WASHINGTON—John Negroponte told senators Tuesday that he would assert broad authority over the CIA and the intelligence operators of the Pentagon as the nation's first director of intelligence and promised to tell "the unvarnished truth" when assessing threats to the nation.
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee praised Negroponte's 40-year diplomatic career, including recent stints as ambassador to the United Nations and to Iraq, and predicted his swift confirmation to the new post of intelligence director, overseeing 15 intelligence agencies.
Negroponte stressed the urgency in forging those agencies, including several in the Defense Department, into "a single intelligence community that cooperates seamlessly."
He also responded to several senators who said that major failures, from the inability to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to the flawed assessment of Iraq's weapons programs, showed a dramatic need to improve intelligence.
"Without good intelligence, we will be unable to defeat the terrorists. We will fall short in our efforts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," Negroponte testified.
"Our intelligence effort has to generate better results; that's my mandate, plain and simple."
When Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., pressed Negroponte on whether "he was prepared to tell the president what he may not want to hear," the nominee said he was up to the task:
"My punch line is, I believe in calling things the way I see them. And I believe that the president deserves from his director of national intelligence and from the intelligence community the unvarnished truth."
The job of intelligence director was created after the Sept. 11 commission pushed hard last year for a reorganization of intelligence agencies, and Congress acted after the November election.
A presidential commission on intelligence failures on Iraq warned two weeks ago that intelligence agencies still weren't working well together and lacked basic data on current nuclear threats.
Negroponte's qualifications weren't the central issue at his confirmation hearing Tuesday. He was praised as a skilled diplomat whom the Senate has confirmed seven times, including five ambassadorships, from Honduras to Mexico and the Philippines before the United Nations and Iraq.
Instead, several committee members from both parties said they were worried that the new law creating the job didn't clearly define the director's authority, especially over the budgets and personnel of disparate agencies.
"This bill did not go as far as I would have liked in creating a director with the clear authorities and chain of command that the intelligence community needs," said the committee's chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
"We have high expectations," added Roberts, who cited how intelligence restructuring has failed in the past. "But did we give you the tools you will need to meet them?"
Negroponte said he was "not prepared to describe exactly how I plan to carry out the job." But he asserted that his position would give him broad latitude in overseeing such defense agencies as the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates spy satellites.
The Defense Department controls about 80 percent of the intelligence agencies' budgets.
"I think the law gives me substantial authority, even in areas where there might be ambiguities," Negroponte told the committee. He added that several officials had encouraged him "to push the envelope and use what authorities I believe I have to the utmost."
He cited perhaps his most important asset: President Bush's backing.
"There's been commentary to the effect that I will need the support of the president and he has, in announcing my nomination, made public assurances of supporting me in these new functions," he said.
Negroponte lacks military or intelligence experience, but he's worked closely with the CIA and the Pentagon in several posts, from Honduras to Iraq.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., criticized Negroponte for working to arm Nicaraguan "Contra" rebels in the early 1980s and suppressing reports of human rights violations in Honduras.
Negroponte denied the latter accusation, saying the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had found that that was incorrect.
Negroponte also said he wouldn't allow torture to be used in interrogations: "Not only is torture illegal and reprehensible, but even if it were not so, I don't think it's an effective way of producing useful information."
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, a centrist public policy-research center, said Negroponte's challenge would be something of a balancing act.
"He needs to demonstrate that he would never interfere with war-fighters getting the intelligence when they need it, but he can't be a pussycat with the Pentagon either," O'Hanlon said. "He's a tough cookie and will face tough decisions on how to redirect resources."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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