WASHINGTON - President Bush on Thursday named John Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and currently the administration's top representative in Iraq, to be America's first national intelligence director.
Announcing the move, Bush said that Negroponte understands global intelligence needs because he's had a long career in the foreign service. Bush said he wants Negroponte to be his clearinghouse for intelligence and make decisions on the intelligence budgets for 15 government agencies.
"John will make sure that those whose duty it is to defend America have the information we need to make the right decisions," the president said.
Bush said Negroponte's office will be outside of the West Wing because it's important that he be apart from the White House. "Nevertheless, he will have access on a daily basis in that he'll be my primary briefer," Bush said.
Negroponte said if confirmed he plans to "reform of the intelligence community in ways designed to best meet the intelligence needs of the 21st century."
He called the new job "the most challenging assignment I have undertaken in more than 40 years of government service." Said Bush: "He understands the power centers in Washington."
Bush named Lt. Gen. Mike Hayden, who has served as director of the National Security Agency since March 1999, as Negroponte's deputy. He is the longest serving director of the secretive codebreaking agency and has pushed for changes, such as asking longtime agency veterans to retire and increasing reliance on technology contractors.
"If we're going to stop the terrorists before they strike," Bush said, "we must ensure that our intelligence agencies work as a single, unified enterprise."
Discussing the authority that Negroponte will have, Bush said that "people who control the money, people who have access to the president generally have a lot of influence. And that's why John Negroponte is going to have a lot of influence. He will set the budgets."
The amount the United States spends on intelligence is classified, but is thought to total nearly $40 billion annually.
Bush said he had not received any preliminary findings from the commission that's investigating failures of prewar intelligence - headed by former Sen. Chuck Robb, R-Va., and Republican Laurence Silberman - which is expected to issue a final report next month.
Negroponte, 65, was at the United Nations when he was tapped to take on the delicate job of transforming the U.S. presence in Iraq from that of an occupier to that of an adviser. Bush chose him for the job last April and he went to Baghdad hours after the handover of sovereignty to Iraq's interim government.
Negroponte has also been ambassador to the Philippines, Mexico and Honduras.
According to one well-informed administration official, former CIA director Robert Gates was Bush's first choice but Gates and some other candidates declined the post. They worried that the legislation establishing the intelligence job was too vague in outlining its authority, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But White House Chief of Staff Andy Card denied reports that the White House had had a difficult time in finding someone to accept the new position. "I'm impressed with how much bad information people have - that people have been offered the job and turned it down," Card said. "It's just not true."
The Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington were the impetus for legislation passed by Congress and signed by Bush, creating the new position. The bill represented the most sweeping intelligence legislation in over 50 years.
The director of national intelligence will hold a pre-eminent role in U.S. national security affairs and coordinate the work of all 15 U.S. intelligence agencies.
In a statement, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas, said he was pleased by the selection of Negroponte and Hayden.
"We will hold the ambassadors' confirmation hearing as soon as his duties in Iraq are completed," Roberts said.
Roberts spokeswoman Sarah Little said Negroponte told the senator he would need to return to Iraq to tie up issues there. Little said that Roberts believes the confirmation may be weeks away.
As ambassador to the United Nations, Negroponte helped win unanimous approval of a Security Council resolution that demanded Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein comply with U.N. mandates to disarm. Negroponte worked to expand the role for international security forces in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban government.
Negroponte's confirmation to the United Nations post was delayed a half-year mostly because of criticism of his record as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. In Honduras, he played a prominent role in assisting the Contras in Nicaragua in their war with the left-wing Sandinista government.
Human rights groups alleged that Negroponte acquiesced in human rights abuses by Honduran death squads funded and partly trained by the CIA. Negroponte testified during the hearings for the U.N. post that he did not believe death squads were operating in Honduras.
In the past year, the intelligence community has been faced with a series of negative reports, including the work of the Sept. 11 commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee's inquiry on the flawed Iraq intelligence.