updated 4/13/2006 9:34:15 PM ET 2006-04-14T01:34:15

In one year, the Office of the National Intelligence Director has grown from a staff of zero to 1,500, raising concern about whether it is becoming another clumsy bureaucracy as it tries to avoid the intelligence lapses of 9/11 and Iraq.

The reports from the field about the impact of the nation’s first intelligence chief, John Negroponte, aren’t flattering. Turf wars. A bloated management structure. Low morale at the CIA.

Even Negroponte’s allies concede his organization is still trying to get up to speed as it deals with the hottest spots around the globe. Just this week, Iran announced it had begun enriching uranium.

Yet 10 senior intelligence officials sought to dispel the negative narrative Thursday in a rare on-the-record, two-hour session with reporters to discuss the first 12 months since Negroponte was sworn in.

His top deputy, Gen. Michael Hayden, pronounced the enterprise healthy. “There may be disputes about the velocity. There are not disputes about the trajectory,” he said.

Some changes made
Senior officials say they are making changes, and trying to put the problems of Iraq behind them. They concede they are facing more skepticism from policymakers about the quality of intelligence and how they analyze it.

“I have a high degree of confidence that we are not going to repeat the same cluster of problems in the same way,” National Intelligence Council Chairman Thomas Fingar said, referring to the mistakes on Iraq. “We are doing better. We are not yet perfect.”

Fingar said analysts across the spy community’s 16 agencies realize they must boost their credibility. He said intelligence officials are being more careful to tell policymakers as senior as President Bush about the strengths and weaknesses in their assessments.

Analysts are taking responsibility for how their estimates on Iran, North Korea and other issues are used and interpreted by policymakers. “The fact-checking exercise has been ratcheted up a bit to get at the interpretation elements, as well as the facts,” Fingar said.

Code-named ‘Curveball’
A greater effort is also under way to tell analysts the nature of the sources of the intelligence, given the fresh memories of a source code-named “Curveball.” The Iraqi defector led Western intelligence agencies to believe Saddam Hussein had mobile biological weapons labs. That led to a key piece of the botched case for war.

One result of the changes: “All of us have greater confidence in the judgments that we are making and bringing forward on Iran,” Fingar said.

The reforms come as national security agencies are dealing with an ever-complicated Iraqi insurgency. Yet two of the senior officials challenged suggestions that Iraq has diminished the attention on Iran. “I can’t remember even being forced to make a trade-off,” Hayden said.

Congress created Negroponte’s organization after the Sept. 11 Commission released its report on the attacks. In late 2004, Bush signed the law to put one person in charge of the 16 headstrong intelligence agencies.

For some, another layer of management
Yet people who recently have left various spy agencies have complained privately that Negroponte’s new organization is one more bureaucratic layer putting demands on front-line operatives and analysts.

Some in Congress are noticing. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman of California, recently would not sign off on Negroponte’s request for 1,539 people next year.

Harman worries that Negroponte is getting away from Congress’ plan to have one person coordinate the spy agencies. “We were never talking about building a bureaucracy. We were talking about capabilities,” Harman said in an interview.

As Negroponte asks for more personnel, Hoekstra said, “I don’t think I ever envisioned us ... reaching the cap within the second year of the existence” of the office.

Hayden delicately rejects that. He said his staff was given responsibilities under the law that weren’t there before, and he needs people to meet them. He notes that the personnel request includes about 500 people at autonomous centers, tasked to specific issues such as terrorism and weapons proliferation.

Grumbling at the Company
With the changes has also come grumbling. Some of it starts at the CIA, which lost the most clout when Negroponte’s office was created. Its director used to be the head of the intelligence community.

Effectively, CIA Director Porter Goss got a demotion, though close associates say he never wanted Negroponte’s job. The agency has also lost its role as chief provider of the President’s Daily Brief, once a point of pride.

“Clearly, there is an adjustment,” Hayden acknowledged, before suggesting all is well.

The Pentagon, which absorbs some 80 percent of the classified intelligence budget, has been another tough spot. House Intelligence Committee members watched unhappily as Negroponte ceded budget authority over certain classified satellite programs to the Pentagon.

“We gave the DNI a lot of authority ... and yet Negroponte has been reluctant to use it to force change,” Harman said.

Senate Homeland Security Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, remains concerned about a Pentagon directive that made clear three of its agencies — including the National Security Agency — work for the Pentagon.

She saw that as a snub to Negroponte, despite assurances otherwise from Negroponte and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Hayden downplayed any differences. When people say they haven’t seen Negroponte win a fight with Rumsfeld, Hayden said, “It’s probably because the secretary of defense has not opposed any of our initiatives.”

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