WASHINGTON -- John D. Negroponte's exit from the nation's top spy post after just 19 months will temporarily stall reform efforts for the nation's 16 intelligence agencies and sow further instability, lawmakers and intelligence officials said yesterday.
The departure leaves Negroponte's likely successor, retired Vice Adm. J. Michael McConnell, with little time to put the fledgling office on solid footing before the next White House turnover, they said.
The leadership change in the Director of National Intelligence office is compounded by the absence of a deputy to replace Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who left the job as second-in-command last spring to head the CIA.
"Having two vacancies at the top of our joint command for intelligence is of great concern at a time when the world is so dangerous," said California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, a chief architect of the legislation that created Negroponte's office.
A senior intelligence official confirmed yesterday that Negroponte was leaving to become deputy secretary of state. Another intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity because it had not been officially announced, said that McConnell, a former National Security Agency director, would be nominated to replace Negroponte.
Harman said any new director will need time to learn the organization, and "we don't have a while ... various parts of the world could implode at any time."
Yesterday, intelligence officials weighed their discomfort with more turnover - no major intelligence agency head has served for more than two years - against hope that an infusion of new defense and intelligence leadership would allow a reworking of the post-9/11 U.S. intelligence apparatus.
Turnover in the intelligence hierarchy has been particularly swift. McConnell, if confirmed, will become the fourth person to lead the intelligence agencies in the past five years.
The White House was reluctant to create the new intelligence director's post but embraced the idea after the 9/11 Commission proposed it in 2004. Filling the post took months, as several candidates, including now-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, turned town the job.
The White House finally persuaded Negroponte, a career diplomat and envoy to Iraq, to take the job, but intelligence officials said he never settled into the cloak-and-dagger spy world.
Nevertheless, Negroponte's move came as a surprise to many of his 1,500 employees, some of whom he told as recently as last month that he would remain in his current post through the end of the Bush administration. "He came here personally and said, 'I'm sticking with this. I'm not going anywhere,'" said one.
For months, Negroponte's desire to move to the State Department had been known in intelligence circles, but he tamped down the gossip when he told C-SPAN last month: "I visualize staying with it through the end of this administration and then, I think, probably that'll be about the right time to pack it in."
Officials said McConnell was a surprising but safe choice, lamenting that Bush could not find a current intelligence official to promote. They noted that other top candidates, such as Hayden or retired Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., a former director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, are committed to other posts. Clapper is set to become the Pentagon's top intelligence officer.
McConnell spent 25 years as a military intelligence officer and ascended quickly to become director of the National Security Agency in 1992. He left NSA in 1996 and joined Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm, where he is a senior vice president.
But McConnell has kept his hand in intelligence issues, writing policy papers for intelligence agencies and chairing the board of a private-sector group with close ties with the intelligence agencies, the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.
Some, including Harman, expressed reservations about a former military officer taking the helm of the intelligence apparatus because then all the main intelligence agencies would be led by military men. "This may complete the military takeover of all the civilian intelligence agencies," she said.
Several current and former intelligence officials said the change in leadership would at least temporarily stall key initiatives designed in response to intelligence failures that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
As the new director runs the confirmation gantlet and then tackles a learning curve, senior managers will be inclined to hold off key decisions and await new direction, they said. That could further set back efforts to get intelligence agencies to work together, said one former top intelligence official.
Paradoxically, said John Rollins, a former intelligence official who served at both the FBI and Homeland Security department, the impact of Negroponte's departure is mitigated because he made minimal progress on many of his initiatives. "I don't see a lot of implementation" of reform, he said.
The choice of McConnell might breathe new life into the intelligence overhaul that began after the Sept. 11 attacks, said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior intelligence manager.
Other former intelligence officials also praised the change.
"This is a good step on the part of the president," said retired Adm. William O. Studeman, a former NSA director and CIA deputy director. "It's time for some fresh blood."
The recent change in leadership at the Pentagon also could add momentum. Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld jealously denied Negroponte crucial powers such as authority over the office budget, hiring and firing.
Lowenthal said the new intelligence director is likely to have an easier time negotiating with Rumsfeld's successor, Gates, and his newly recruited intelligence undersecretary, Clapper.
Clapper, who previously headed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, has supported a powerful intelligence director. Former colleagues say Rumsfeld dismissed him from that job for advocating that the agency report to the director of national intelligence rather than to the Pentagon.
Gates' decision to tap Clapper to run Pentagon intelligence signals a willingness to reach out to the intelligence director, Lowenthal said: "We may suddenly have an opportunity here. The instability thing is not good, but it depends on who is in charge."
Other government officials questioned whether McConnell might seek to build up the Pentagon's controversial intelligence operation, given his long service in the military, including as the intelligence officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf war under then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
At Negroponte's office, however, concerns about the leadership change are "mitigated to some degree because a lot of people know the admiral, and he has a solid reputation," said one official there.
Former colleagues of McConnell said his intellect and interpersonal skills earned him a reputation in the executive branch and in Congress as a thoughtful and smart intelligence professional who was able to explain complex issues well in briefings.
Those skills will be tested as never before if McConnell is confirmed. The new head of national intelligence will spend the next 18 months working to ground the office and corral the other intelligence agencies as he becomes the president's clearinghouse for intelligence and as a presidential campaign rages over his shoulder.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, said in a statement yesterday that Negroponte deserves credit for "building the office from scratch and starting the process of creating a true Intelligence Community.
"His successor will need to accelerate that process in order to realize the vision of the intelligence reform legislation passed two years ago," he said.