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President Bush Names John Negroponte to National Director of Intelligence

February 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on John Negroponte and the challenges ahead we turn to two members of the 9/11 Commission, which triggered the creation of this new job.

They are former Navy Secretary John Lehman and former Watergate special prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. Joining them for additional insight into Negroponte himself is Bernard Aronson.

He was assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs in the first Bush administration, when Negroponte was ambassador to Mexico.

And I shouldn’t have said you were a special prosecutor. You were a prosecutor, Mr. Ben-Veniste.

Bernie Aronson, let me start with you. Put some flesh on this little sketch that I just laid out of John Negroponte and his career. What’s he like?

BERNARD ARONSON: Well, first he’s a professional. He has held half a dozen of the most difficult national security/foreign policy positions in the U.S. government in widely different circumstances and countries and performed every one extremely well.

And he’s a Foreign Service officer, which means, like the military service, he’s given an assignment. He salutes his commander-in-chief. He carries it out and he executes well.

He isn’t a publicity hound. He doesn’t have a big ego. He doesn’t have political agenda; he doesn’t have his own agenda. He’s a public servant and he’s a good public servant.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think he has the toughness? Have you seen toughness in him, and can you give us an example?

BERNARD ARONSON: You know, when he was ambassador to Mexico, we had lots of difficult issues that came up.

One time we had DEA agents who went into Mexico; they had weapons. The Mexican government was very offended about that, but we needed them for protection. It was a tough issue, it was a delicate issue, and it was important. John helped us navigate that.

Clearly in Iraq, if you look at where we were nine months ago and where we are today, you have to give John huge credit for the most difficult environment in managing an extremely combustible set of political, military intelligence security issues.

So I think he’s tough, but he’s not bombastic. He’s not a head-banger. You know, he doesn’t break china unnecessarily. He doesn’t make enemies unnecessarily.

I think that’s a plus, because in this job, I think he also has to be seen as an honest broker by the 15 agencies that he’s going to oversee.

Because, if he’s not, they will very quickly go after him and leak and look for help in the Congress and undermine him.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Secretary Lehman, let’s talk about this job that you and your nine colleagues helped essentially create.

How tough a job is it? When the legislation was finally written, how much clout was this person given?

JOHN LEHMAN: Well, I think that he was given the basis of authority that he can make whatever he wants of the job. He’s got enough authority. He’s got the powers to bind and to loose in the intelligence agencies.

He really does have authority over setting the budget allocations. He does not have the mandate to execute, to interfere with the chain of command.

But there are two sources of power, as was said earlier in the president’s press conference, in addition to access. There’s the power over the money, the power to say, here’s your money, and the power to say, you’re fired; he’s got both of those.

He can set personnel policy. He can move people, but he’ll obviously have to deal with the secretary of defense and so forth. But I think he’s got all the power he needs to do this integration job.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you see, Mr. Ben-Veniste, as the biggest challenges he has just structurally in terms of the way this job finally ended up being?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, of course, our recommendation, Margaret, was based on an intensive investigation into why it was that that we could not prevent 9/11 from occurring despite the enormous expenditure in our intelligence community.

So this is a job that will require taking hold of 15 different agencies with their own cultures and getting them to share intelligence, setting priorities and mediating differences of opinion.

One need only read the front page of the last week’s newspapers to see that these turf battles continue. They’re divisive. They are ineffective. They are costly, and they can be dangerous.

So in order for us to meet the challenge that we face now, we’ve got to be smarter and more efficient. And this was the basis for our recommendation.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you say, Secretary Lehman, that the biggest turf battle he may have to wage is with the Department of Defense, which historically has had huge control over a huge part of the intelligence budget and has a very experienced bureaucratic infighter, Mr. Rumsfeld, at the helm?

JOHN LEHMAN: No, I think that really has been overplayed. I think that in the past, Secretary Rumsfeld and the DCI, the Director of Central Intelligence, have been able to reach agreement on the overall priorities.

What has happened, the real turf battle has been between that kind of agreed consensus and a program sent to the Hill and Congress, where there have been 80 some odd committees that rip into it for pork barrel and local constituency interests and tear it apart.

We strongly recommended that Congress get its house in order, and I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge for John Negroponte, to really keep the heat on the Hill so that the Intelligence Committee money reaches a deal with the Intelligence Committee.

Then it doesn’t get, as it’s supposed to now, get sequentially referred to six other different committees who tear it apart.

So I’m very confident that he and the secretary of defense won’t have a problem in getting the proper agreement and allocations on budgets. Human has been substantially under-funded, the soft areas of intelligence, just translators, for instance, area specialists.

And while Secretary Rumsfeld has supported fixing that balance, when it’s gone to the Hill, the hardware manufacturers get up there and work the 80-some committees until they get the money moved to fix their cost overruns and to put more hardware in.

So it’s that kind of problem that makes Negroponte such a good choice because he has spent 30-odd years working with the Hill, and he understands it.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get your fellow commissioner’s view on, that about DOD as the 800-pound gorilla here. Do you think that’s going to be easy for John Negroponte?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: I think personalities are a large part of the mix. And quite clearly, in order for Ambassador Negroponte to be able to do the job that we envision, he’s going to need not only diplomatic skills, the assistance of the deputy who was named today, Gen. Hayden, who I think makes an excellent choice for his deputy, but he will need the president’s authority and active support in order for this to work.

It will not work without the president’s continuous commitment to the DNI as performing the functions we expect him to perform.

MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, are you saying you think there is enough ambiguity in the legislation that really, and I think actually Secretary Lehman said this earlier, that John Negroponte will essentially define this job?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Absolutely, but he can’t define it alone; if the president backs him up and provides him with the authority.

And he’s made comments today that are encouraging in that direction, but the proof of the pudding will be in the way this operates.

MARGARET WARNER: So Bernie Aronson, what does John Negroponte in terms of the way you’ve known him, bring to the table in terms of dealing with big, clashing institutional interests and big egos?

BERNARD ARONSON: Well, you know, the embassy in Mexico is one of the largest in the world, and you have every agency of government, many of which compete, law enforcement, intelligence.

So one of the jobs of the ambassadors is to keep them all coordinated, and he knows how to do that. He did that at the National Security Council, too.

To some extent, you’re the U.N. ambassador; you have to juggle a lot of egos and interests and try to bring some consensus on the Security Council.

So I think he has some experience with that, but at a different level. And I think the point that both John and Richard said is correct: If he’s left alone to fight cabinet members who have big egos, big budgets and big constituencies on the Hill, he can’t do that.

The president has to define his authority and power, and if he does, John is fully capable of doing this. John is not going to go beyond the mandate the president gives him.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, some people, there have been obviously a lot of comments today, have made much of the fact that he doesn’t have an intelligence background in the sense of being an intelligence professional. What is your view of that?

BERNARD ARONSON: Well, he has been an intelligence consumer…

MARGARET WARNER: Which is what the president was saying.

BERNARD ARONSON: … in the jobs he’s had. So he knows what the product should be or shouldn’t be. He’s had experience with covert activities on a fairly large scale from his time in Central America.

And clearly in Iraq, I think he’s had enormous experience in a very tough environment in dealing with security and intelligence groups. He’s not out of the community. I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.

First of all, he’s part of a team. His deputy, Gen. Mike Hayden, is an NSA Director and is an intelligence professional. So that’s a good balance.

But, you know, he has to be a reformer also, so I think coming from the outside but knowing the bureaucracy and knowing the product is not so bad.

If he came from within the community, he’d be seen as having loyalties to one agency or another, a captive, but I think John can come in, fresh start, honest broker and hopefully, you know, make some change happen.

MARGARET WARNER: When you all, Mr. Ben-Veniste, were conceptualizing this job, did you think it was important for someone to have a real intelligence background?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: I think you have to know the community, and I agree with what Bernie has said. I think he put it very well.

As a consumer, he knows the problems of what he gets, and he may be indeed viewed as an honest broker coming from outside of any particular agency.

Not an alumnus of any particular agency, and therefore, in a position to assess, evaluate and set priorities. This is an important part of what he has to do.

MARGARET WARNER: In the end, Secretary Lehman, if we look back to your voluminous work, one of the hugest problems was just the lack of communication among all the agencies.

What is it, either in the job, or what is he going to have to bring to the job to actually make that happen?

JOHN LEHMAN: Well, I think one of the things that unsettled me a little bit listening to the president was his emphasis on John being the daily briefer. That’s not what John should be.

Certainly he should have access to the president, but we have a broken intelligence community. It does not work. It is dysfunctional.

It is not providing the president and the top leaders or the combatant commanders with the product that should be made available to them.

So he’s got to spend his time fixing this problem and addressing himself to the reforms and the deal-making and the leadership that’s going to be needed. In my judgment, he ought to certainly be seeing the president daily, but not necessarily doing the briefing.

He should see that the president gets access to the best minds, the best analysts, the people that have the best fusion of all sources of intelligence on a given subject from the national counter-terrorism center, the national counter-proliferation center and so forth.

So it’s really reform that John has got to address himself. I agree with Bernie and Richard. I can’t think of a better choice with the background and the talents that John has had.

MARGARET WARNER: But a big job. John Lehman, Richard Ben-Veniste, Bernard Aronson, thank you.