WASHINGTON – President Bush turned to a diplomat nearly two years ago when Congress created a national intelligence director to coordinate the work of the 16 U.S. spy agencies. Now, he's turning to an intelligence veteran for his replacement.
Bush planned to name a retired Navy vice admiral, former National Security Agency Director Mike McConnell, to be his top intelligence official on Friday, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision was not yet public.
The current spy chief, career diplomat John Negroponte, will move into the long-vacant job as top deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The moves come as part of the White House effort to chart a new direction on Iraq and reshape Bush's national security strategy with two years left in his presidency.
Part of the new course appears to be a renovation of Bush's intelligence and national security team. In addition to Negroponte's shift, Defense Secretary Robert Gates took over the Pentagon last month and is expected to bring in retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper as his undersecretary for intelligence.
Bush will also nominate his ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to be the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, said another senior administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bush plans to announce his new strategy for the war in a speech that could come as early as the middle of next week. It had been expected before Christmas, but was delayed.
The administration denied that Negroponte's move was a demotion. The senior administration official said Bush personally reached out to Negroponte to fill the opening for deputy secretary of state, which has been vacant since July. Bush also talked with McConnell about becoming intelligence chief, a position that oversees and coordinates the 16 U.S. spy agencies.
McConnell spent more than a quarter-century as an intelligence operations and security officer and caught the attention of then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell during the first Persian Gulf War. He regularly briefed the two as an intelligence officer for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and is known as someone who can distill complicated information into coherent presentations, said Matthew Aid, a historian who studies the National Security Agency.
McConnell was tapped to lead U.S. eavesdropping efforts as director of the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996. Aid suggested his record there was mixed. McConnell allowed Congress and the White House to slash NSA funding after the Cold War at a time when Aid said the government should instead have been ramping up for challenges posed by cell phones, the Internet and fiber-optic cable.
Yet, on McConnell's watch, the agency also became central to providing intelligence on the war in Bosnia, shipments of weapons-grade technology to Iraq and other tough issues of that era.
McConnell left the government and has worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, a government contractor and consulting firm, for about a decade.
Negroponte has been a diplomat in spy's clothing since he became the nation's first intelligence chief in April 2005, more comfortable in ambassadorial circles than the cloak-and-dagger world.
As Rice's deputy, he no longer would have first chair for a major government department or oversight of a $40 billion budget. But associates said the job of creating a new organization from scratch has had plenty of frustrations, from securing office space to planning foreign travel.
Negroponte has been at the center of Bush's Iraq strategy. He was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations when Secretary of State Powell made his now-infamous, error-filled presentation there in arguing for the invasion of Iraq. Negroponte became the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in June 2004, and was there for the January 2005 elections that Sunni Muslims boycotted.
Soon after, the White House asked him to take a job that others had already turned down because Congress didn't give the position enough power: national intelligence director.
Some doubted the wisdom of creating such a slot, worried it would only further weigh down an unwieldy bureaucracy. Negroponte leaves as the success or failure of that endeavor remains an open question.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., whose panel must approve McConnell's nomination, said he was troubled by the timing of Negroponte's departure because it leaves a void while his organization is still in its infancy.
Rockefeller and the committee's top Republican, Kit Bond of Missouri, both said that a new intelligence chief must be in place before Negroponte leaves. "A premature departure creates an unneeded vacuum within the DNI office at a critical time," Bond said.