Spy Chief: CIA Detainees Will Be Held Indefinitely

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After a year on the job as America's super spook, John Negroponte admits that reforming the intelligence system will take time

John Negroponte has seen his share of tribal warfare. As the top U.S. official in Baghdad in 2004, Negroponte spent more than a year trying to transform long-standing and often violent resentments between Shi'ites, Sunnis, and Kurds into a shared desire to form a new democratic government In Iraq.

That experience was just one reason Negroponte seemed the right man to take on a just-as-impossible task when he came home last summer: convincing three secretive, self-protecting and hidebound Washington tribes — the FBI, the CIA and the Pentagon — to put aside their differences and work together to avoid the kind of intelligence failures that have beset the U.S. in the last decade. The job came with a new title — Director of National Intelligence — and impressive but hardly unlimited new powers.

Negroponte's first year has been challenging, to say the least. TIME spent several weeks talking to current and former U.S. officials from the intelligence agencies, on Capitol Hill and in the DNI's office itself about the progress made since Negroponte was confirmed as the nation's intelligence czar a year ago. Progress has been made, most experts agree, but it is difficult to measure. Each of the agencies Negroponte is trying to get in harness has at times dragged — or is still dragging — its feet. And few of the reform's original authors are satisfied with the pace of the change. "We have had a bit of a slow start at the DNI," said Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Agency. "There have been a number of disappointments."

In an exclusive interview, Negroponte, a career diplomat who has been a senior White House official and a U.N. ambassador, told TIME that the intelligence is "improving and we intend to improve it some more. We're off to a good start. But I don't want to make exaggerated claims here because this is a job that's going to take some time."

Nor did Negroponte exaggerate the claims about the quality of U.S. intelligence on Iran, which this week announced that it is accelerating its production of enriched uranium, which Western countries fear is a step on the road to building nuclear weapons. Negroponte told TIME the U.S. had good but not perfect intelligence on the state of Iranian nuclear facilities. "Certainly, we know where the key installations are. Are there others that we're not aware of at all? You don't know what you don't know."

Negroponte also told TIME that three dozen or so of the worst al-Qaeda terrorists held in secret CIA prisons are likely to remain in captivity as long as the "war on terror continues." He added, "These people are being held. And they're bad actors. And as long as this situation continues, this war on terror continues, I'm not sure I can tell you what the ultimate disposition of those detainees will be." Negroponte's comments appear to be the first open acknowledgement of the secret U.S. detention system and the fact that captives such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammad — involved in Sept. 11 or other major attacks on U.S. interests around the world — may be held indefinitely.

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