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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

John Negroponte is stepping down as the nation's first intelligence chief. We're expecting official announcements from the White House tomorrow saying that Negroponte is going to be the number two at the State Department and his replacement is retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports that the shift is raising questions about a leadership void at the helm of U.S. intelligence efforts.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: White House spokesman Tony Snow did open his press briefing today with an official confirmation that Harriet Miers is stepping down as White House counsel. Then, in an unsuccessful bid to deflect further questions, Snow continued.

Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): Let me also add I have nothing further to add today in the way of personnel announcements - no details.

KELLY: It was the same story a few minutes later at the State Department. Spokesman Sean McCormack said he could not confirm that Secretary Condoleezza Rice might soon have a new top deputy. But McCormack had words of high praise for John Negroponte should anyone just happen to be talking about him today.

Mr. SEAN MCCORMACK (Spokesman, U.S. State Department): Certainly he's a person who's a diplomat's diplomat. He is somebody of excellent judgment, long experience both in Washington and abroad, very well respected.

KELLY: Finally, a senior administration official did emerge to brief reporters on background. The official said the shift does not reflect any unhappiness with Negroponte's performance as intelligence chief, nor is it meant as a demotion. The official added, President Bush plans to name retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell to succeed Negroponte.

But word that a replacement for Negroponte may be in the wings has not dampened criticism from Democrats. Jay Rockefeller, who took over today as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a statement saying quote, “I am deeply troubled by the timing of this announcement and the void of leadership at the top of our intelligence community,” almost identical words to those used by Senator Ted Kennedy, a senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, in an interview today with NPR.

Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): This doesn't really speak well for continuity, consistency, leadership. And I find it deeply troubling.

KELLY: You have concerns about the ongoing turnover in the intelligence community?

Sen. KENNEDY: Very clearly, we need to have responsible leadership and we haven't had that leadership. And I think that the country suffers when we fail to have that kind of leadership.

KELLY: Intelligence veterans interviewed for this story shared similar concerns. Robert Hutchins stepped down in 2005 as head of the National Intelligence Council. He questions the wisdom of moving Negroponte after just 20 months on the job.

Mr. ROBERT HUTCHINS (Former Chairman, National Intelligence Council): Negroponte is a good choice for the State Department. And I'll have no qualms about that. But I think the way the administration has handled the intelligence community has been really quite irresponsible, and we really can't afford it at a time when we are trying to oversee a course correction on Iraq, dealing with a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and trying to fashion a sustainable approach for the so-called war on terror.

KELLY: Hutchins believes Negroponte's departure may create uncertainty for the overall future of the position of national intelligence director. The job was created two years ago. It was the centerpiece of the reforms suggested by the 9/11 Commission, an effort to correct intelligence failures, particularly failure to share information within and between the 16 U.S. spy agencies. Donald Kerr, deputy director of the CIA in the early ‘90s, is not convinced it's been a particularly useful reform. He says rotating Negroponte out won't change that.

Mr. DONALD KERR (Former Deputy Director, Central Intelligence Agency): I don't think it's going to have a major impact on the intelligence community because I don't think his impact on the community or the impact if that job on the community has been that significant. It's not John Negroponte's fault. The job was given, you know, a great hubbub about how important it was and how much authority, but in fact the authority is rather limited.

KELLY: Still, it looks as though the White House plan is to keep the intelligence chief position as is and move to install Admiral McConnell. He's a former head of the National Security Agency, a seasoned and widely respected intelligence veteran. A formal announcement is expected tomorrow.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

NORRIS: A note about another shift in the Bush administration. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is expected to be nominated the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. According to a State Department official, Ryan Crocker, the current U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, is the leading candidate to replace Khalilzad in Baghdad.

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