U.S. spy chief urges patience

Negroponte denies accusations of bureaucratic bloat and slow reform

April 21, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The nation's spy chief, John D. Negroponte, defended himself yesterday against critics who say that his first year has produced too much bureaucracy and not enough reform in the Cold War-era U.S. intelligence operation that he inherited.

In a rare public appearance, Negroponte sought to reassure congressional critics that he is trying to meet demands for change and noted that he inherited "about 100 reform tasks" for his to-do list as director of national intelligence.

Urging patience, Negroponte said that he is working to improve intelligence analysis and to guard against the problems that plagued U.S. intelligence operations before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and what he called the "fiasco" leading up to the war in Iraq.

Delivering what amounted to a point-by-point rebuttal during a National Press Club appearance, Negroponte contended that his office is "not an exercise in bureaucratic bloat." He said he had more people working for him in his last three jobs as a U.S. ambassador, the most recent of which was in Iraq. His current staff will level off around 1,500 people, he said, adding that the total number of U.S. intelligence agency employees is nearly 100,000.

The size of Negroponte's staff and whether it amounts to little more than a new layer of bureaucracy atop the nation's existing intelligence agencies are among the criticisms that have been leveled at his office, which was created on orders from Congress as a response to the pre-9/11 intelligence failures.

Reps. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan and Jane Harman of California, the top Republican and top Democrat, respectively, on the House intelligence panel, said this month that they were so concerned about Negroponte's growing staff that they wanted to hold back some of his budget until he could convince them that he needed that many people.

Mark Lowenthal, a former management chief for the director of central intelligence - a precursor to Negroponte's office - said that even with his staff of 300, he thought there were too many "make-work projects." He added, though, that he understands the difficult job ahead of Negroponte.

As proof of progress, Negroponte pointed to four offices he has created or built up over the past year or so: the National Counterterrorism Center, the National Counterproliferation Center, the National Clandestine Service at the CIA; and the National Security Bureau at the FBI.

Some intelligence veterans are concerned, however, that reform is being defined by reorganization rather than results.

Americans have "been sold this concept that if you just get the tight organization, you'll be safe," Lowenthal said. "It is completely illusory."

Members of Congress, along with intelligence professionals, have expressed concerns - which have intensified in recent weeks - that Negroponte is creating more bureaucratic barriers than he is breaking down, and that he has been outmaneuvered by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in budget and policy deliberations.

Negroponte tried to counter that by arguing that he, not Rumsfeld, has "the final say" in making budget recommendations to President Bush, who appointed him to the job last April.

Harman said in an interview last week that in the debate over which programs would fall within the national intelligence budget -as opposed to the separate military intelligence budget that the Pentagon controls - Negroponte had lost out to Rumsfeld.

Burton Gerber, who spent nearly four decades at the CIA, said in a recent interview that Negroponte needs to do more to show that he has the president's ear, adding: "No one has the impression" that Negroponte could beat Rumsfeld.

As evidence of progress, Negroponte said he had broken an impasse over whether to continue an expensive satellite program. He decided to hand control to a new contractor, though debate continues inside the government over what course the revamped program should take.

Negroponte said he had improved the nation's intelligence analysis over the past year, adding, "We can't afford to repeat the mistakes that led to the WMD fiasco" in Iraq.

There is increased emphasis on double-checking analysis and scrutinizing the validity of intelligence sources, Negroponte said.

He said that there has also been progress in the area of information-sharing, often identified as the chief U.S. intelligence failure before the attacks of Sept. 11.

He said the National Counterterrorism Center, which analyzes the global terrorism threat, based on analysis by several agencies, merges 28 terrorism information programs. He also made reference to the government's primary data-merging effort, or information sharing environment, but did not offer a progress report.

In the coming year, Negroponte said, he hopes to make much more progress on data-sharing within the federal government. The spy chief said he wants intelligence officers to serve in multiple intelligence agencies during their careers.

"There will always be controversies associated with intelligence, because it is an activity that by definition explores uncertainties and risks behind the veil of secrecy," Negroponte said. "But we are working hard to minimize those uncertainties and risks for our leaders and for the American people."

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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