When John D. Negroponte takes over as the nation's first intelligence czar, he will confront a set of challenges that could make his last post -- U.S. ambassador to Iraq -- look tidy.
His mission is to tame and unify a sprawling 15-agency intelligence bureaucracy, something no administration has been able to do since the U.S. intelligence laws were written in 1947. To complicate the task, though, he must work under the authority of newly enacted legislation that is vaguely written and has proved nearly impossible to implement on top of the existing $40 billion-a-year intelligence community.
To make the case that one intelligence chief is better than several, he must first answer a series of seemingly simple questions that define the daily work of the intelligence agencies: Who writes and delivers the president's briefing every day? Who supervises counterterrorism operations? Who has the last word over the budget? Who holds hands with the foreign intelligence services that have been so helpful in capturing terrorists since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?
As President Bush described it yesterday, Negroponte is supposed to be the one resolving all these issues. But whether that actually happens in the ensuing bureaucratic battles will depend not only on the diplomatic and power-brokering skills he acquired over his long career but also on his relationship with Bush, said his colleagues and intelligence experts.
If he is perceived to be fighting those unglamorous bureaucratic battles in the president's name, he will maintain his standing against such formidable Washington wrestlers as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, whose department consumes 80 percent of the intelligence budget, these colleagues and experts said.
If he is perceived as distant from Bush, he will probably fail, they said.
"He must have the full confidence and authority of the president to negotiate these turf battles, personnel battles and budget battles," said Timothy J. Roemer, a member of the Sept. 11 commission that pressured Congress into enacting the legislation.
"Because no one has more power than the president."
Bush seemed to recognize as much yesterday.
"John will lead a unified intelligence community and will serve as the principal adviser to the president on intelligence matters," he said. ". . . Vesting these in a single official who reports directly to me will make our intelligence efforts better coordinated, more efficient and more effective."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush has come to know Negroponte in weekly calls from Baghdad. Intelligence experts said a close working relationship is the unwritten key to reorganizing the intelligence agencies.
"This is more about the president finding someone he can trust than someone who has the perfect skill set for the job," said Ellen Laipson, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council and now president of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
Negroponte has never served in the intelligence community and has had only a brief stint at the heart of Washington's interagency battles. But, say colleagues, he has worked closely with the CIA -- in its covert operations against the Nicaraguan government in the mid-1980s and with the huge CIA station in Iraq during the insurgency.
"He probably has pretty good insights into covert action, what it can and can't do," said Duane R. "Dewey" Clarridge, chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force from 1981 to 1984, who worked with Negroponte when he was ambassador to Honduras. "Covert action is not an end in itself, but part of your total toolbox."