WASHINGTON -- John D. Negroponte, whom President Bush installed less than two years ago as the first director of national intelligence, will soon leave his post to become the State Department's second-ranking official, administration officials said yesterday.
Negroponte will fill a critical job that has been vacant for months, and he is expected to play a leading role in shaping policy in Iraq. But his transfer is another blow to an intelligence community that has seen little continuity at the top since the departure in 2004 of George J. Tenet as director of central intelligence.
Negroponte had been brought to the intelligence chief's job to help restore credibility and effectiveness to agencies whose reputation was badly damaged by intelligence failures related to the Sept. 11 attacks and mistaken prewar assessments of Iraq's illicit weapons. He has maintained a low public profile but provides Bush with an intelligence briefing most mornings.
On paper, the director of national intelligence outranks the deputy secretary of state, raising questions about why the White House would seek - and why Negroponte would agree to - the reshuffle.
Bush administration officials from two agencies said yesterday that the leading candidate to become the new intelligence chief is J. Michael McConnell, a retired vice admiral who led the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996. McConnell was head of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Gen. Colin L. Powell during the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
As deputy secretary of state, Negroponte, who would need Senate confirmation for the post, would fill a pivotal foreign policy position that has been vacant since Robert B. Zoellick resigned to take a post at Goldman Sachs. Negroponte has previously served as ambassador to the United Nations and ambassador to Iraq, and administration officials say Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been trying to recruit him to bring more Iraq expertise to her office.
The shift, first reported yesterday evening by NBC News, marks a further transformation in Bush's foreign policy team that has already seen Robert M. Gates take over as defense secretary from Donald H. Rumsfeld. Bush still has other top posts to fill, including that of ambassador to the United Nations, left vacant with the departure of John R. Bolton.
As a career diplomat who also served as ambassador to Mexico, the Philippines and Honduras, Negroponte brought a policymaker's perspective to the role of intelligence chief, a post established by Congress at the end of 2004 to address a lack of coordination among intelligence agencies. He took over the job in April 2005, and said in an interview on C-Span last month that he expected to stay in his position until the end of the Bush administration.
McConnell is a career intelligence officer who is a director of Booz Allen Hamilton, an international consulting firm. During his tenure at the Pentagon and as director of the National Security Agency, McConnell worked closely with Gates during Gates' time as deputy national security adviser and as director of central intelligence, and with Dick Cheney while he was defense secretary during the first Persian Gulf War.
Negroponte would move to the State Department as the administration is preparing a shift in Iraq strategy.
Still, it is curious that Negroponte would leave a job that the Bush administration has billed as critical for national security to become Rice's deputy.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican and outgoing chairwoman of the Senate Government Reform Committee, was a major proponent of the intelligence post, and said yesterday of the reported transfer: "The director of national intelligence is an absolutely critical position. I'm disappointed that Negroponte would leave this critical position when it's still in its infancy. There are a number of people who could ably serve as deputy secretary of state, but few who can handle the challenges" of chief of intelligence.
Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who also pressed for establishment of the intelligence job, said: "I'm worrying that our deficit in intelligence will not be corrected. I'm sorry Negroponte isn't completing his term because he at least understood intelligence."
Bush had at first been reluctant to create the post, but ultimately bowed to congressional pressure and for the first time made the top intelligence office a Cabinet-level post.
Bush said the job was essential to better coordinate the 16 disparate intelligence agencies, and said it would help cure the dysfunction displayed before Sept. 11, 2001, and the faulty prewar assessments of Iraq's weapons programs.
Negroponte's move to the State Department had been rumored for months. Rice had been pushing to bring Negroponte in as her deputy, and officials in Washington had speculated that the career diplomat might be more comfortable returning to the State Department.
The White House press secretary, Tony Snow, declined to comment on the reshuffling. "We don't comment on personnel matters until the president has announced his intentions," Snow said in an e-mail message last night.
The move, which is expected to be announced this week, could be a sign that the Bush administration is looking for more sweeping changes to its Iraq strategy as sectarian violence worsens in Iraq and the president's approval ratings sag at home.
Officials said yesterday that one of the first priorities in replacing Negroponte as intelligence chief had been to select someone who could pass swiftly through the Senate confirmation process. They also cautioned that the choice of McConnell is not final.
The job of deputy director of national intelligence is also vacant, and the White House is conscious that a long nomination battle in the Senate, where Democrats are now in the majority, could throw the intelligence office into disarray.