You have to feel sorry for John Negroponte.
As the new Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Negroponte will coordinate the activities of 15 different intelligence agencies. But he begins his job in an almost impossible position: He's responsible for all American intelligence activity in the world, but doesn't have a clear idea of how much power he actually has.
Rumor has it that several candidates turned down the job because of its inherent weaknesses. A few observers are so skeptical that they have privately renamed the DNI the "scapegoat in chief." They think he'll inevitably take the blame for the next terrorist attack, whether it's his fault or not.
It doesn't have to be that way. To be sure, it will be many years before we know how successful the DNI has been. Then we'll we know if he has managed to reorganize the intelligence community in ways that better integrate information and allow for more effective and accurate analysis.
But the groundwork for success must be laid right at the start of the new director's tenure. Turf battles will begin immediately and will be won or lost within the first year or two. The fundamental questions about the nature and extent of the DNI's power may be decided for the next decade. So Negroponte needs to move strongly and quickly to assert his authority over the entire intelligence community. Here's how:
- Pick a fight. Not a frivolous one, but a real
fight. At the beginning of this novel restructuring, when people
(and Congress) are watching, the DNI will have the maximum leverage
to assert his control. He should make clear -- especially to the
Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA
and the FBI -- who's in charge.
One way to do that is through his powers of coordination and control. For example, the DNI has authority to set up new intelligence centers focused on coordinating everything concerning a single topic. The DNI should move immediately to set up several new centers -- perhaps, for example, one to coordinate national anti-cyberterrorism efforts and another to examine Iran and North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons.
And he should use his budget and manpower authority to command the resources he needs. In Washington, where people and money are the coins of the realm, the agencies he is taking them from, such as Defense, the CIA and the FBI, surely will object. The fight to create these new centers will be an important first step in asserting his authority.
- Take immediate control of the domestic information
network. The FBI and Homeland Security have, for the past
three years, struggled to coordinate their efforts, each unwilling
to allow the other to lead. The intelligence-reform bill requires
the creation of a new information-sharing network -- and one of the
most critical first appointments the DNI makes will be a project
leader to make the network a reality. The job needs someone with
stature and experience, to compel the two agencies to work
In fact, although the law doesn't permit the DNI to order other agencies around, he should exercise the equivalent of that authority. Core national intelligence concerns, such as cyberterrorism and domestic information sharing, are at stake. The DNI must (with full public support) assume the leadership role in crafting policy and practice.
- Take control of the public face of
intelligence. The DNI should control the president's daily
intelligence brief and testify about the intelligence budget to
Congress. He also should address public concerns about potential
threats to civil liberties from intelligence community
consolidation by appointing strong and respected leaders to the new
civil liberties and privacy board that will advise him.
Muscles atrophy if they aren't used. That's true of political and bureaucratic muscles just as much as it's true of physical ones. The new DNI needs to begin his tenure with a strong bureaucratic exercise program.
If Negroponte fails do this, if he doesn't assert his authority to its outer limits early on, then he will quickly become just another bureaucrat with little real authority and, paradoxically, all too much real responsibility. That way lies failure -- and a less safe America.
Paul Rosenzweig is a senior fellow in the Heritage Foundation Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and a former Justice Department lawyer.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire