Intelligence Chief Expected to Move to State Dept.

John Negroponte is expected to leave his post as the director of national intelligence to become deputy secretary of state. The unexplained move appears to be a demotion, with Negroponte moving from a Cabinet-level job to a position one-rung lower on the federal ladder.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The nation's top intelligence official is said to be leaving his post. John Negroponte took over as the first-ever director of national intelligence less than two years ago. Now government officials say he plans to move from the spy world to the State Department. He would become the top deputy to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Joining us now is NPR intelligent correspondent - intelligence correspondent…

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Mary Louise, Good morning.

MARY LOUIS KELLY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: You are intelligent, right? We're checking on that.

KELLY: I need the title, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Intelligence correspondent, one of my favorite titles. Good morning.

KELLY: There you go. Good morning.

INSKEEP: Why would John Negroponte make this move?

KELLY: Well, I think the question always asked in these cases is did he jump or was he pushed? And, well, nobody but Negroponte and I imagine the president knows the real answer to that. I suspect in this case there are probably elements of both. In the did he jump category there is the perception that the DNI position is really a thankless one. And there's been the rumor for a while now that Negroponte, who is a career diplomat, had been rumored to be eying a return to the State Department at some point. And perhaps this was, in his mind, an opportune time to do it.

At the same time, and I guess, you know, in support of the was he pushed a little bit argument, there is also - there's been a perception certainly among senators and congressmen who you speak to on Capitol Hill that Negroponte never quite managed to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with in Washington power circles. I think he's certainly very highly-regarded, respected, but there was a sense that he was ever the diplomat, and this intelligence position perhaps called for someone with a little bit rougher edges.

INSKEEP: Didn't he say just last month that he planned to stay on in this job?

KELLY: He did. He did. He gave a couple of interviews in which he said he thought he would be staying on until President Bush left in early 2009. So it's surprising in terms of the timing right now, and there's certainly no getting away from that, on paper, this certainly seems to be a demotion. I mean the national intelligence director is a Cabinet-rank job. It outranks the job of deputy secretary of state, so this is perhaps not the most obvious career move.

That said, there have been some signs. I noted last week with interest that when President Bush got all of his top national security advisers for a pow-wow on Iraq down at his ranch in Crawford, Negroponte didn't appear to be invited. He wasn't there. And you can't imagine that happening, say, back in the day of George Tenet. When George Tenet was running U.S. intelligence, you never would have seen that kind of gathering without him.

You know, now maybe one possibility is that this is part of a big restructuring we're seeing. We know the president is this month, perhaps as early as next week, planning to unveil a new strategy on Iraq. We've seen Donald Rumsfeld depart as defense secretary. We're seeing a shift in the top military commanders - Generals Casey and Abizaid are going to be moving on. If Negroponte is now being replaced, that may be more of the same.

Now he'll of course remain a key player on Iraq strategy if he ends up as deputy secretary of state. But again, he will be the deputy. He will not be the one calling the shots.

INSKEEP: Let's talk a little more about the structure of things. Of course, the director of national intelligence is the head of this office that was overseeing all the intelligence agencies in the U.S. government. So what does it change in leadership there mean for all those intelligence agencies?

KELLY: Well, I think it will mean ongoing instability for an intelligence community that has seen a tremendous amount of turnover in the two and half years since George Tenet left. And I think that will probably be a factor in figuring out when exactly this move might happen, because Negroponte does not have a permanent deputy, hasn't had once since General Hayden moved from being Negroponte's deputy to go take over at the CIA.

INSKEEP: Michael Hayden.

KELLY: So - Michael Hayden, that's right. So I think, you know, to avoid concern that there may be a leadership vacuum at the DNI's office, they will wait until a solid replacement is found for Negroponte before he goes anywhere.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise, thanks very much.

KELLY: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR intelligence correspondent, Mary Louise Kelly.

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