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John Negroponte: The year in intelligence

As  John Negroponte nears the end of his first year as President Bush's director of national intelligence, he spoke with NBC's Andrea Mitchell about Iraq, Iran, al-Qaida and the state of U.S. intelligence.  Here is a transcript of that exclusive interview.
President Bush announces his choice of John Negroponte, right, to be national intelligence director Feb. 17, 2005.
President Bush announces his choice of John Negroponte, right, to be national intelligence director Feb. 17, 2005.NBC News

Andrea Mitchell: Ambassador Negroponte, thank you very much for doing this interview.

You've been in office, now, for a year.

Ambassador John Negroponte: Right.

Mitchell: Why should Americans feel safer because all of these different intelligence agencies have been put together under your leadership?

Negroponte: Well, I think first of all, the intelligence has improved, both from the point of view of collection and analysis, and I think intelligence is better integrated.  I think probably the most important challenge that we face is making sure that there is as seamless as possible an integration of our foreign, our military and our domestic intelligence, and that's the kind of work that we've been about during this past year, and I think there have been significant improvements.

Mitchell: Well, the Government Accountability Office, the GAO, has reported that in fact there still is a lack of coordination and they've criticized you for refusing to cooperate with their review.

Are they wrong?

Negroponte: I think that's not a correct assessment.  This is a report that the General Accounting Office did last year.  I think their information is dated.  What they talked about was the state of information sharing with respect to terrorist information, and I'd say that we've made great improvements with respect to terrorist information sharing between the different federal agencies.

Just to give you one example: At our National Counterterrorism Center, which I have made considerable efforts to upgrade and improve during the past year, there are 28 different federal databases pouring into that center on a constant basis.  The director of that center has a three times daily video teleconference with all of the different intelligence agencies concerned with terrorism, to make sure we're all on the same page.  These are significant improvements over the situation that existed in earlier years.

Mitchell: There still is criticism that the FBI doesn't talk to the CIA.  The CIA doesn't talk to the FBI.

How do you get these different agencies to communicate with each other, to share, and —

Negroponte: Well —

Mitchell: — to trust each other?

Negroponte: — first of all, all these different agencies are in, located, they have personnel located in that National Counterterrorism Center that I was speaking to you about.  So that's certainly one mechanism.

Another, as we exercise our role of management and leadership of the intelligence community, my principal deputy, Gen. Michael Hayden, has weekly meetings with the so-called Big Six in the intelligence community, which is the CIA, the DIA, the National Geospatial Agency, and it includes also the FBI, we've brought them on board, so that's one of the ways we make sure that people are talking to each other all the time.

Mitchell: There's still, you know, all these years after 9/11, criticism that we have not really improved our response to terrorism.

Let's take a look, first of all, at Osama bin Laden.  Why, after all of these years, don't we have a better idea of where he might be?

Negroponte: Well, I think — his room for maneuver I think has narrowed, over the years.  I think most people would agree, that he has much less operating flexibility than he did previously.  He's lost his sanctuary in Afghanistan, and I think he's operating from a narrower and narrower corner of space in that Pakistan-Afghanistan border area.

The other point I'd make with respect to Mr. bin Laden, is that he has lost many of his most important lieutenants during the past several years, and I think, in large measure, that is attributable to excellent intelligence work.

Mitchell: We see his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, now, repeatedly, on camera, seemingly able to make these videos, get them out, distribute them, get them on Al-Jazeera and other satellite channels.

How is he able to have that much freedom of movement, and the freedom to expose himself to potential capture?

Negroponte: Well, I don't know how free that movement is, when the most recently released tape, one that was released last week, was produced, in fact, in November, so one might infer the opposite lesson, which is that they had some difficulty getting it out.  I'm not certain of the explanation, but in any event, yes, he is able to issue statements from time to time.

But on the operational side, I think their style has been cramped.

Where are bin Laden and Zawahiri?
Mitchell: There has been some suggestion, in some quarters, that bin Laden and Zawahiri, one or the other, or both, could even be in Iran.  Is that possible, and if so, would we know it?

Negroponte: Well, our best judgment, and — this is an assessment now — would be that they are in that Pakistan-Afghanistan border area that we were talking about earlier, and I've not seen any information that would suggest otherwise.

Mitchell: Bin Laden's sons, at various times, were in Iran.  There was talk that Iran was going to turn bin Laden's sons, and other al-Qaida that were being harbored in Iran, over to their native countries, including Saudi Arabia.

Why hasn't that happened?

Negroponte: Well, it is true that they are holding some of the al-Qaida leadership, to the best of our knowledge, but they have not turned them back.  But to our understanding, they are under some kind of, either imprisonment or house arrest in Iran.

Mitchell: Do we want Iran to turn them over?

Negroponte: Well, if they were prepared to turn them over to either ourselves or the countries of origin, I think that that would probably be a desirable thing.

Mitchell: Let's talk a little bit more about Iran, which is of such concern now to Americans.  We got it wrong on Iraq, on Iraq's WMD.

A year after you became intelligence czar, if you will, why should Americans feel that we would be better equipped to know what's really going on with Iran's nuclear program?

Negroponte: I mean, first of all, Iran is a hard target, there's no denying that, it's one of the difficult targets to cover, but by the same token, we're devoting a considerable amount of effort to both collecting and analyzing information about Iran.  In fact, at this particular point in time, it's hard to think of many, if any, higher intelligence priorities for our government.

So that's the first point.

The second, and this, in keeping with the recommendations of the weapons of mass destruction commission, the Robb-Silverman report, we have created a mission manager within my office for Iran, whose sole job is to coordinate and collate and bring together the entire intelligence community on the subject of Iran, and to basically act in my stead, and have that issue of Iran as her total preoccupation.

She's been to the region.  She's met with allied countries to compare notes on our comparative assessments of the situation in Iran.  But what I can assure you is that a great, great deal of effort goes into seeking to understand what is happening in that country.

Mitchell: Have we had to take intelligence assets away from Iraq and other important conflict areas in order to devote them to Iran?

Negroponte: I wouldn't say that our efforts have been at the expense of any of our other important intelligence targets. One other point that I would make — and you asked me, how can we be sure that we won't repeat some of the mistakes of the past?

A great deal of time has been devoted by my office to the whole issue of lessons learned from the Iraq experience, including dealing with such things as sources and methods, making sure that proper analytical standards are applied.

We even have hired a very, very prominent Georgetown professor to be the analytic ombudsman of the Directorate of National Intelligence, to scrutinize, particularly with respect to critical intelligence reports, that proper analytical and sourcing methods have been used.

Mitchell: To boil that down for the average person, we're talking about not making a mistake like “Curve Ball,” where there was a —

Negroponte: Correct.

Mitchell: — spy, a source that should have been discredited, he was clearly lying, there were early warnings that he was lying, and those warnings did not get to the people who believed his claims about Iraq's WMD.

Negroponte: Correct, and there are three parts of that question.  First is rigorous analysis, and we're doing that.  Second is rigorous validation of intelligence sources, so that you really know who it is you or some other country's service is talking to.  And third is good information-sharing between agencies because if each one is operating in their stovepipe, they may miss information that could help shed light on a particular source that one or the other of the agencies is talking to.

Briefing the president
Mitchell: Is there a new risk from these lessons learned?  Is there a risk that everything will become mush, that the president will never be told this is likely happening, because there's fear of anyone taking a position, and it'll always be, on the one hand, and on the other hand, and no real conclusions?

Negroponte: Well, what I see cross my desk every day, plus what I see, and what we brief to the president six days a week, is certainly not mush.  It's good solid intelligence information.  Perhaps there are more points of view reflected. 

Let's say that there's an alternative analysis of a particular situation.

We make sure that our decision-makers, our customers, get that alternative analysis as well. But, no, I don't think this has been at the expense of precision or incisiveness.

Mitchell: Your top customer, your No. 1 customer, is the president of the United States.

Negroponte: Right.

Mitchell: You brief him most mornings.

Negroponte: Correct.

Mitchell: Porter Goss, the head of the CIA, famously said a year ago that his job was overwhelming and that it took five hours to get ready each day to brief the president of the United States, and since you brief him very early in the morning, presumably that would be an all-night job.

Is it an overwhelming job?  You are —

Negroponte: No, I don't —

Mitchell: — with the president almost every day.

Negroponte: — think so.  I don't think so.  But let me be clear.  First of all, the president is briefed six days a week, usually in the Oval Office, Monday through Saturday.  He's briefed by a professional briefer and then I attend that briefing, and make whatever commentary or elaboration that I might choose to make, or am called upon to make.

But there's a whole team of very dedicated analysts, mostly from the CIA, who prepare these briefings, both day, and yes, at night.

So my own role, while of course it takes me time to prepare for these sessions, I would say it doesn't take an inordinate amount of time, and I think that it's the kind of information that I would want to know anyway, in able to — in order to be able to go about carrying out my responsibilities.

So if it takes me a couple of hours a day to be prepared for the president's daily brief, perhaps one hour in the evening, and then one hour after I come in at 6:30 every morning, I don't think that's a particularly high price to pay to be informed about the key intelligence issues of the day, to have a good idea of what's on the president's mind, and to be able to inform all the other activities that I'm responsible for carrying out.

Mitchell: On Iran, how quickly could Iran have a nuclear weapon?  What would be your worst-case scenario?

Negroponte: This is now an area of judgment or assessment.  There's no such thing as a pinpoint precision from the point of view of an intelligence analyst.

Our assessment is that Iran is determined to obtain a nuclear weapon, based on our study of their behavior over the years, plus the study of intelligence acquired more recently.

Secondly, as we know, they are working very hard on developing an — fissile material through the enrichment process.  We also know that probably the most significant inhibitor to Iran having obtained a nuclear weapon so far has been the inadequacy of the fissile material at their disposal.  That's what they're working on at the moment.  That's what this 164-centrifuge operation is about.

But according to the experts that I consult, achieving — getting 164 centrifuges to work is still a long way from having the capacity to manufacture sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon.  It could still be a matter of years.

In fact our assessment is that the prospects of an Iranian weapon are still a number of years off, and probably into the next decade.

Mitchell: There are some people, particularly the Israelis, who think it's a lot sooner.  How do we be certain as we decide what to do about Iran, that we have this time before they'll actually have a weapon?

Negroponte: Well, I think that's one of the reasons we get assigned such priority to try and understand what's happening in Iran, to collecting information about the situation there.

We compare notes with the government of Israel and other countries on a constant basis.

So yes, this is a very, very high priority, acquiring information about their nuclear program.

Iran and the nuclear option
Mitchell: The president has said that all options, including the military option, is on the table.  We've heard, read about contingency plans, including a contingency plan of the Pentagon to use tactical nuclear weapons.

Do we have a military option against an Iranian secret, buried, potentially deeply buried nuclear program?

Negroponte: That, that's not something that I'm in a position, or would want to comment on.  I think that what I would say, in reply to that, is that at the moment the administration and the international community, as a matter of fact, is pursuing a diplomatic negotiated solution to this question, and that's the focus of our governmental attention at the moment.

Mitchell: Yet the president says that we have a military option —

Negroponte: It's —

Mitchell: He'll reserve it —

Negroponte: It's not off the table, and my understanding is he's not going to take it off the table.  But the focus of our efforts is the diplomatic track.

Mitchell: Could the Iranians be exaggerating their progress?

Negroponte: Well, you touch on a very interesting question.  I think understanding the dynamic of what's going on inside Iran, why their leadership makes some of the statements that they make, is also a very interesting question.

It's conceivable that they are exaggerating their progress, but I don't have any knowledge to confirm that.

Mitchell: Is it harder for us to persuade Russia and China to go along with us on potential sanctions or other punishment of Iran because we were so wrong about Iraq's weapons?

Negroponte: Well, my understanding is that both China and Russia are concerned about developments in Iran. They have sought to moderate Iran's behavior. They've been involved in the diplomatic process. Certainly, they may have some questions, but those countries as well as countries with whom we do share information about our knowledge of the situation in Iran, and we also ask them for whatever information they may have available.

Mitchell: I mean, have we lost credibility, though, because of the mistakes made on Iraq?

Negroponte: Well, I think that anybody who looks at what we've done since the WMD failure on Iraq can see that we have taken those lessons learned to heart.  That's, in part, what this reform process has been about.

I think everybody knows that we are applying as rigorous as possible a methodology to the kind a work we do in order, precisely, to avoid any repetition of past mistakes.

Mitchell: There have been reports that Iran would retaliate if it were attacked, with terror attacks against U.S. targets, potentially even against the United States.

Is — how big a threat is Iranian terror, and particularly Hezbollah as a terror organization?

Negroponte: Well, certainly, Hezbollah is an important organization.  It's a political, it's a military and a terrorist organization.  It has all three different components.

In recent years, they've limited their activity to the Middle East, particularly Lebanon and Israel.  But we know from past experience that — that the Hezbollah have had a broader range of action.  They carried out some terrorist acts in the 1980s in Europe.

We know that even today, they raise funds in other parts of the world, in Latin America, in Africa, and in Asia.

So, yes, Hezbollah is an important, significant terrorist organization, and it does benefit from support from Iran.

Mitchell: Let me ask you about China.

Is China a friend or a foe to America?

Negroponte: I think China is a country with which we have a very important relationship.  I think we want to have friendly — friendly relations with China.

It's also a country that, as we look to the, to this century, is having an increasing — will have an increasingly important role on the global stage.  So it's an important country, it's one that we have an interest in having good, constructive relationships with.

I'm speaking, I might add, as somebody who accompanied Dr. Kissinger in 1972, during the — to Beijing, when we were first initiating our relationships with China, and I would have to say that they've come a long way in those 34 years.

China’s military expansion
Mitchell: Having seen this whole sweep of history, is there any explanation for the amount of money that China is investing in its military operations, in the expansion of its military?  Any benign interpretation of that?

Negroponte: Well, of course it's a country that now has got substantial foreign exchange reserves, they have considerably greater wealth than they used to have, and they are a country of 1.2 billion.  So I think that they are investing in a military establishment that they consider to be commensurate with their increasingly prominent global role.

But I would say that the focus of their efforts seems still to be fairly close to shore, so to speak.  I don't see them — we don't see them ranging far afield with respect to their military ambitions.  I think they are limited to closer to home.

Mitchell: On Iraq, you were the ambassador there.  You're an expert on Iraq.  How close are we veering toward a possible civil war?

Negroponte: I think sectarian violence is clearly a serious problem.  I think it is very important in terms of seeking to arrest that violence and the damage that it's doing to the social fabric of Iraq, that they form a new government as soon as possible.

A lot of work is being done on that, and I'm hopeful that such a government might be created in the near future, and I think that once there is a new government in office, I think that that would be a, an important step forward towards dealing with this problem of sectarian violence.

Mitchell: If they don't pull together a government, is civil war a distinct possibility?

Negroponte: I really — I wouldn't want to hazard a prediction, but I do think it's important to say that it's urgent that a government, a national government in Iraq be formed as soon as possible.

Mitchell: Why can't we find the leader of the insurgency, Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq?

Negroponte: Well, he — there was a near miss about a little more than a year ago.  He was almost captured.  Here, again, just like in the case of al-Qaida, a number of his key operatives have been killed or captured.  A lot of good work has been done in that area.

He remains elusive, but I think his organization has suffered some serious setbacks.

They've also, I think, antagonized a lot of the Sunni population in the regions where they operate.  So they have their share of difficulties.

Mitchell: Are the Iraqi security forces badly penetrated by the Zarqawi loyalists or insurgents?

Negroponte: I think that perhaps — I don't believe that they are penetrated by many insurgents, and I think I would have to say that compared to the time that I was in Iraq, I left more than a year ago, I think they've made substantial improvements in the quality of their armed forces, particularly the quantity and the quality of their armed forces, particularly in the Iraqi army.

Mitchell: I have to ask you about domestic surveillance, eavesdropping.

Why should Americans want to give up their privacy without court supervision, without someone protecting their interests?

Negroponte: Yeah, but Americans are not giving up their privacy, and all of the activities that we carry out are with the utmost respect for American —

Mitchell: But you're asking us to trust you —

Negroponte: — our privacy —

Mitchell: — rather than having a judge —

Negroponte: This is about —

Mitchell: — look over your shoulder.

Negroponte: This is about international terrorism.  It's about connections between al-Qaida and people in the United States.  It is — it's certainly not about American civil liberties or American privacy, and we work with the utmost respect for American civil liberties and — privacy.  In fact, we've got a civil liberties protection officer in our organization.

It's a new position that was created under the reform legislation, and I can assure you that whatever activities are carried out by the intelligence community are carried out under the most stringent and rigorous internal oversight as well as informing the Congress of those activities.

Negroponte and Rumsfeld
Mitchell: I know we don't have much more time, but let me ask you briefly.  A year ago, there was a warning by members of the Silverman-Robb commission, that Don Rumsfeld and the Pentagon would "run over you."

Negroponte: Uh-huh.

Mitchell: Would not permit a new competing organization to take charge of intelligence.  Has Rumsfeld run over you?

Negroponte: We have an excellent relationship.  We respect each other and each other's responsibilities.  We set — we determine, my office determines the national intelligence budget, which in fact funds a number of the agencies that operate within the Pentagon.

This is really a collaborative enterprise, and I think that those who try to portray this as some kind of a zero-sum game between the Pentagon and the office of the director — Directorate of National Intelligence, have just got the picture completely wrong.  This is a collaborative effort, it has to be, but in the areas where I've been given responsibility by the law, I think that we're functioning absolutely smoothly and fine with the Pentagon, and there aren't any other kinds of difficulties that some people would conjure up.

Mitchell: All these years after 9/11, could another 9/11 happen, even though we have created your new agency and supposedly improve communication?  Could the mistakes that permitted some of these hijackers to remain embedded in sleeper cells — happen again?

Negroponte: I don't think you can rule, ever rule out the possibility of a serious terrorist incident, because in intelligence work, you have to be right almost all of the time, and so that's a pretty high batting average to have to perform to.

But I — but what I would say is this.  We're more vigilant, I think we're better prepared, I think we're better integrated, I think the agencies are working better together.

I really think that we have drawn the lessons from — 9/11, we continually work on them, we, we're in a constant process of self-appraisal.  So I think we're in a much better prepared state.  We're much more vigilant.  We're really on this case, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and in that sense, I think we're certainly safer than we were before 9/11.

Mitchell: And what keeps you up at night?  What do you worry about most?

Negroponte: Well, it's the hard targets, it's the international terrorists, it's al-Qaida.  What is it that we don't know?  It's what's happening in Iran, what's happening in North Korea.  Those are — weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.  Those are the two, the key, substantive issues, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.  They are the two countries of greatest concern, I think, are Iran and North Korea.

Mitchell: And are we doing a better job of getting human spies on the ground in some of these places and against al-Qaida?

Negroponte: Well, yes, I think the general answer to that question is definitely yes, and there's a major effort under way, and has been for a couple years, to improve both our human intelligence collection capabilities and our analytical capabilities, and that's one of the major priorities that we have under way.

Mitchell: Thank you very much —

Negroponte: Thank you.

Mitchell: — Ambassador Negroponte.

Negroponte: Pleasure.