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Negroponte: 'We've got ample authority'

Intelligence director discusses intelligence reform, critics

Programming note: Tune in for David Ensor's exclusive interview with Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, 7 p.m. ET.

John Negroponte says the nation's intelligence has improved in the past year.



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Espionage and Intelligence

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- John Negroponte has had a busy first 10 months since being appointed as the nation's director of intelligence, working to revamp a system under fire after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Iraq war.

CNN national security correspondent David Ensor talked with Negroponte about intelligence reform and other matters in the first interview granted by the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and to Iraq since he assumed the new post in February. The following are edited excerpts from that discussion.

NEGROPONTE: I certainly believe America is safer since September 11. And I believe, from an intelligence point of view, that our intelligence effort is better integrated today than it was previously.

I think we are doing a good job at bringing together foreign, domestic and military intelligence. And in addition to that, of course, we are on the offensive against al Qaeda and its affiliates around the world. So in that sense, I think our country is safer today than it was before.

CNN: There are some critics who charge that your office is moving too slowly with change in the intelligence community. One, for example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, talked about the need for greater speed, intensity, urgency and accountability in his view. How would you respond to that?

NEGROPONTE: Well, I think the story is quite the contrary. I was confirmed in my position on the 17th of April. The president approved a series of recommendations based on the report of the Robb-Silberman commission, and he approved those recommendations on the 30th of June and issued them as a directive to me -- 70 recommendations in all.

... We have steps under way to implement all 70 of those recommendations. But I would mention some specific steps that have already been accomplished. We've created in the collection area, a National Clandestine Service. We've created an open source center. We've created a National Security Branch in the FBI.

So, just in the collection area, [those are] examples of the types of accomplishments that we have achieved in this very short period of time.

CNN: There are other critics. I might mention John Lehman, who is a member of the former 9/11 commission, who argued actually that you're already bloated, that there are already too many people working for you and it's another layer of bureaucracy and sort of a moving around of the "musical chairs" -- and too many of the people are from the old intelligence community and really the country's not safer. How do you respond to him?

NEGROPONTE: Well, again, I just think the truth is about 180 degrees from that. We have no desire or intention to create a bloated bureaucracy in the Directorate of National Intelligence. In fact, our aim is to try to enable and strengthen the capacity of the individual intelligence agencies to strengthen their core competencies by finding synergies between the agencies and by giving them leadership and direction.

So I think, over time, what you are going to see is a reduction -- not an increase -- in the bureaucracy in the intelligence community because of the leadership and direction that is being provided by this office.

CNN: How many people work in the directorate?

NEGROPONTE: It is less than a thousand people -- which, when you are talking about a Cabinet-level government agency, is not a large one by number of people.

CNN: Now, some intelligence information from the federal government led New York City recently to greatly beef up security in the subways. And then, not too long after, there was an incident with the Baltimore, Maryland, transport tunnel, where intelligence from the federal government caused the locals to feel they needed to take extreme measures to improve their security. And I remember at the time hearing from intelligence officials almost immediately, that they were pretty suspicious about the quality of this intelligence.

Is there any lesson to be learned, do you think, for your office in how to handle these things, from what happened there?

NEGROPONTE: I think, first of all, we're all grateful that nothing happened in either of those incidents ... in either Baltimore or New York. I think you could say, in some respects, the system worked here.

We had threat information, which was ... perhaps of questionable reliability. Nonetheless, because of the importance of the target[s] and the magnitude of the risk, it was considered important to pass that information to local authorities.

Now ... one doesn't want to second-guess what local authorities do with the information that is passed to them, since they have responsibilities to protect the people of their localities and to protect the infrastructure.

ENSOR: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has promised the Europeans some kind of an answer about the news media reports of CIA prisons in Europe and other places. Now, I know you don't want to ... respond to that story, but in terms of intelligence reform, in terms of how the U.S. community is now set up, who gives her the answers that she takes to the Europeans? Is that your job? Or is it someone else in the community? Who deals with things like that?

start quoteWe've taken some tough decisions that have implications for substantial amounts of money and resources.end quote
-- John Negroponte

NEGROPONTE: Well, I don't think that I want to give you a detailed description of the decision-making process. But I would say that this is a collective effort that involves the intelligence community and the State Department and other interested agencies. So this would be an inter-agency effort.

But I suggest that it might be best to just stay tuned for Ms. Rice's trip. She is about to go to Europe. I think you ought to stay tuned to what she says during the course of that visit.

CNN: When you brief the president, as I guess you frequently are the person who does it in the morning, is topic A usually Iraq? And there are critics who have argued that you spend too much time on that process. How do you respond to them?

NEGROPONTE: First of all, one of my functions is to be the president's principal intelligence adviser. And in that capacity, I attend the morning intelligence briefings that he receives. But those briefings are presented to him by professional briefers, who do nothing else but that as their full time job. There is, in fact, a very dedicated staff that works every day and most nights preparing those daily briefs.

So I myself would estimate that I spend about two hours a day preparing for those sessions -- one hour in the night, ... when I read the draft of the daily briefing, and then one hour in the morning, where I get myself updated on whatever intelligence might have come in overnight.

CNN: There are some who are worried that the intelligence reform legislation passed by Congress a year ago next week doesn't give you enough authority.

NEGROPONTE: ... I think now we ought to let the dust settle, and we ought to give ourselves and the other agencies in the intelligence community time to implement the new law.

As far as 'authorities' [are] concerned, it gives authorities ... substantially beyond what the director of central intelligence used to have, including very important reprogramming authorities both in personnel and for budget.

And we've already taken on some fairly difficult budgetary decisions. I'm not at liberty to go into all of the details, but we've taken some tough decisions that have implications for substantial amounts of money and resources.

So I think we've got ample authority. It's more a question of what we do with it. We're working hard to carry out the responsibilities that have been given to us by the law, and I'm optimistic that we can be successful.

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