If he is confirmed this month as the first-ever director of national intelligence, John Negroponte will face many daunting challenges: courting foreign intelligence sources, for instance, and streamlining intelligence gathering to help prevent another massive terrorist attack.
But in the spy world these days another question dominates the discussions:
Where will Negroponte's office be?
If the president places him in CIA headquarters, says one former CIA official, that will send the message that he's the boss now. If instead he's detailed to an alternative site in Tysons Corner, that would send the message either that he's irrelevant, or that the CIA's irrelevant, depending on whom you talk to.
No one actually knows what the plan is, but the answer is beside the point. The real purpose of the Office Rumor is to keep alive the gossip and jockeying for power and endless squabbling that the new position was intended to end.
In its final report, the Sept. 11 commission called the system for sharing intelligence between agencies unacceptable, outmoded and excessively secretive. The DNI is intended to get the agencies to stop hoarding and start sharing. But the early reports do not look too hopeful. So far all the buzz has been about power struggles -- DNI up, CIA down, Pentagon nervous -- anything to give the 15 agencies Negroponte oversees an excuse to give each other the silent treatment.
The intelligence world is a "community" only in the same sense as any high school. From the outside they are united by a common rival. But from the inside they are fractured into finely subdivided cliques that wouldn't be caught in the same room together unless the principal (in this case, Negroponte) called them into his office.
Broadly speaking, Spy High is ruled by two warring factions: the Techno-Geeks and the 007s. Each side thinks the future of intelligence rests with them and the other side is for losers.
"It's cubicle city. Computer guys, cryptographers. A bunch of people listening to inane telephone chatter for 45 minutes at a time. My God, it really puts you to sleep. Believe me, they don't have very exciting lives."
This is the voice of the Football Jock of the 007s: Robert Baer, a retired CIA case officer in the Middle East for 21 years who writes books with breathless titles such as "See No Evil" and "Sleeping With the Devil." That's his take on the National Security Agency, that big top-secret fortress at Fort Meade that is the headquarters of the Techno-Geeks.
Here, now, is the Techno-Geeks' swift and haughty response:
"A CIA agent is someone who gets a lot of glory for intelligence collection, but 85 percent of intelligence comes from the NSA," says James Bamford, who wrote the two definitive books on the NSA. "Human intelligence never produced much useful information. And whatever they did produce was all compromised by Aldrich Ames and Bob Hanssen. They never penetrated al Qaeda, and their intelligence on Iraq was marginal at best."
When they are not rumbling with each other, the two sides are tamping down power struggles within their own ranks. Within the 007s the legendary spitting match between the CIA and the FBI continues to rage, ever more so now that the FBI is encroaching on foreign intelligence gathering. To the moviegoing public they are both guys with trench coats who rough up the bad guys. But to each other they are different species, night and day, Jekyll and Hyde.
As the old joke goes, the FBI guys catch the bank robbers and the CIA guys rob the banks. Both sides can laugh at that one, but beyond it they part.