A Smart Pick for Intelligence Chief?

Bush's choice of John Negroponte could be a signal that the status quo will be maintained -- just when many say an overhaul is what's needed

By Stan Crock

It may be apocryphal, but the story is that when Republican bigwigs got together in a smoke-filled room to decide on a Presidential candidate to run in 1952, someone said, "Let's get Eisenhower." The fellow meant Milton, who was more of an intellectual and had more Washington experience than his war-hero brother, Dwight. But the party elders went to Ike, and the rest is history.

Now, longtime diplomat John Negroponte has been nominated as Washington's new intelligence chief, and more than one person has said that his brother, high-tech guru Nicholas Negroponte, might make a better choice. One of the new chief's main challenges will be figuring out how to analyze the flood of information that pours into the nation's intelligence machinery and synchronize the different computer systems in the intelligence community.

While I'm not sure Nicholas, author of Being Digital and founding chairman of MIT's innovative Media Lab, is the right guy for all the responsibilities the job entails, the computer visionary no doubt has some advice that his brother should heed.


  But all of this raises the question of whether John is the right guy for the job in general. (Full disclosure -- John Negroponte is a former executive of The McGraw-Hill Companies, which owns BusinessWeek and BusinessWeek Online, and I met him several times in that capacity.)

Plenty of Democrats agree with President Bush that John is qualified because he served as a consumer of intelligence. Democrats also give him credit for handling some tough jobs with a steady hand. He held diplomatic posts in such incendiary environments as Vietnam and Honduras, was America's U.N. Ambassador during the Iraq debate, and holds the thankless task of current ambassador to Iraq. The recent elections went off far better than anyone had anticipated, and since Negroponte surely would have shouldered some of the blame had they been a fiasco, he should get some of the credit for their success.

Yet, some former intelligence officials have lingering concerns over his appointment. For starters, if the Bush Administration had wanted to send a clear message that a new day is dawning for the intelligence world, the President would have picked someone from the State Dept.'s tiny Bureau of Intelligence & Research. Its assessments haven't always proved right, but it has the deserved reputation of being correct more than just about any other part of the intelligence community.


  Had Bush made such a bold move, it would have been a slap to the Central Intelligence Agency and the even larger defense intelligence community, and a signal that he backs independent analysis. Instead, the President picked someone who is loyal, the most important trait for Bush appointees. John Negroponte has always been a team player. Is that what's needed now?

What's more, though Negroponte's proposed No. 2, Lieutenant General Michael Hayden, is highly regarded, he's director of the National Security Agency, which oversees satellite signal intelligence, better known as electronic eavesdropping. The new intelligence chief, however, will need to focus on rebuilding human intelligence capability. And the defense intelligence apparatus, which accounts for the vast majority of the intelligence budget, needs overhauling. Will Hayden, a military man, be an agent of change or a defender of the status quo?

The best indicator of the degree of change in the offing, however, may come when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld departs. The betting is that Rumsfeld will leave this spring. Some sources even speculate that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made his departure a condition of accepting her job. Sources have said when she was National Security Adviser and thought a decision had been made, she sometimes would find it unraveled by the time Rumsfeld emerged from the Oval Office the next morning.


  The Defense chief's deserved reputation as a brilliant bureaucratic infighter has been well-known since his dustups with Henry Kissinger in the Ford Administration. Rumsfeld can be expected to prevent any major change in the defense intelligence community's power during his tenure.

His successor may be less adept, which could pave the way for Negroponte to overhaul the system -- if that is indeed his mission. If it is, he just might call his brother to get some ideas about how to do it.

Crock is chief diplomatic correspondent for BusinessWeek in Washington, D.C.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.