WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday nominated Iraq Ambassador John Negroponte to be the nation's first new national intelligence director.
"John will make sure that those whose duty it is to defend America have the information we need to make the right decisions," Bush said at the White House. "We're going to stop the terrorists before they strike."
Responding, Negroponte called the new job “the most challenging assignment I have undertaken in more than 40 years of government service.” Said Bush, “He understands the power centers in Washington.”
The nomination will have to go through the Senate Intelligence Committee for confirmation. That could be weeks away, a committee spokeswoman said, because Negroponte said he needs to return to Iraq to tie up issues there.
Bush said Negroponte, if confirmed, will have an office outside of the West Wing because it’s important that he be apart from the White House. “Nevertheless," Bush said, "he will have access on a daily basis in that he’ll be my primary briefer,” a job that had been done by the CIA director.
The choice of Negroponte came as a surprise, as his was not among the names suggested in recent weeks as a contender.
However, Negroponte was at the White House two days ago, and was offered the job at that time, NBC News learned.
Confirmed as ambassador on May 6, 2004, Negroponte, 65, had earlier been the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations since Sept. 18, 2001.
Bush said Negroponte's qualifications included the fact that he "has spent the better part of his life in our foreign service."
A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Academy of Diplomacy, he is a graduate of Yale University.
No confirmation problem seen
Negroponte’s confirmation to the United Nations post was delayed a half-year mostly because of criticism of his record as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. In Honduras, he played a prominent role in assisting the Contras in Nicaragua in their war with the left-wing Sandinista government.
Human rights groups alleged that Negroponte acquiesced in human rights abuses by Honduran death squads funded and partly trained by the CIA. Negroponte testified during the hearings for the U.N. post that he did not believe death squads were operating in Honduras.
But a leading congressional Democrat with insight into intelligence matters told NBC that Negroponte will have strong support for confirmation.
Negroponte's biggest problem in the new post will be preserving his intelligence prerogatives from Pentagon encroachments, said the Democrat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had initially opposed creating the intelligence post and only endorsed it after it was clear that it was going to happen.
In recent years, Negroponte was one of the few figures in the administration who successfully bridged the divide between the diplomats led by then Secretary of State Colin Powell and the hardliners led by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Bush nominated Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, currently head of the National Security Agency, to be Negroponte's deputy. Hayden is the longest serving director of the secretive codebreaking agency and has pushed for changes, such as asking longtime agency veterans to retire and increasing reliance on technology contractors.
A military deputy could placate Pentagon critics who fear that the new bureaucracy will become an obstacle to troops in the field getting operational intelligence.
Did others turn it down?
According to one well-informed administration official, former CIA director Robert Gates was Bush’s first choice but Gates and some other candidates declined the post. They worried that the legislation establishing the intelligence job was too vague in outlining its authority, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But White House Chief of Staff Andy Card denied reports that the White House had had a difficult time in finding someone to accept the new position. “I’m impressed with how much bad information people have — that people have been offered the job and turned it down,” Card said. “It’s just not true.”
Even before the name was revealed, White House press secretary Scott McClellan defended the lengthy period of time it took to find a nominee.
“This is a position of critical importance and the president wanted to make sure he gets it right,” Bush’s spokesman said. “This individual will have the full authority to do the job that needs to be done and will have the full confidence of the president of the United States.”
The Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington were the impetus for legislation passed by Congress and signed by Bush, creating the new position. The bill represented the most sweeping intelligence legislation in over 50 years.
The director of national intelligence will hold a preeminent role in U.S. national security affairs and coordinate the work of all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies.
In the past year, the intelligence community has been faced with a series of negative reports, including the work of the Sept. 11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s inquiry on the flawed Iraq intelligence. And next month, Bush’s commission to investigate the intelligence community’s capabilities on weapons of mass destruction is also expected to submit its findings.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell and Norah O'Donnell as well as the Associated Press contributed to this report.