WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush's (search) nominee to be the nation's first intelligence director promised fundamental changes at the 15 agencies he would oversee and said he would give policy-makers the "unvarnished truth" about security threats.
"Our intelligence effort has to generate better results. That's my mandate, plain and simple," John Negroponte (search), a veteran diplomat and former ambassador to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq (search), told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing Tuesday.
Democrats, still chafed by the botched intelligence on Iraq, said they were skeptical that Negroponte could be the independent arbiter of intelligence the nation needs and questioned whether he adequately reported human-rights abuses as ambassador to Honduras two decades ago.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said Negroponte's 1980s-era declassified communications suggest he was "an ambassador to a different country" and "saw things through an administration-colored lens." He was ambassador to Honduras under the late President Ronald Reagan, when Central America was seen by some government officials as locked into a Cold War showdown.
In his hearing, Negroponte, backed firmly by the committee's Republicans, repeatedly tried to assure senators of his objectivity.
"My punch line is, I believe in calling things the way I see them, and I believe that the president deserves from his director of national intelligence and from the intelligence community unvarnished truth," he said.
Negroponte's confirmation is expected to win easy approval by the intelligence panel and the full Senate, exercising its duty under the U.S. Constitution to confirm many presidential appointments.
That would make Negroponte the first national intelligence director, charged with overseeing the government's 15 highly competitive spy agencies. The job that Congress created last year represents the most sweeping change to the intelligence agencies' leadership since 1947.
Negroponte will take over a spy community that has become known for the bureaucratic infighting detailed by a number of recent official commissions that examined the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the intelligence errors in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Dozens of changes have been proposed.
However, Negroponte frustrated some Democrats by declining to provide an outline of changes he'll make. He said he is studying the commissions' findings.
Instead, Negroponte for the first time laid out his broad vision for U.S. intelligence. He acknowledged that he must bring together "fiefdoms" at the CIA and the departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security. He said part of his job will be to ensure officials are not afraid to take risks against an eclectic array of enemies.
"We need a single intelligence community that cooperates seamlessly, that moves quickly and that spends more time thinking about the future than the past," said Negroponte, who called this his toughest assignment in a 40-year government career.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts said he wants Negroponte to provide leadership and "a kick in the pants when necessary" to intelligence agencies. But significant doubts have been raised whether Negroponte will have enough authority under the law to rein in the often-insular CIA and the domineering defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Nervousness already has emerged about an internal Pentagon proposal to consolidate intelligence activities under a single official, Defense Undersecretary Stephen Cambone, which has been interpreted by some as an effort to control access to defense intelligence.
Negroponte said the move would not preclude his ability to work directly with the defense intelligence agencies, such as the code-breakers at the National Security Agency, and said the law gives him "substantial authority" that he can stretch "to the utmost."
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said he's seen the senior intelligence leaders too often "exaggerate or misrepresent" information to support the White House. Levin has been particularly critical of former CIA Director George Tenet, who called the case against former Iraqi President Saddam a "slam-dunk."
Negroponte, father of five adopted Honduran children, has held the ambassadorships to the United Nations, Mexico and the Philippines.
However, his 1981-1985 tour as ambassador to Honduras has arisen repeatedly as a sore spot. On Tuesday, he told senators his actions there "were always entirely consistent with applicable law at the time," including a congressional amendment that cut off funds for the Contra militias, which Reagan administration officials violated as part of the Iran-Contra scandal.