WASHINGTON – If confirmed as the nation's top spy, Mike McConnell will inherit a work in progress — a new agency that is supposed to streamline the nation's intelligence defenses but which has been beset by bureaucratic resistance in its first two years.
House Democrats may push him even further on Tuesday as they seek to enact unfinished recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission, some of them directly affecting the 16 spy agencies he oversees.
Among the changes outlined in a lengthy bill, the Democrats are hoping to improve information sharing within the U.S. government as well as better control black-market nuclear material and curb the spread of Islamic extremism.
Yet the success of the first intelligence overhaul law — passed in late 2004 at the Sept. 11 Commission's behest — is still an open question. And the pioneer of the overhaul effort, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte, is leaving his post after 20 months.
A career diplomat, Negroponte has received mixed reviews.
The President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board has launched a review of how the fledgling DNI's office is getting off the ground, said two intelligence officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the review hasn't been made public. Details of the findings by the senior professionals from the private sector, all chosen by President Bush, are not likely to be made public.
Negroponte's spokesman did not have an immediate comment on the review.
The 9/11 commissioners and the lawmakers who hammered out the earlier intelligence changes will also be watching McConnell closely.
"I look upon the DNI's office as a work in progress," said Lee Hamilton, a co-chair of the commission and a member of the intelligence advisory board as well. "I think we are clearly doing a better job of sharing information than we were prior to 9/11, but we are trying to change cultures."
"It is not a moment where you can declare victory," he said.
A former NSA director who has spent the past decade in the private sector, McConnell takes the helm of the government's spy agencies at a time of change. To prevent future terrorist attacks, the commission recommended creating a central figure whose focus is to oversee the country's spies in their disparate agencies and make sure they cooperate with each other.
The White House was slow to embrace the idea of a single national intelligence chief, saying significant improvements had been made since the attacks. Many in the intelligence world also feared it would just add a new layer of bureaucracy to an already complex web of agencies.
As the first director, Negroponte had to build an umbrella organization from scratch. In the early days, his aides worked out of borrowed space in the White House complex, where even telephones were hard to come by.
Now, Negroponte's headquarters occupies part of the new Defense Intelligence Agency building along the Potomac River. He has a staff of roughly 1,500 across the Washington area and sits down with the president six days a week for the morning intelligence briefing.
During his tenure, Negroponte oversaw creation of the National Counterterrorism Center and National Counterproliferation Center, among other offices.
Last year, a major terror attack against airliners out of Britain was averted. "I firmly believe that prior to 9/11, that those dots would not have been connected," said the Senate Homeland Security Committee's top Republican, Susan Collins of Maine. "That does show value in the new system and increased cooperation across government agencies."
But how much credit to give Negroponte remains an open question. "The system gets credit, and he is part of the system," Collins said. Also on his watch, Iraq devolved into a bloody sectarian war, which has left the administration reeling.
Negroponte will be taking a new assignment at the State Department as Condoleezza Rice's deputy, bringing with him his nine months of experience as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and more than two years as the top U.S. envoy to the United Nations.
California Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who calls herself one of the godmothers of the intelligence reform law, said she saw moments when Negroponte conceded too much to the Pentagon on costly U.S. satellite programs. She declined to provide details on the highly classified programs, but said that McConnell will have to show leadership.
"We delivered the law. I don't think the leadership plate was completely full," she said of Negroponte's tenure.
Another architect of the intelligence law, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said he sees progress in establishment of the new structure. But Negroponte's departure, he said, will slow that down.
"There will be uncertainty," he said. "You have someone who knows the ropes and established the boundaries. A new person is coming in, and they will have to understand and learn what is going on."
The power in Washington lies in controlling money. Negroponte, who took over in April 2005, was preparing to deliver his first budget to Congress. Now, Hoekstra noted, the task will fall to McConnell, who will "have to be defending someone else's work."
As he prepared to depart, Negroponte's office put out a four-page paper saying he had "revitalized, reformed and led the community to better protect our nation."
Collins said she hopes that some of the reshuffling sticks, particularly the National Counterterrorism Center.
"It is up and humming, but it is still at that vulnerable stage," said Collins, who recently visited the center. "Suffice it to say, it is not staffed up yet."
Among the challenges she said remain for McConnell: finding enough experienced intelligence analysts in an environment where they are in high demand.
That predicament, Harman said, leaves U.S. policymakers with inadequate assessments of situations around the world.
"We still don't fully understand the insurgency in Iraq. If we did, our troops wouldn't be blowing up on a daily basis," she said. "We can't predict if North Korea will test (a nuclear device) again. We can't predict the intentions of Iran."
She added: "While I think we are doing better, I think there is a way to go."