Negroponte's First Test?

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John Negroponte has been the nation's new Director of National Intelligence for less than a month and already has a major shouting match between the FBI and CIA to referee. The disagreement is about human spies — who's in charge of recruiting them inside the U.S. and then handling them abroad against terrorists and foreign governments. For months, the spooks at Langley and the G-men at the FBI have been arguing over secret draft re-writes of 20-year old rules that divide this crucial humint work, and now both agencies are hoping Negroponte will come down in their favor. The FBI wants more control over recruiting spies here and running them overseas — a role the CIA would like to supervise. In the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq intelligence failure, the Bureau senses, says one intelligence official, "that the Agency is weak and so they are taking it on." The FBI has also taken advantage of ambiguities created by the law that created Negroponte's new job. But even FBI officials admit their agents need more training and experience to run spies, something that CIA officers study for a year or more.

CIA Director Porter Goss — who on Thursday quietly named Vice Adm. Bert Calland, a Navy SEAL who supervised special operations forces in Afghanistan after 9/11, as the CIA's acting deputy director — has signaled that he intends to insure that the CIA retains primacy over all spy operations outside the U.S. Goss seemed to gain an ally in a Presidential Commission looking into weapons of mass destruction. That commission, headed by Laurence Silberman and Charles Robb, described the Bureau's desire to expand its intelligence gathering operations as the "primary source of friction" between the agencies. The Bureau didn't help its case when an FBI agent detailed to the commission quietly slipped a CIA report critical of the FBI intel operation to her bosses at the Bureau — in effect, spies spying on each other. Commission leaders booted the agent from the panel and tried to get the agent fired, but the FBI insists she did nothing wrong. Director Robert Mueller has refused to dismiss her pending an internal investigation.

This turf battle became so distracting that the White House earlier this year stepped in and told the two agencies to end the bickering and cut a deal. After the Commission finished its work last month, Bush met with Cabinet members and firmly told them to follow Negroponte's lead. But the Commission didn't settle the matter about which agency is best equipped to run spies and instead kicked it upstairs for Negroponte — who has named a CIA officer David Shedd, formerly a National Security Council detailee, as his chief of staff — to decide.

The fight has made Negroponte's first months on the job even harder. "They're putting him in a very bad position," said one senior intelligence official. "You want to pick your battles and win some easy ones up front. And he's not going to be able to do that. This is theology, and he's having to address it days after confirmation." For Negroponte's part, the matter is so sensitive his aides won't even confirm when the question is to reach his desk.