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Intelligence chief: U.S. safer since 9/11

Negroponte rejects criticism that reform is moving too slowly

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

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John Negroponte says the nation's intelligence has improved in the past year.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In his first one-on-one interview as the nation's first director of national intelligence, John Negroponte told CNN, "I think our country is safer today" because of better integrated intelligence efforts.

He also rejected criticism that his office may be moving too slowly.

"I think the story is quite the contrary," he said, pointing to a new National Clandestine Service, which includes all the nation's spies, and a new National Security Branch at the FBI. (Read about the findings from the former 9/11 commission that disagrees)

Negroponte said the nation's intelligence has been improved since December 8, 2004, when Congress approved an intelligence reform law creating his office, despite "the fact that we've been operating from temporary quarters." (View an organizational chart of the restructured intelligence community)

"We are scattered a bit here and there and that has made things somewhat difficult to carry out some of our activities, but we've overcome those obstacles," Negroponte said.

"I certainly believe America is safer than it was at 9/11," he said. "I believe from an intelligence point of view that our intelligence effort is better integrated today than it was previously. I think we are doing a good job at bringing together foreign, domestic and military intelligence." (Read excerpts from the Negroponte interview)

The exclusive CNN interview was conducted at the Directorate of National Intelligence's temporary headquarters in the New Executive Office Building across from the White House.

Critics -- including some key members of Congress and former senior intelligence officials -- have complained that Negroponte's team is moving too slowly to implement change in the intelligence community. (Watch how others think Negroponte's doing -- 2:24)

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, for example, said in testimony October 19 that "there are four words missing, I think, from the way I sense the system is currently operating with the new director of national intelligence. Those are speed, intensity, urgency and accountability."

'Stay tuned' for secret prison announcement

The interview came as the Bush administration grapples with how best to respond to demands from European governments for information about news stories saying the CIA is running secret prisons for al Qaeda prisoners in Europe, among other places.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to travel to Europe in coming days and has promised some answers.

Asked what role he will play getting them for her, Negroponte said, "This is a collective effort that involves the intelligence community and the State Department and other interested agencies."

He added, "I think you ought to just stay tuned for what she says during the course of that visit."

When he took the new job, Negroponte became the person responsible for briefing the president each day on the latest intelligence. He said he spends about two hours a day preparing for the briefing session.

"One hour in the night, and one hour in the morning when I get myself updated," he said.

Negroponte denied suggestions he has too little authority over the intelligence budget under the law.

Although 80 percent of the money spent on intelligence is in the Pentagon's budget, "I think we've got ample authority" he said, and "we've already taken on some fairly difficult budgetary decisions" involving substantial amounts of money.

He defended the way authorities handled the New York subway and Baltimore, Maryland, tunnel threats recently. "I think you could say, in some respects, the system worked there," he said.

"We had threat information which was of perhaps ... questionable reliability. Nonetheless, because of the magnitude of the risk, it was considered important to pass that information to local authorities.

"Now, one doesn't want to second-guess what local authorities do with the information that is passed to them, since they have responsibilities to protect the people of their localities and to protect the infrastructure."

He said "the steps that were taken, in both those instances, were not ... unreasonable."

Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, has argued the federal government "should have handed them information ... with bigger caveats that said we don't think this is reliable, or we don't know how reliable it is, so please don't use it until we can check something out. That is what the DNI is supposed to do. It's supposed to be the coordinator."

Concerning reports of low morale at the CIA, and key personnel quitting, Negroponte said CIA "recruitment levels are still high. To be sure there have been quite a few retirements, but I think some of that simply has to do with the demographics, baby boomers retiring and so forth."

He said there is a "major effort under way to increase both analysts and human intelligence collectors in the CIA."

Negroponte said he does not favor any changes for now in the laws governing the intelligence community.

"I think now we ought to let the dust settle and we ought to give ourselves and the other agencies in the intelligence community time to implement the new law," he said.

Intelligence overhaul led to position

Negroponte's position was created in a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. intelligence community passed by Congress in December 2004 and signed into law by Bush.

Many elements of the legislation came from proposals made by the independent 9/11 commission investigating the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Among other things, the bill boosted the number of border guards and customs inspectors and required federal agencies to establish minimum standards for the states in issuing driver's licenses and birth certificates.

One of the legislation's most prominent measures called for the creation of the post of national intelligence director, who has authority over the budgets and most assets of 15 U.S. spy agencies.

The director is also charged with ordering the collection of new intelligence, coordinating information sharing between agencies and establishing common standards

Bush nominated Negroponte -- a vereran diplomat then serving the U.S. ambassador to Iraq -- to the position in February 2005.

Before heading to Iraq, Negroponte had been the U.S. representative to the United Nations between 2001 and 2004. Congress formally approved his new appointment in April.

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