Diplomat's career runs from Saigon to Baghdad

February 18, 2005|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John D. Negroponte, President Bush's surprise choice to oversee the nation's sprawling intelligence community, is a veteran diplomat who in a career spanning portions of five decades has served in international trouble spots ranging from Saigon during the Vietnam War to Baghdad today.

He was at Henry A. Kissinger's side at the Paris peace talks to end the war in Vietnam, immersed in supporting the Nicaraguan contras from Honduras during the Reagan years, the nation's point man at the United Nations as Bush pressed for action against Saddam Hussein and, now, the first U.S. ambassador to post-Hussein Iraq.

All demanding positions, but yesterday, as the president nominated him for the new post of director of national intelligence, Negroponte described the job facing him as "the most challenging assignment I have undertaken in more than 40 years of government service."

Few disagree. If confirmed by the Senate, which seems assured, Negroponte will be asked to impose order on and facilitate cooperation from the 15 disparate intelligence agencies responsible for protecting the nation from a repeat of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The agencies Negroponte will preside over include the Central Intelligence Agency and the eavesdropping National Security Agency at Fort Meade as well intelligence services within the Pentagon that consume the biggest share of the intelligence budget, which is classified but estimated at $40 billion annually.

He takes over an intelligence community trying to recover from its failure to detect and deter the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the mistaken reporting on Hussein's arsenal of banned weapons, which proved to be nonexistent, that propelled the nation into war in Iraq.

Negroponte's long career has included four ambassadorial posts before Iraq - Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines and the United Nations, where he played a leading role in gaining unanimous Security Council support for a resolution demanding that Hussein comply with U.N. mandates.

The London-born son of a Greek shipping magnate, Negroponte, 65, was not among those mentioned as a candidate for the post in the more than two months since it was created by Congress in early December as part of a sweeping post-9/11 overhaul of the nation's intelligence network.

He was not the first choice. At least one prospective candidate, Robert M. Gates, CIA director under Bush's father and now president of Texas A&M University, turned it down and there have been reports that at least two others declined the job.

Reaction to the nomination was generally positive, with Negroponte winning the all-important endorsement of former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean and former Indiana Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, the chair and vice chair of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks and spearheaded the drive to create the post.

In a joint statement, Kean and Hamilton called Negroponte "a highly respected diplomat with the deep understanding of the world," adding: "His extraordinary knowledge of foreign policy and intelligence issues will serve him well in his new capacity."

Kean and Hamilton insisted that for the new director to succeed, he must have the president's "complete confidence and full support," and they said they were encouraged by Bush's statement that Negroponte would have the authority to set budgets for the intelligence community.

Bush took pains in announcing the appointment to head off criticism that the nation's new top spymaster would lack the influence to do the job. He said Negroponte would be his "principal adviser" on intelligence matters, as called for in the legislation creating the post, then added:

"He will have the authority to order the collection of new intelligence, to ensure the sharing of information among agencies and to establish common standards for the intelligence community's personnel."

In addition, Bush said, Negroponte will "determine the annual budgets for all ... intelligence agencies ... and to direct how the funds are spent."

Hammering home the point, Bush, in response to a question, said: "People that can control the money, people who have got access to the president, generally have a lot of influence. And that's why John Negroponte is going to have a lot of influence."

Negroponte did not enjoy universal plaudits. Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, said Negroponte's tenure as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985 raised concerns. "He looked the other way when atrocities were occurring. He was the ostrich ambassador; he never saw anything wrong," Brody said.

Brody was referring to human rights violations committed by a CIA-trained Honduran military unit known as Battalion 316. The Sun, which chronicled the atrocities in a 1995 series, said Negroponte, as ambassador, knew about them and concealed them. Negroponte denied the accusation, saying in a statement to The Sun in 1995: "At no time during my tenure in Honduras did the embassy condone or conceal human rights violations."

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