Sunday, February 20, 2005

The combination of Ambassador John Negroponte and Lt. Gen. Mike Hayden as the top overseers of America’s security services under the new intelligence-reform bill is as close to ideal as we are likely to achieve. They are uniquely qualified for the demanding task of establishing the authority of the newly created post of National Intelligence Director and Deputy Director and the equally difficult job of coordinating the budgets and operations of our fifteen disparate intelligence agencies.

This duo makes an intelligence dream team at a time when America’s intelligence services need the very best leadership available. Both men come to the job with different but complementary backgrounds. Both have current security clearances at the highest levels, and both are already read-in to some of the country’s most sensitive intelligence sources, methods and ongoing covert operations.

Mr. Negroponte’s recent tour as presidential envoy to Iraq means he has been in charge of the embassy that hosts the largest CIA station in the world. Having spent the last year face to face with CIA field operators in the country that President Bush had made his central front in the war on terror, Mr. Negroponte has intimate knowledge of the current successes and limitations on CIA and military-intelligence operations. This experience makes Mr. Negroponte better equipped than any other senior policymaker in Washington, bar none, to judge the efficacy of American intelligence.

As the current head of the National Security Agency, Lt. Gen. Mike Hayden brings equally current expertise to the task of transitioning America’s security services from a director of central intelligence-dominated intelligence community to a national director of intelligence-directed community. Gen. Hayden, who is respected at the Pentagon, will make a superb deputy for Mr. Negroponte. Like Mr. Negroponte, Gen. Hayden is read-into ongoing operations, has an intimate knowledge of the intelligence community and is an advocate of reform.

Gen. Hayden is a technologist who understands that the United States faces tremendous challenges in maintaining its edge in electronic eavesdropping, code-breaking, reconnaissance and the use of satellites for spying and intelligence operations. In early 2001, Gen. Hayden was alone among the spymasters in warning publicly that Osama bin Laden was a step ahead of us because he possessed superior communications technology. Gen. Hayden knows we face an adaptive foe with good knowledge of the limitations of our methods.

Ironically, Mr. Negroponte’s strength in clandestine operations may also be his achilles’ heel. Senate Democrats will be tempted to oppose his nomination, as they did when he was previously nominated as ambassador to the United Nations, because of his involvement with the covert Contra war in the 1980s.

Mr. Negroponte served as ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration supported a covert war against the Marxist government of Nicaragua. The CIA station in Tegucigalpa handled most of the covert war’s daily operations, with the station chief, Don Winters, reporting to Mr. Negroponte.

Honduras was no easy post in the eighties. When I visited our embassy in Tegucigalpa in 1982, the facade bore fresh scars from a recent explosion. Leftist insurgents, backed by the Sandinistas and the Soviet Union, carried out urban terrorist campaigns, kidnappings and assassinations across the region. Messrs. Negroponte and Winters collaborated magnificently in carrying out President Reagan’s policy to roll back Communism in Nicaragua. Mr. Negroponte gained hands-on experience from the policymaker’s perspective during an ongoing covert action. This gives him a unique perspective on the intelligence consumer’s requirements when it comes to covert operations. This experience will serve him well as national intelligence director.

Covert action is fraught with risk, especially to those who are entrusted to execute it. There are operational and political risks. Failure at either can prematurely end a promising career. I have always considered it a testament to the skill of Messrs. Negroponte and Winters that both men survived the Iran-Contra affair relatively unscathed, while their counterparts to the south in Costa Rica became the targets of prosecutors. This is in spite of the fact that the operations run from Honduras were of far greater tactical significance than those handled in Costa Rica.

Not least, the nominations of Mr. Negroponte and Gen. Hayden are in keeping with our post-World War II tradition of shared military and civilian leadership in the country’s premier intelligence posts. Since its creation, the CIA has had both civilian and military leaders in its top two positions. This serves to integrate the views of civilians and the military at the top echelons of our national intelligence agencies. The combination of Mr. Negroponte in the post of national intelligence director and Gen. Hayden as his second in command sets an important precedent for the new directorate that bodes well for integrating civilian and military intelligence services in a unified effort.

John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He writes frequently on national-security affairs.

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