WASHINGTON — John Negroponte won easy approval by the Senate on Thursday to become the first national intelligence director, a job created last year to better coordinate U.S. spy agencies following the Sept. 11 attacks and other intelligence blunders.
Within 45 minutes of his approval, Negroponte was sworn in at the White House by chief of staff Andrew Card. President Bush witnessed the ceremony. Probably beginning next week, Negroponte will take over the task of giving Bush a daily briefing on intelligence matters, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Negroponte, 65, has said this was his “most challenging assignment” in more than 40 years of government service. The Senate voted 98-2 to give the former Iraq ambassador the job.
In charge of 15 agencies
He now oversees the intelligence agencies that were criticized in report after report for failures leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, and for its prewar intelligence on Iraq. In a statement, Bush said Negroponte “will lead a unified intelligence community as it reforms and adapts to the new challenges” of this century.
Last summer, the independent Sept. 11 commission urged Congress to create a single, powerful director to oversee all 15 intelligence agencies.
Congress approved the new post in December as part of the most significant overhaul since 1947.
Yet intelligence veterans and some lawmakers still question whether the job comes with enough power to lead the highly competitive agencies that handle everything from recruiting spies to studying satellite imagery.
“He’s going to carry heavy burdens,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “I am convinced, however, that he has the character, that he has the expertise, and he has the leadership skills to successfully meet these challenges and shoulder these responsibilities,” said Roberts, R-Kan.
Also Thursday, the Senate unanimously approved the nomination of Negroponte’s deputy, Michael Hayden, who used to head the National Security Agency.
Foes say Negroponte ducked issues
Since Negroponte left Iraq last month, he has met with many lawmakers.
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the two discussed issues such as whether changes already are needed in Negroponte’s powers.
“Reform of the intelligence community will involve stepping on the turf of some of the most powerful bureaucracies in Washington, first and foremost among those is the Department of Defense,” Rockefeller said Thursday.
The Pentagon controls 80 percent of the intelligence community’s estimated $40 billion budget.
Voting against Negroponte were Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Wyden has said Negroponte ducked a number of issues at his confirmation hearing this month. Wyden has questioned whether Negroponte had adequately reported human rights abuses as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s.
“I believe the record of the ambassador’s service there is particularly telling in terms of his judgment and his willingness to confront difficult facts, which I believe are two key requirements for the director of national intelligence,” Wyden said.
A diplomat most of his career, Negroponte speaks five languages and has held official posts in eight countries, including ambassadorships in Mexico and the Philippines. He was in President Reagan’s National Security Council from 1987 to 1989.
While Negroponte’s support crossed party lines, deeper political issues lie ahead.
During debate on his confirmation, Rockefeller renewed Democratic requests for a Senate investigation into U.S. interrogation policy and prisoner abuse.
Roberts said such an investigation would lead to partisanship and consume Negroponte’s energy as he starts the new job.
“I am fast losing patience with what appears to me to be an almost pathological obsession with calling into question the actions of the men and woman who are on the front lines of the war on terror,” he said.
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