When John D. Negroponte agreed to become director of national intelligence (DNI), the joke was that the only worse job in government was the post he already had, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
That's a stretch, but it captures the difficulty Negroponte faces in trying to get America's turfy national security team to share its toys. His first challenge will be to figure out precisely what the job is. I've perused the 234 pages of the new law creating his post, and I'm still scratching my head.
The law says he will "serve as head of the intelligence community," with 15 spy agencies working under his direction. But the fine print is not so simple -- especially where his power overlaps with that of the defense secretary. In acquiring new spy satellites and other expensive collection systems, for example, the law says the intelligence czar will "serve as exclusive milestone decision authority, except that with respect to Department of Defense programs, the Director shall serve as milestone decision authority jointly with the Secretary of Defense."
These word games were necessary to gain support for the intelligence reorganization from a reluctant Pentagon and its congressional protectors. But they have the effect of making the intelligence czar more of a co-czar or, in reality, non-czar -- because he lacks clear budget and administrative authority.
The rush to reorganize the intelligence community last year was driven by two legitimate concerns: a desire to break down the bureaucratic walls preventing information sharing and the hope that the bipartisan spirit of the Sept. 11 commission could be restored to a battered national security community. Unfortunately, both goals have so far been obstructed.
The capital's supreme turf warrior, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has been pushing to control more of the human intelligence capability that traditionally belonged to the CIA. The FBI has been pushing to expand its overseas operations into CIA territory. The zero-sum game that has too often prevailed in the intelligence community continues, with Pentagon or FBI gains coming at CIA expense. Breaking that selfish culture is Job One for Negroponte, but he may not have the clout to succeed.
The bipartisan spirit of the Sept. 11 commission didn't last long, either. CIA Director Porter Goss seemed to be heading in the opposite direction in his first months -- bringing in a phalanx of GOP aides who politicized an agency that was supposed to be above politics and demoralized a staff that already felt like a punching bag. In the field, CIA operatives are still said to be performing admirably. But at headquarters, Goss has blown off some talented intelligence officers. Compounding the partisan atmosphere, Goss dismissed three hush-hush advisory panels that included such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and Bob Kerrey. The administration has also brought a much more partisan flavor of late to the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
There's a real danger that reforms that were supposed to improve the intelligence process will make it worse. Rather than encouraging the agencies to share information, the new structure may simply add another layer of bureaucracy. That's dangerous when the nation is fighting a war against terrorism in which intelligence is the most potent weapon. The planned National Counterterrorism Center, a key feature of the new law, won't work if the various collection agencies remain balkanized and defensive.
Negroponte's problems can be solved only by the man who nominated him. President Bush needs to make clear that the new DNI is truly in charge -- and give him the authority to make reorganization work. Negroponte is smart and tough enough to make the necessary reforms, but only if the president backs him up. It's nice that the DNI will have the responsibility for briefing the president each morning, but it would be better if he could be certain that, by revitalizing the intelligence agencies, he will actually have something to say.