by failures related to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and mistaken prewar assessments of Iraq’s illicit weapons. He has maintained a low public profile but provides Mr. Bush with a briefing most mornings.
President Bush has hailed the establishment of the intelligence post as an essential step in helping prevent another terrorist attack. On paper, the director of national intelligence outranks the deputy secretary of state, raising questions about why the White House would seek — and why Mr. Negroponte would agree to — the shift.
The move, expected to be announced this week, comes as the president prepares to announce a new strategy for Iraq as sectarian violence worsens there and approval ratings sag at home.
The administration has had great difficulty filling the State Department position. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has asked several people who have turned down the post, according to senior State Department officials.
But administration officials interviewed on Wednesday would not say whether Mr. Negroponte was moving because the White House saw him as uniquely qualified for the diplomatic post, or because President Bush was dissatisfied with his performance as intelligence chief, or whether it was a combination of the two.
Mr. Negroponte has served as ambassador to the United Nations and to Iraq, and administration officials say Ms. Rice was trying to recruit him to bring more Iraq expertise to her office.
Administration officials from two different agencies said Wednesday that the leading candidate to become the new intelligence chief is J. Michael McConnell, a retired vice admiral who led the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996. Admiral McConnell was head of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Gen. Colin L. Powell during the first Persian Gulf war, in 1991.
Mr. Bush had at first been reluctant to set up the intelligence post, but ultimately bowed to Congressional pressure and made the office a cabinet-level position.
As deputy secretary of state, Mr. Negroponte, who would need Senate confirmation for the post, would fill a pivotal foreign policy position that has been vacant since Robert B. Zoellick resigned to take a post at Goldman Sachs.
The shift of Mr. Negroponte, first reported Wednesday evening by NBC News, reflects a further transformation in President Bush’s foreign policy team that has already seen Robert M. Gates take over as defense secretary from Donald H. Rumsfeld. Mr. Bush still has other top posts to fill, including that of ambassador to the United Nations, left vacant with the departure of John R. Bolton.
Mr. Negroponte would move to the State Department as the administration is preparing a shift in Iraq strategy.
As a career diplomat who also served as ambassador to Mexico, the Philippines and Honduras, Mr. Negroponte brought a policy maker’s perspective to the role of intelligence chief, a post established by Congress at the end of 2004 to address a lack of coordination among intelligence agencies. He took over the job in April 2005, and said in an interview on C-Span last month that he expected to stay in his position until the end of the Bush administration.
Admiral McConnell is a career intelligence officer who is a senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton, an international consulting firm. During his tenure at the Pentagon and as director of the National Security Agency, Admiral McConnell worked closely with Mr. Gates during Mr. Gates’s time as deputy national security adviser and as director of central intelligence, and with Dick Cheney while he was defense secretary during the first Persian Gulf war.
Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine and chairwoman of the Senate Government Reform Committee, was a major backer of the intelligence post, and on Wednesday she said of the reported transfer: “The director of national intelligence is an absolutely critical position. I’m disappointed that Negroponte would leave this critical position when it’s still in its infancy. There are a number of people who could ably serve as deputy secretary of state, but few who can handle the challenges of chief of intelligence.”
Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat who also pressed for establishment of the intelligence job, said: “I’m worrying that our deficit in intelligence will not be corrected. I’m sorry Negroponte isn’t completing his term because he at least understood intelligence.”
Mr. Negroponte’s move to the State Department has been rumored for months. Ms. Rice was pushing to bring Mr. Negroponte in as her deputy, and officials in Washington speculated that the career diplomat might be more comfortable returning to the State Department.
The White House press secretary, Tony Snow, declined to comment on the change. “We don’t comment on personnel matters until the president has announced his intentions,” Mr. Snow said in an e-mail message Wednesday night.
Officials said one priority in replacing Mr. Negroponte had been to select someone who could pass swiftly through the Senate confirmation process. They also cautioned that the choice of Admiral McConnell was not final.
The job of deputy director of national intelligence is also vacant, and the White House is conscious that a long nomination battle in the Senate, where Democrats are now in the majority, could throw the intelligence office into disarray. Helene Cooper and Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.