Negroponte: Intelligence System Is Getting Better

The attempted bombing of a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day has raised many questions about U.S. intelligence agencies. One is whether the changes made after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are working. John Negroponte is a business consultant now, but he was the nation's first director of National Intelligence. He talks to Steve Inskeep about if the intelligence system is working.

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We're also following up on one of the major stories of the last few weeks. The attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day has raised many questions about U.S. intelligence agencies. One question is whether the reforms made after 9/11 are working.

: John Negroponte, who is a business consultant now. But when you visit his Washington office, you see photos from his career in government service.

One photo shows Negroponte in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush, who made him the first National Intelligence director. Negroponte was the first man in charge of the reordered intelligence system that we have today.

What was the problem that you were supposed to fix with the intelligence community when you took over?

JOHN NEGROPONTE: Or what was the problem that the legislation was seeking to fix? Let me be clear to you on something. I had no dog in that fight. I was not involved in the run up to the passage of that legislation. I was ambassador to Iraq at the time.

The feeling was that the director of Central Intelligence was too focused on his day-to-day operational responsibility - in other words, running spies and running agents - and not focused enough on his community functions. So...

: Making the different agencies work together.

NEGROPONTE: Making the different agencies work together, worrying about standards for collection and analysis. So the idea was to create this director of National Intelligence - not to be a large directorate, but it would have a coordinating function over the 17 agencies. And that individual, the director of National Intelligence, then became the principal intelligence advisor of the president of the United States.

: When you emphasize to me that this was Congress's idea and you had nothing to do with it, you're telling me that literally because it is a fact. But I wonder if you're also emphasizing to me that you're not sure it was the smartest thing to do.

NEGROPONTE: Well, I said - well, it was Congress's - and I believe John Kerry during the presidential campaign said he supported the 9/11 Commission's recommendations. And I think President Bush, in the end, reluctantly - but it was a campaign year and intelligence was very much a matter of political controversy. I think he felt that he had no choice but to accept the passage of such legislation.

Yeah. I am, in fact, distancing myself somewhat from the idea. But it's sort of my approach to being a government executive. I was given a job to do, an assignment, just like I'd had in many other assignments in my diplomatic career, and I was going to do it to the best of my ability.

: Did the reorganization make sense?

NEGROPONTE: I think you could've made the old system work. In 2004, with the incredible turmoil and controversy over particularly the weapons of mass destruction fiasco - if it hadn't been for the WMD fiasco, we might not have had intelligence reform.

: Did the system that you put in place under the instructions of the new law make things any better?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I do believe we certainly made the effort to do that. We tried to adopt standards. We talked about ways of double-checking information - none of it really rocket science, but building in sort of automatic double-checking at various stages in the process so that you were really sure of your information and sure of your sources.

: Recent news has raised questions about how different agencies work together. We still have a lot of intelligence agencies. When you were the director of National Intelligence, when you took over, was coordination among agencies a real (unintelligible)?

NEGROPONTE: I don't think - here's a couple of things. First of all, they always say there's 17 agencies. Well, look, there's sort of like a group of five or so that are really key. And what we did during my time was to, in addition to having the broader meetings with the 16 or 17, we had more frequent meetings with this smaller group of agencies.

But it comes down to personalities, as it very often does in this town. And I think if you have a good working atmosphere between the various individual leaders of these organizations, things can be made to work quite effectively.

: So maybe it wasn't as big a problem?

NEGROPONTE: Well, it doesn't have to be a big problem.

: I'm glad you mentioned information sharing, because in recent weeks, we have had this attempted Christmas Day bombing, which has raised a lot of questions about how information was or was not shared.

NEGROPONTE: Yeah.

: And we have in public, a number of specific pieces of information. Somebody heard from the suspect's father, that the father was concerned about him.

NEGROPONTE: Right.

: Somebody overheard a conversation about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula having some kind of Nigerian operative. There were a couple of concert pieces of information. As the guy who was in charge, or supervising the National Counterterrorism Center, when you heard the details of this story did you say wow, they really could've made something of this?

NEGROPONTE: No I did not. There are plots that we have disrupted. For example, the plot to blow up the airliners that were going to come from the United Kingdom, back - I think it was in 2007 or so. Goodness gracious. We had detailed information on what the plans were to carry out that plot so we were able to successfully disrupt it. I don't think this incident is on a par with some of those earlier plots that we disrupted, in terms of the narrative, in terms of the flow of information we had. This is one where we had two or three strands, where if you were quick and if you really chose to pay attention to this item, you might've put it together.

: Can you improve the analysis of fragments of information like this through any process or procedure?

NEGROPONTE: You know, I don't know any substitute for being attentive, vigilant, pouring over this material. I mean there are 28 different databases - at least they were when I was there - I'm sure it's as many, now - pouring into that National Counterterrorism Center. You had people from all these different agencies, occasionally something doesn't get into that data stream that ought to or something is not done that ought to have been done. But clearly, it's substantially greater than it was prior to 9/11.

: This must require a certain amount of creativity on the part of an analyst, to take a few bits of information and extrapolate from that what an enemy is doing, who wants to hide his...

NEGROPONTE: Right. And one swallow does not a summer make. I mean this is part of the problem, you know, the more information you have the better your analysis is going to be. There may have be a failure of imagination here. It may also be that in the end - I noticed even the president uses the conditional - he says it could've disrupted had we connected the dots. It might've been or it could've been.

: How would you judge the quality of the analysts who worked under you for a time?

NEGROPONTE: Well, they're good. Everybody's good and they work very hard. But here's an issue - with the so-called peace dividend at the end of the cold war and the Al Gore's effort that rightsizing government, which you may remember in the 1990s, we really cut back national security. So now we're starting, post- 9/11, to start building up that cadre of analysts. And after all, intelligence is about analysis. That's the key function.

: Granting that you can always find a few more policies or procedures to tweak, is the system roughly as good as it can be?

NEGROPONTE: Yeah. And it's getting better, but I think there has been - I got to say - it's been a big priority in the last 8- 10 years, also, in rebuilding our human intelligence capability. But that may even, in some respects, take more time than building up your analytic capability. I mean that trade craft takes time. You don't just create a spy overnight.

: Ambassador Negroponte, thanks very much.

NEGROPONTE: Thank you.

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