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Bush nominates new intelligence czar

President Bush on Friday nominated retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell to replace John Negroponte as national intelligence director, while Negroponte was to become deputy secretary of state. [!]
/ Source: NBC News and news services

President Bush on Friday nominated retired Vice Adm. Mike McConnell to replace John Negroponte as national intelligence director, while Negroponte was to become deputy secretary of state in a reshuffle made easier by an earlier resignation: that of Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

“Each of them will do good work in their new positions and it is vital that they take up their new responsibilities promptly,” Bush said of McConnell and Negroponte.

Negoponte called his new job “an opportunity of a lifetime.” McConnell said the threats of today “are moving at increasing speed” and said he looked forward to returning to the intelligence community.

Speaking to the new Congress in Democratic control, Bush said, “I would hope that Negroponte and McConnell will be confirmed as quickly as possible.”

The administration sought to dispel any suggestion that Negroponte’s shift was a demotion. Bush personally reached out to Negroponte, an experienced diplomat, to take over the long-vacant job as deputy secretary of state, an administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bush also talked personally with McConnell about taking the job as director of national intelligence, overseeing all 16 U.S. spy agencies.

Fiefdoms and friction
Under Rumsfeld’s reign at the Defense Department, there were rivalries and friction between the Pentagon and the intelligence community. Robert Gates, who took over last month for Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, supports McConnell’s nomination to the top intelligence post, the official said.

McConnell had turned down requests to be deputy to Negroponte several times, and also rejected offers to replace Negroponte, NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported Friday. He told friends that he changed his mind after Rumsfeld was replaced by Gates.

McConnell spent more than a quarter-century as an intelligence operations and security officer and caught the attention of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell during the first Persian Gulf War. He regularly briefed the two as an intelligence officer for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and is known as someone who can distill complicated information into coherent presentations, said Matthew Aid, a historian who studies the National Security Agency.

McConnell was tapped to lead U.S. eavesdropping efforts as director of the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996. Aid suggested his record there was mixed. McConnell allowed Congress and the White House to slash NSA funding after the Cold War at a time when Aid said the government should instead have been ramping up for challenges posed by cell phones, the Internet and fiber-optic cable.

Yet, on McConnell’s watch, the agency also became central to providing intelligence on the war in Bosnia, shipments of weapons-grade technology to Iraq and other tough issues of that era.

McConnell left the government and worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a government contractor and consulting firm, for about a decade.

The Iraq factor
The personnel shifts in the intelligence community come as Bush is planning to announce changes in strategy for the war in Iraq. That speech — once expected before Christmas — now is not likely before the middle of next week, at the earliest.

Negroponte, who took over in April 2005 as the nation’s first intelligence chief, has held a series of tough posts in the Bush administration and has been at the center of the Iraq debate since before the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. He served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. from 2001 to 2004 and ambassador to Baghdad until March 2005 before becoming intelligence chief.

Democrats taking control of Congress have promised greater oversight of government agencies. The Senate Intelligence Committee, for instance, is planning hearings this month on the intelligence overhaul that Negroponte helped put in place.

Negroponte’s transition to the State Department must be confirmed by the Senate, as would McConnell’s nomination. Both changes will create new openings for the Democrats to debate the administration’s direction on intelligence and foreign policy.

Robert Zoellick resigned as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s deputy in July to take a position with the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs. Rice is said to have approached several candidates for what is widely regarded as a plum assignment, going for months without any takers.

New uncertainty for intel chief
Negroponte’s departure creates uncertainty for the position of national intelligence director, which grew out of concerns over intelligence failures before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Congress established the post in late 2004, following the recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission. Bush tapped Negroponte to set up the new office from scratch.

He brought together experts to focus on how the government collects and analyzes intelligence and helped create new organizations, including the National Counterproliferation Center, which studies the spread of weapons.

Yet, it has been at times a struggle for Negroponte and his staff to corral all 16 spy agencies. Critics have questioned whether his staff of 1,500 is becoming another clumsy bureaucracy, even as it tries to avoid the intelligence lapses of 9/11 and Iraq.

In public speeches, Negroponte has praised efforts across government to strengthen intelligence but also stressed its limitations.

“Intelligence is not a panacea — far from it — but we are making progress in intelligence reform, and that is important,” he said recently.