“Let me tell you: The page was literally blank”, says Air Force General Michael V. Hayden, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, recalling his presence at the creation of the Office of National Intelligence (ONI):
We filled the walls of our office in the old EOB [Executive Office Building] with butcher paper, and around the walls of the office we began to sketch in putative organization charts for this new organization—with the only guidance from Congress being: ‘You could have up to four deputies.’ Whether we wanted four, what those four would do—that was all to be decided.
Hayden’s elite audience of 300 senior intelligence officials—all advised minutes earlier to remove their identification badges because “the event is being photographed and taped”—has gathered on this crisp January afternoon in the sunlit steel-and-glass lobby of the Defense Intelligence Agency building. The complex, situated along a man-made lagoon on Bolling Air Force Base in Southwest Washington, is the permanent home of a thirty-foot-tall, perfectly preserved Russian-made SCUD missile. The occasion of Hayden’s remarks is the farewell speech of the man he will shortly introduce: Ambassador John Negroponte, the founding Director of National Intelligence (DNI), freshly nominated to be Deputy Secretary of State.
Bald and bespectacled, six rows of colorful ribbons decorating his puffed-out, blue-uniformed chest, Hayden is a soft-spoken, pink-cheeked, exceedingly proper man. He could have played one of Larry Hagman’s superior officers on I Dream of Jeannie. For all his propriety, however, Hayden is not without a touch of adventurism: He departs repeatedly from his prepared remarks to single out George W. Bush as a president who (uniquely, one presumes, among the seven Hayden has served) “attaches so much importance to intelligence, whose decision-making is so much centered on intelligence”; to recall how he and Negroponte mischievously “dared to have lunch”, the day before the White House announced their nominations to head ONI, “in broad daylight at his club downtown”; and to confide that “most of us at the time thought there wasn’t enough time” set aside to carry out intelligence reform…well, intelligently.
Elsewhere, though, Hayden’s departures from his script reflect his dominant gene: caution. Where his prepared text calls for him to mention last year’s disruption of a Transatlantic bombing plot and declare, “We’ve never worked closer with our allied [intelligence] services against the terrorist threat than we do now”, he simply stops after mentioning the foiled plot. Where Hayden is supposed to tout the recent naming of “Mission Managers to direct collection and analysis against key hard targets such as North Korea and Iran”, he speaks only of the appointment of “Mission Managers against our toughest and most important targets.” (Negroponte, reciting the same list of accomplishments a few minutes later, will prove less attentive to the sensibilities of Pyongyang and Tehran, explicitly naming the targeted countries.) And where Hayden’s prepared text terms the past two years “a great success” for the CIA, the intelligence community and the nation, Hayden the über-spook warily omits the adjective.
No such modesty afflicts the select group of reporters in attendance. As the Fox News State Department correspondent, I had joined a group of colleagues to witness the ONI’s first ever change of command. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had run a shuttle van from the National Press Club, spiriting us across the Potomac and disgorging us outside DIA’s gleaming, modernist behemoth. You’re either on the bus or off the bus, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters used to say, and here in the colorless DIA mystery van—myself excepted—sat the crème de la crème of “the intel beat”: the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti, dark-haired, square-jawed and handsome, a hotshot upstart; Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, the aged dean with his wild white hair, beige corduroy sport coat and thick wool socks; Tim Burger of Time, self-effacing and personable, the reporter to whom then-CIA Director Porter Goss famously confided he had “an excellent idea” of where Osama bin Laden was hiding; and the most eccentric of the bunch, Mark Hosenball of Newsweek, whose impressive string of exclusives in the post-9/11 era belie his decidedly anti-007 appearance and demeanor. Shortsighted and bushy-whiskered, Hosenball looks like he is perpetually wearing a fake Groucho-nose-and-moustache disguise. His filthy down parka, formerly blue, sports prominent holes. Hosenball is anything but discreet, boasting loudly of his foreknowledge of U.S. military operations (“I had been talking about Somalia for three weeks!”) and his disdain for numerous colleagues (“Some of it is good”, he says of the Internet reporting done by ABC News’ Brian Ross, “some of it is shit—and some of it is misleading shit!”).
The dominant view in the van was that the only good reason to be on it was to attend the off-the-record reception at the end of the event. But the price of admission, we discover, is to endure Negroponte’s farewell speech, the ostensible “news” of the day, which turns out to be 29 minutes of punishing, news-free monotone, begun with a slurp of water and the honoree’s apology: “Should’ve done that before I came down here. I’m sorry.” Behind him, the stage sports no fewer than 18 flags, including those of the United States, the four branches of its armed services, and a baker’s dozen of the nation’s 15 spy agencies: ONI, CIA, FBI, DIA, the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency…
Like Hayden, Negroponte is bald and demure, but several inches taller, the erect bearing and colorful costume of the military man replaced by the tweedy hunch and drab pinstripes of the career diplomat. And unlike Hayden, who deviates from his script for occasional flashes of humor and sentimentality, Negroponte is dry and passionless, clinging to his prepared text like a newborn orangutan to its mother.
Dutiful soldier to the end, Hayden had noted that although his outgoing boss’ “first calling” is diplomacy, Negroponte had “grown to understand our profession like, frankly, very few of us ever do.” Negroponte’s own remarks cast some doubt on this, however: Twice he refers to the Robb-Silbermann Commission, the blue-ribbon panel appointed by President Bush to investigate pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, as the “Robb-Silverman” Commission; and twice Negroponte pronounces the word “clandestine” (usually rhymes with “intestine”), as “CLAN-duh-STEIN.”
Negroponte concedes that his two-year tenure as DNI has been “relatively brief”, but he claims “good results” in his quest to integrate the collection and analysis of intelligence from human, signals and other sources. He asserts, without elaboration, that the Bush Administration has, since the ONI’s inception on April 22, 2005, “succeeded in thwarting many attacks and decommissioning terrorist leaders and cells.” To better cope with “emerging crises”, Negroponte says, ONI has developed a “lift and shift” model of data collection that has proved “very effective . . . in support of intelligence efforts against the summer 2006 Lebanon/Hizballah/Israel crisis.” This curious formulation suggests that American “intelligence efforts” during the Israel-Hizballah War were aimed not at the defeat of Hizballah, nor at victory for Israel, the U.S. ally in the crisis and in the global War on Terror, but were instead directed against the crisis itself—as if Washington’s goal were to reduce it to a more manageable “situation” or “affair.”
“So far, so good”, Negroponte sums up. On the difficulties in Iraq he keeps silent, save to say—in one of his few ventures from the prepared text—that the intelligence community’s science and technology teams have made “important contributions” to a Pentagon program combatting the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against American troops. “And I know”, Negroponte suddenly extemporizes, acknowledging his chief scientist, seated in the front row, “that that has been one of Eric Haseltine’s highest priorities.” Although Haseltine, like Negroponte, is a highly accomplished individual (a doctorate in physiological psychology and holder of 12 patents in laser projection, optics and other highly technical fields), Negroponte makes no mention of the fact that the preceding month had seen the highest number of American fatalities from IEDs—at least 71—since the start of the Iraq war.
At last—but not before another painful pause in which the parched Negroponte pours himself some water and gulps it down—the promised reception is at hand. The spooks put on a nice spread: lavish amounts of fruit, hummus, sweets, skewered meats and non-alcoholic beverages. The reporters do their best to schmooze their reticent hosts, distributing business cards to people who, in the best tradition of spies, are not quick to reciprocate.
Among those brave enough to be seen interacting with a member of the news media is Bob Walpole, the Deputy Director for Strategy and Evaluation at the National Counterproliferation Center. Recruited into the CIA straight from Brigham Young University in 1978, Walpole, an easy-going redhead now in his fifties, rose to become both a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Proliferation. He was, in short, one of George Tenet’s top weapons analysts in the run-up to the Iraq war, a key player in the internecine struggles that produced Langley’s flawed National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s WMD program, and a canny survivor of the seismic shakeup of the intelligence community that followed. While he eschews talk of current events, Walpole grows animated recalling the extraordinary pains he took a decade ago, while investigating Gulf War syndrome, to recreate the wind conditions that existed on March 10, 1991, when U.S. troops accidentally blew up a cache of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons at Khamisiyah.
Finally, before boarding the van to return to the Press Club, I seize an opening and introduce myself to the man of the moment: Ambassador Negroponte, soon to become (“pending Senate confirmation”, Hayden had joked about a man who’s been so honored six times) Deputy Secretary of State. This was not the occasion to confront Negroponte with the results of my own reporting immediately after Condoleezza Rice had announced his nomination: the whispers that he had been “a disaster” as National Intelligence Director, that he had failed to “bend [the spy agencies] to his will” and only added “another layer of bureaucracy” to the intelligence community; the grumbling about how his nomination stood only to “open up a can of worms . . . on wiretaps” and other unwelcome issues; or the suspicions that neoconservatives harbor about him, centered around his staffing of key intelligence posts with Foreign Service Officers like himself, career diplomats whom the neocons regard as soft on WMD and counterproliferation issues; and attendant fears he will “clean house” at State. Instead, I make small talk about my work on a biography of John Mitchell, thinking Negroponte, a former NSC staff aide to Henry Kissinger and one of the last members of the Nixon Administration still serving in government, will find the subject of interest.
The rules governing the reception prohibit any detailed reporting on the substance of our conversation, beyond noting that the Ambassador recalls, in vague terms, a few of the players from those days, men who became notorious in the Watergate scandals. To my surprise, however, Negroponte seems not very interested in the Nixon era and new scholarship about it, and, sensing his eagerness to move on, I extend my hand and express the hope that we will see each other around Foggy Bottom.
At that moment, I turn to see a man with a camera who identifies himself only as ONI’s official photographer. Has he gotten a shot of me talking with Negroponte? Yes, the man says. He then politely declines to exchange business cards and walks away.