Q&A: John Negroponte
U.S. News's David E. Kaplan and Kevin Whitelaw met with Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte in early October in his office, which overlooks the Potomac River and the Washington Monument on Bolling Air Force Base. The veteran diplomat became the nation's first DNI in April 2005. Before that, he served as the U.S. ambassador to four countries, including Iraq, and to the United Nations.
What is your vision for where you're trying to go with your reform efforts?
The vision is to integrate foreign, domestic, and military intelligence so as to protect the homeland and United States interests and allies abroad. I think that in a nutshell is kind of our mission statement. And frankly, I think it's all about integration, and I think it's all about information sharing.
What does a 21st-century U.S. intelligence community look like?
Well, let me maybe not be so ambitious as to talk about the entire 21st century, but what should it look like in light of current circumstances and into the medium term. I think, first of all, you've got to recognize that each of these individual intelligence disciplines, whether it's human intelligence or geospatial intelligence or signals intelligence, can't operate on their own. I think we've always been aware of that, but I think it's been accentuated and highlighted more by advances in modern technology and the realization of what can be accomplished when these intelligence disciplines operate in an integrated fashion. And I think technology is our friend in this, and I think technology is actually helping drive us toward greater cooperation. So rather than believing that these different agencies and the people who manage these different intelligence disciplines resist integration, I would submit to you that they all see the logic of better cooperation, better information sharing, and better coordination between them.
Just to cite one example, there's no way on earth that [Iraqi militant] Abu Musab Zarqawi could have been killed if it had not been for the integration of intelligence disciplines. You've seen the accounts of how he was gotten.
Was there something qualitatively different in the hunt for Zarqawi that wouldn't have happened a few years ago?
I think the integration is much farther along than it ever was before. We used to think of [the National Security Agency] as a national intelligence asset that tended to be, you know, behind the lines and playing an important, but supportive, role from a certain distance from the tactical battlefield. But now, one of the interesting developments, I think, in modern intelligence is that the strategic and the tactical, the distinctions sometimes are blurred, and in actual fact, now we deploy some of these capabilities much farther forward than we used to. So, I think there is a big difference and that coordination has just been perfected, I guess, might be the word.
Is there something in particular you're thinking about in the way the Zarqawi operation worked?
Well, I don't have tidbits about how these things happen, but clearly, there was signals intelligence, there was human intelligence, there was geospatial intelligence. Plus there was cooperation between more than one intelligence service. So, I think you had integration in various ways. Not only within ourselves but also with foreign liaison partners.
What single change has made the biggest difference in your 18 months?
Well, first, let me say this is a work in progress. This is a longer-term issue, and I don't think anybody, when they passed the legislation, expected instantaneous results. We're talking about a large enterprise. It's a little bit like moving a very large crude oil carrier and changing its directionit takes time, and it's got to be done in a systematic way.
So, this is just by way of saying I think expectations about results need to be measured. But I think what I would say is, first of all, the National Counterterrorism Center. There was not as much agreement prior to the creation of the DNI, and prior to the time that I came here, about how federal intelligence information should be fused, analyzed, and shared. That is much clearer now than it was two years ago. And I think Adm. [Scott] Redd has done an extremely good job at building up the capabilities of the National Counterterrorism Center and that the government as a whole has come more and more to see it as a focal point for that kind of intelligence analysis.
Any other initiatives that you put at the top of your list?
A lot of then are medium- and long-term efforts, but I would say the creation of the National Security Branch of the FBIthat is a real initiative and a real innovation. That's not just a marginal change. It's an effort to respond to the observation that was made by many in the wake of 9/11 that the culture of the FBI was focused pretty much exclusively on the law enforcementmaking casesand that intelligence needed to be emphasized more in the work of the FBI. How do you change that culture? The decision was adopted to create the National Security Branch, merging counterintelligence and intelligence operations and counterterrorism operations within the FBI, and to reward the intelligence career track within the FBI much more than was the case before. So, incentives have been put into their personnel system to make that a more rewarding avenue for FBI careers.
Are you encouraged about what's going on at the FBI?
Very. Very. Now they are part of our group of the Big Six intel agencies that meet every week under leadership of my principal deputy. They've done a lot to improve human intelligence training standards. I'm sure that [Deputy DNI] Mary Margaret Graham mentioned to you that we've created a human intelligence management office over in the CIA to help encourage uniform, high standards of training and tradecraft in the human intelligence area, and the FBI has bought into that. I think that [CIA director and former deputy DNI] Mike Hayden's phrase used to be "spaces between case," right? The idea of not only focusing on the criminal cases but on trying to improve our situational awareness here inside of our country.
When you took this job the skepticism was not about you but about the agencies and the culture inside the agencies. The CIA had been tough to reform in the past; it had resisted a lot of these efforts. A lot of people felt there was no way the FBI can change. Do you still encounter elements of that as you go through this?
Well, there are cultural issuesthey need to be workedthat range from security practices and practices with respect to security clearances to the way we go about sharing information with other countries; how to share information or release it to other countries without prejudicing sources and methods; so on and so forth. Intelligence has a long history, and people have their ways of doing things. Our objective here is not to undermine these strong traditions.
I think what we want to do, though, is find the commonalitiesfind the points where people can work in commonand really try to empower each and every one of them to even better be able to do their work and try to convince them that through sharing information across the community as a whole, through working together, they can further empower themselves, more than they were before. And I think that's catching on, I really do. I think we're getting traction.
What is the single toughest beast that you have to tackle?
Well, I think the toughest beast remains getting good, reliable information about the hardest targets, whether it's North Korea or Iran or counterproliferation or counterterrorism. When you're thinking about what's a big challenge for us, you've got to focus on, well, what is the product that we want to get as a result of all of this investment we make in our intelligence apparatus? And clearly what we want is reliable, good information about what is going on with respect to these different situations. I'm not saying that we're not making progress; I'm just saying, that's the big challenge. Hard targets, denied areas, denial and deception by our adversariesthose are the big issues we have to contend with, and we just have to keep striving to improve the effectiveness of our coverage.
We've been talking to several people about budget issues, such as the curtailing of the Future Imagery Architecture satellite program at the National Reconnaissance Office, which was seen as a test of the DNI's authority. Did it take your personal intervention?
Was that a pretty tough fight?
It's a little hard to talk about budget issues in much detail because the intelligence budget is classified. What I can say is that, first of all, when I talk about my personal priorities, I always talk about improving analysis, I talk about building a sense of community, and then I talk about making the most effective use of the resources that have been made available to us by the Congress and the American people. So, when it comes to budget issues, with respect to any aspect of our intelligence activities, including national technical needs of intelligence collection, I have asked that we really take a very, very hard look at both the program proposals that are made and the funding requests that go along with that.
I was concerned when I first came in by reports that quite often we would enter into procurement practices or budgetary practices that would get one toe in the water, if you will, on a particular technology, and then it turns out that we would have very large cost overruns, and then we would be confronted with situations, several years into the process, where you might have eight or 10 projects on the books, but you really find that you can only afford five or six of them. So probably the most significant thing that I believe I've pressed for is realistic budgeting for these projects, so that we have a good appreciation upfront of what the costs are likely to be. I mean, you always run the risks of overruns.
Another problem that was associated with that approach was that by sometimes trying to fit too many different projects into a budget and maybe low-balling the estimates of their costs, each of these efforts ran the risk of suffering because you didn't put enough investment in the project upfront to get these things off to a good start. So, that's probably been the thing I've insisted on the most and that resulted, in my initial year, in some decisions and trade-offs that we had to make with respects to imagery architecture. But we are certainly very, very committed to having a strong base capability in that area, and I believe that we certainly have a capacity in this world second to none, in terms of our imagery capabilities.
Do you foresee more battles like that for the 2008 budget?
Well, I wouldn't call them battles. I think that this is a dynamic process. They are not battles, but we're always going to have a lot of discussion about that because different people have different views as between various approaches to ensuring that we have the best possible intelligence coverage. I haven't seen the proposed '08 budget … but this is the first year that we will be in a position of building the budget from scratch. So, it will be a first, sort of complete test of the DNI's budget development authorities.
Your background, sir, was as a consumer of intelligence, for much of your career. Did anything particularly surprise you now that you're on the inside looking down at the entire complex?
You're right, my background was as a consumer of intelligence. But also, having been an ambassador five times, I've had five [CIA] stations and other elements of the intelligence community working with our embassies, so I actually have quite a bit of [experience]. The second thingand a career foreign service officer can't resist saying this, since I was one for 37 yearsI was a political reporting officer. So, I've generated a hell of a lot of political reports in my life.
You know something about collection.
That's exactly right. I generated a lot of political reports, so I felt a considerable familiarity with the work in the intel community. I wouldn't say there are any big surprises. What I would say is I'm very impressed by the work we do. I think the intel community can get a bum rap at times, and clearly one of the reasons is that you can't go out and broadcast your successes. There are things that are accomplished every day, in the interest of the security of our country, that people just can't talk about. So it's a little bit like having one arm tied behind your back, but that's the way it's got to be.
Some people have said that someone in your job probably needs to take a two-by-four to the agencies to force change. I think others were looking for some sort of big confrontationsome battle where you would test your authority. That doesn't appear to be your style. How would you describe your leadership style?
Well, it's collegial. I mean, I certainly don't think applying a two-by-four to these 16 different agencies is the way to go about it, particularly since some of them belong to other government departments. It's complex. Not all of them are in my absolutely direct chain of command. I have certain authorities and not others. Probably the most important authority I've got is the preparation of the budget. [I] also play a pretty strong role in collection and analysis requirementswe have this very good system of the National Intelligence Priorities Framework. I think it's a bit more like a coach with a team. And I think that's the leadership style that you've got to think about.
I'm the principal, senior adviser to the president on intelligence matters. I have the privilege of seeing him every day when we do the president's daily intelligence briefing, so I believe that I can bring to the community also a sense of what our most important customer is interested in and wants. So, I think I can serve as a bridge between the community and the White House. I think that's important. Between the access to the president, the budgetary authorities, the question of the National Intelligence Priorities FrameworkI think those are ways in which I think I can be helpful and useful to the community and can help them set their agenda. But frankly, I think it's been working reasonably well. It's early to start giving, you know, final grades, but so far, so good.
Is there a place for the two-by-four?
Well, if we use the two-by-four, I'm not a believer in advertising. If we have to exert a little more energetic leadership, I'd rather do that directly to my colleagues in the intelligence community rather than through the media. But I don't shrink from exercising my authority in a very forthright way if I have to.
We wanted to ask about the president's daily brief. The focal point really is this image of you briefing the president of the United States. Can you talk about what it's like?
I don't want to betray confidences and get into details that I think are really more for the president or his immediate staff to talk about. We brief the president six days a week normally, Mondays through Saturdays. Typically he is briefed at 8 o'clock in the morning, for half an hour. There's an actual professional briefer and then myself. And the briefer is the person who presents the material to the president, which is usually in the form of half-dozen or so articles about intelligence matters that would be of interest to him, whether they relate to hot spots around the world or they relate to background on international leaders who he might be meeting in the near future and so forth.
The vice president is there, and so are Mr. Hadley [Stephen Hadley, the president's national security adviser] and Mr. Bolten [Joshua Bolten, Bush's chief of staff]. Now, when the president's not in town and if he's traveling internationally, the briefer, not myself but the briefer who is from the PDB staff, will go with the president and present him his briefing every day. So, whether he's in Washington or not, he always gets his briefing. … The president is very engaged, is very interested, and clearly values this time as a way of being briefed on matters of intelligence interest and as a catalyst, if you will, to discussing some of these issues in depth.
What's it like to actually be there briefing the president of the United States about all these cutting-edge issues and our best intelligence? Does the weight of it ever strike you?
It's a great responsibility. I agree with you, it's a great responsibility. I think it's a great responsibility for the analysts who are drafting these items and for the briefer who actually presents them. I had experience doing that previously as the deputy national security adviser under Colin Powell because President Reagan took his briefing in a slightly different way. He didn't have a separate intelligence briefing; he took it as part of his national security meeting every day. But it's a very serious responsibility.
I wanted to ask about the National Counterterrorism Center, because we're still trying to get a sense of what it does, where the boundaries are, and how all that is working out. The British airplane bomb plot was something of a test for the way information flowed. How are the changes working out?
Well, I think first of all the basic structure of the NCTC has helped address some of the issues that came up after 9/11. The fact that [NCTC chief Redd] has this three-times-daily video conference with all the agencies to compare notes on the latest developments, the fact that he's got so many different data bases pouring in there, and the fact that his center is really looked to as the principal source of analysis of these kinds of developments. … I think that's been very, very good.
The recent bomb plotI think first of all we've got to give credit where credit is due. And I think the British really bore the brunt of that and carried the load. But given the fact that there was a United States angle to it, and the fact that these airliners would have been destined to the United States, there was very, very close and constant contacts with the British authorities and daily updates, hourly updates, really, on what was happening in the course of that investigation, and we tried to be supportive of our U.K. colleagues in every way we could. But in terms of the success in disrupting that plot, I think in the last analysis you've got to hand it to the U.K. for the way they handled it.
Who is in charge of the hunt for Osama bin Laden?
Not the NCTC. This is a completely coordinated effort between the intelligence community on the one hand and the Pentagon on the other. There's no daylight between them, and that is completely coordinated.
Is that your job, sir?
No. I do not have that operational responsibility.
Does the National Security Council at the White House do that?
It is done and worked on by the CIA and by our military in the fieldthis is principally between the CIA and [Defense Department's] Central Command. But it is coordinated, and it is integrated, believe me. But they're in charge of it. If the tenor of your question is to say, you know, five years later, do we have clarity on who is in charge of that hunt, there's no question about who is in charge of it.
We did want to ask one or two questions on current intelligence matters. North Korea has obviously been in the news. Are the North Koreans seen as a rational actor by the intel community? [Editor's note: This interview was conducted before North Korea's recent nuclear test but after its verbal threat to test.]
Well, I think, rational in the sense that it seems to be their objective to be recognized as a nuclear power. I think they see that as somehow enhancing their leverage with the international community, whereas, in fact, one of the consequences of them conducting a test and seeking to become a nuclear power is that it could have very destabilizing consequences in the very neighborhood in which they live.
In other words, other countries could follow their lead?
Well, among other things. Among other possibilities.
On Iran and Iraq, there have been reports that elements in Iran might be funneling explosive devices into Iraq. The British have also been out there saying that they can't find any evidence of that in the areas where they're operating. Can you help clarify what we know and what we don't know?
The intelligence community believes that explosively formed projectiles and the technology for that are being supplied by Iran to some of the extremist Shia elements in Iraq. I don't think we have much doubt about that. There seem to be some similarities between these roadside bombs that they're providing that are particularly lethal and the ones that the Hezbollah [militia] has used in Lebanon. We do believe there is an Iran connection here.
Iran is a pretty complex regime. Is there a sense of whether this is officially sanctioned?
This would be done through their intelligence services. But I think we just have to assume that what these services are doing is sanctioned at a political level. I think it would be a mistake to write this behavior off, if you will, or dismiss it on the grounds that it might be errant behavior by some loose cannon.
You see such a wealth of the best information about the dangers this world poses to Americans and to U.S. national security. What keeps you up at night?
It's the threats you don't know about. I've been impressed by the excellent work that's being done on gathering threat information. And I think the proof of the pudding has been in eating. There have been a number of important plots that have been disrupted, so that's good. Is there some plot that's out there that we just absolutely don't know anything about? Well, obviously that could always be the case.
But I do believe that if you do the balance sheet of how we're doing, how we've done since 9/11, we are today more vigilant, we're better prepared, [and] our intelligence has improved. I think it's the kind of improvement you'd expect after five years into this post 9/11 situation with the investments that we've put in it. So, yes, we're better prepared, and in that sense we're safer. But is there activity out there that we just simply don't know about? That's always a source of concern. And with more of these homegrown terrorist activities … the risk of that kind of activity growing and increasing in the future is there.
It seems as if we've had more success at the tactical level. But the recent National Intelligence Estimate suggests that, at the strategic level, we're still grappling with some of these forces. Are we getting any better sense of how we counter the war-of-ideas issue?
You've got to deal with the people who are going to set off the bombs and shoot guns, so we have to take measures to do that. But you also have to look at the root causes, and that is a longer-term proposition, and it doesn't only involve us. It involves the Muslim countries themselves. They've got to deal with issues of governance and reform in their societies and so forth, so that's a longer-term proposition.
Even there, more work is being done, and I think also within the Islamic community itself there's more debate about the Islamic violence and how to deal with it. But I think that in the end, the longer war on terrorism is going to depend, in large measure, on progress that these societies themselves make in dealing with those issues at home.
What role do we have? How far are we on in thinking about how we help these societies and how we help these governments deal with that?
Well, I think the role can only be supportive; it can't be a lead role. They have to do it themselves. But we can be supportive, whether it's through helping them identify political and economic reforms, through economic assistance, through security assistance where necessary. And also through a constant dialogue about what is the nature of the problem that we face and how best to deal with it. I think it's something that over time these societies will come to grips with it. I'm optimistic about it, but it's going to take some time.