President Bush's choice to be the nation's first director of national intelligence promised yesterday that he would challenge, if only in private, political leaders who mischaracterized intelligence in public statements and said he is determined to use his new authority to make the 15 intelligence agencies cooperate fully with one another.
"Our intelligence effort has to generate better results," John D. Negroponte, a career diplomat whose most recent post was U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the Senate intelligence committee during his three-hour confirmation hearing. "That is my mandate, plain and simple. . . . The things that need to be done differently, will be done differently."
Republicans and Democrats on the committee greeted Negroponte's testimony with relief, anticipating that he would start his new job soon and end the suspended animation under which the agencies have been operating since Congress created the post of director of national intelligence in December.
Negroponte is the first person in U.S. history to get such broad legal and budgetary authority -- coupled with a political mandate by Bush -- to reorder the $40 billion intelligence world to better understand and counter the threat from terrorist groups as well as other, more traditional threats.
The position of intelligence director was the most symbolic part of the 600-page-plus intelligence overhaul bill. It was initially opposed by Bush, and many intelligence experts say the law focused too heavily on creating bureaucratic structures and not enough on helping operatives in the field and the analysts who interpret intelligence.
But yesterday, even doubting senators expressed hope. "We need change, and not just a month or year of change, but sustained, fundamental change," said committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). "Mr. Ambassador, the process of change begins with you."
Roberts, who has frequently criticized the law, told Negroponte: "I hope you'll be able to provide leadership and, quite frankly, a kick in the pants when needed" to the tradition-bound, turf-conscious intelligence agencies.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) called his appointment "historic in its global reach and its national reach."
Roberts said after the hearing that the committee might vote on the nomination this week, and that "I think he will be confirmed" shortly afterward by the Senate.
Negroponte gave only a few hints at what initiatives he might bring to the job. He proposed a formalized lessons-learned process for intelligence analysts and operatives, using formalized devil's advocacy to avoid groupthink, "creating a sense of community" among the agencies, and "genuine teamwork between our military, foreign and domestic intelligence agencies.
"I am not prepared to describe in detail exactly how I plan to carry out the job," he said.
Tension arose over Negroponte's defense of his role as U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, when critics say he played down human rights abuses by militias allied with the Honduran government. Negroponte said that "whatever activities I carried out, whatever courses of action I recommended in Honduras, were always entirely consistent with applicable law at the time."
A protester yelling, "We need a truth commission to show the U.S. supports torture!" was escorted from the chambers and warned not to return.
Roberts reminded colleagues that Negroponte had been confirmed for other positions seven times and had gone through nine background checks. Negroponte was ambassador to five countries.
Pressed by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) to say whether he could correct the president or vice president if they made public statements that differed with classified intelligence, Negroponte responded, "I believe in telling the president the unvarnished truth."
He said he would also seek to vet draft presidential speeches "to ensure that incorrect information did not find its way into" the addresses. He declined to say whether he would make his concerns public.
Negroponte was unable to answer some of the panel's questions. He did not know what his authority is under the USA Patriot Act, was not conversant in the difference between clandestine and covert military operations, and believed that the government is classifying fewer documents than it had previously. That interpretation is at odds with the findings of numerous government commissions.
Asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) whether the intelligence community could improve its credibility on such issues as the threat from North Korea and Iran, given the poor analysis it did on Iraq, Negroponte said he was not ready to give a detailed blueprint but listed possibilities, including reviewing recommendations from the president's commission on intelligence. He also said he would expect to be able to specify his ideas after he was confirmed.
Several senators questioned him on his relationship with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Pentagon agencies account for more than 80 percent of the U.S. intelligence budget, and Rumsfeld is known for not ceding turf.
Negroponte said he and Rumsfeld have agreed to meet regularly. When Feinstein asked about a Rumsfeld memo setting up a central coordinator for Pentagon personnel dealing with the intelligence director, Negroponte said: "I see my authority under the laws . . . in no way will preclude my ability to deal directly with such [Pentagon] agencies as the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and so forth."
He also referred several times to Bush, who he noted had "made public assurances of supporting me in these new functions" in his nomination announcement.