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Negroponte Leaves Top US Intelligence Job to Return to Diplomatic Sphere

The top U.S. intelligence job is changing hands just over two years after President Bush signed a law creating the post. The Office of Director of National Intelligence was established to break down bureaucratic barriers among U.S. spy agencies - a factor, critics say, in the failure to detect the terrorist plot against the United States on September 11, 2001. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, outgoing Director John Negroponte's skills as a career diplomat proved useful in the job.

President Bush's decision to name John Negroponte the first director of national intelligence in February 2005 was something of a surprise. Negroponte's expertise was as a career diplomat, not as a professional in the intelligence field.

But analysts say those diplomatic skills were precisely what was needed for the national intelligence director, whose chief mandate is to coordinate the efforts of 16 diverse and secretive agencies that are often fiercely protective of their bureaucratic turf - a task that one analyst likens to "herding cats."

Fred Burton, vice president for counter-terrorism at the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says Negroponte made a good start at getting the agencies to work together.

"I think the timing and the politics at the time was instrumental to the creation of this position," he said. "Let's face it, you had a situation at hand where you had the two major players, the CIA and the FBI, not sharing information. And someone had to come in to get these individuals to 'play well in the sandbox' and to share. And I think that that has been done, and the level of cooperation at that level has never been better."

The post of director of national intelligence, or DNI, was created in response to recommendations by the national commission that analyzed the terror attacks on the United States in 2001. But as former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin tells VOA, the law establishing the position was rather vague about the extent of the national intelligence director's authority, and Negroponte had to work hard to establish it.

"The law that created the DNI's position was a rather spongy law, in the sense that his authorities were not laid out with crystal clarity," said McLaughlin. "There was a lot of ambiguity in the way his authorities were described. And so he had to assert his authority in a number of areas, in order to establish it in ways that the law did not do with perfect clarity. And I think he's done this."

Now John Negroponte returns home, as he put it, to the diplomatic world as deputy secretary of state. To replace him, President Bush turned this time to a former intelligence professional, retired Admiral Mike McConnell.

McConnell served as the senior intelligence officer to Colin Powell when, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell ran the first Gulf War in 1991. He later became head of the National Security Agency, which deals with technical intelligence and is the country's biggest spy agency. For the past 10 years, he has worked for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.

McConnell says he has stayed involved in intelligence issues since leaving government.

"Fortunately, my work over the past 10 years after leaving government has allowed me to stay focused on the national security and intelligence communities as a strategist and as a consultant," he said. "Therefore, in many respects, I never left."

John McLaughlin says McConnell enjoys an advantage that Negroponte lacked in the job, because he already knows the inner workings of the intelligence agencies.

"Mike McConnell will have a relative advantage because he will understand at some fingertip level how these agencies work and what their relative strengths and weaknesses and comparative advantages are," he said. "This was something that was new to John Negroponte, whose strength was on the substantive side - very strong - and on the management and diplomatic side. McConnell will bring those strengths to the plate here, but he will also have the background of extensive time spent down in the trenches of the intelligence business."

Fred Burton, himself a former CIA intelligence officer, says the combination of intelligence background and private sector experience make Mike McConnell a good choice to be the second U.S. director of national intelligence. "They are reaching back into an individual who has spent a great deal of time in the intelligence community, but also has that private sector experience now," he said. "I think that that is a positive step, in my opinion."

Burton and other analysts say the DNI job remains a difficult one because, while federal-level intelligence agencies are working together better, there is still difficulty in getting them to share information with state and local intelligence and law enforcement officials.