Bush administration officials say U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte will soon leave that post and return to the State Department as deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A career diplomat, Negroponte was U.S. ambassador to Iraq before becoming the first director of national intelligence last year. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

Though a formal announcement is still to be made by President Bush, officials here say Negroponte will be returning to the State Department to fill the post of deputy secretary of state vacant since Robert Zoellick departed last July.

The 67-year-old Negroponte interrupted a long diplomatic career in April of last year to take the top U.S. intelligence post, a job created by Congress to address a lack of coordination among the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Department and other agencies with intelligence functions.

The move would appear to be a demotion for Negroponte, but the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq is expected to play a key role with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in formulating Iraq and broader Middle East policy.

Former Deputy Secretary Zoellick had also served as the Bush administration's point man for diplomacy with Sudan and the Darfur crisis.

In an informal talk with reporters, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he was deferring to the White House for the announcement of the appointment. However, he stressed Negroponte's credentials and said he would be of great help to Secretary Rice at a key moment in U.S. diplomacy.

"He's a diplomat's diplomat. Somebody who has been an ambassador four or five times over, Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, the U.N., Iraq. Five times over. Somebody who is a close colleague to the secretary," he said. "She has a very good working relationship with him and he is also somebody who has the confidence of the president. So certainly he is a very capable person, somebody of excellent judgment and proven managerial experience."

The move of Negroponte to the State Department would mark a further step in a shakeup of President Bush's national security team that has already included the replacement of Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates as defense secretary.

The New York Times and Washington Post reported Thursday that the leading candidate to be the new national intelligence chief is retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral J. Michael McConnell.

He was head of the National Security Agency in the mid-1990s and before that was head of intelligence for the military Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Still to be filled at the State Department is the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, which has been vacant since the interim appointment of John Bolton ended last month.

Spokesman McCormack said Secretary Rice is also "inclined" to name a new Counselor to replace Philip Zelikow, a close confidante of the secretary who resigned in November.