Negroponte at Large, Part IV

“Does HUMINT still matter?” That’s an easy question — a too-easy question — but it would be good to hear the answer out of the mouth of the former DNI (director of national intelligence). (“HUMINT” is spook-speak for “human intelligence,” which is to say intelligence gathered by real-live human beings — spies, for example — rather than, say, satellites in space.)

Negroponte: “All intelligence matters, all sources and methods. They’re all important.” When Negroponte was DNI, part of his job was to determine the allocation of resources. He shaped the intelligence budget. “So you heard all the arguments,” he says. “I bet!” I reply. (He laughs.)

“And basically,” Negroponte continues, “you have to support them all. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one way” — only one way to collect intelligence. “It’s just not true. You never know what’s going to be the last piece of the puzzle,” the piece that completes the picture for you. “Will it be some phone call that you’ve intercepted that makes sense out of everything else you’ve been looking at? Or is it some photograph that you take that makes you say, ‘Aha! That’s what you’ve been working on all these years!’ Like the famous situation in Syria.” (Negroponte means the discovery of nuclear activity in that country — a development that Israel took care of promptly.)

“They’re all important: human intelligence, various technological means. But the one thing that is primordial, no matter what, is analysis: None of this is any good if you don’t then have smart people taking it all in and making the right judgments and assessments. In the end, the hardest questions are the ones where you can’t have absolute answers. The hardest questions are the ones where you have to come up with judgments. So, analytical capability is really key.”

Lots of people say that the CIA is a nest of left-leaners who are keen on undermining Republican presidents and policies. They say the same about the State Department. Is that a myth, or is there some truth to it?

Negroponte: “I think it’s essentially a myth. Government responds to leadership, and I don’t necessarily mean political leadership at the top. Everyone’s got a leadership responsibility, up and down the line, including career Foreign Service officers. We have a responsibility too. With the right kind of leadership, you get good performance.

“I think what you’re referring to is leaks: There are always, in every organization, some people who think somehow they’re serving the national interest by putting stuff out there in an unauthorized fashion.” They want to “create some kind of sensation. And, frankly, my usual reaction is, ‘This is an exercise in ego gratification, rather than an effort to hurt a person particularly.’ It’s a guy who wants to get his stuff out and ingratiate himself with his buddies in the media. And there’s nothing they can do about it!” — “they” being the responsible authorities in government.

So, this leaking “is not so much against the political leadership as an attempt by somebody to make himself an important person.”

I ask, “Will the Palestinians ever reconcile with Israel? Will they ever agree to coexist?” (and at the same time, I recognize that “ever” is a long time). Negroponte says, “A lot of effort has been put into helping Palestinians build the requisite institutions, so they can have a viable state. There is a struggle inside the Palestinian movement itself,” with more moderate and reasonable elements pitted against more radical and unreasonable elements.

Negroponte’s view is that you get an agreement between the Palestinian Authority/Fatah and Israel — “then you present it to the Palestinian people in a referendum, and see where it goes.” Listen, “if you wait till Hamas and Fatah reconcile before you have a peace agreement, you’ll wait till the cows come home.”

Conversation turns to Arafat — and Negroponte says, “Talk to Bill Clinton about Arafat! He thinks he screwed up the whole 2000 thing. I remember listening to the former president talk about what happened that summer: He was very clear. He thought that, if it weren’t for Arafat, they might have had an agreement.”

“What’d you think of Reagan?” I ask. Negroponte says, “I loved him.” He points to a picture of Reagan on the wall. The president is arriving in Honduras, greeting the Honduran leader. Negroponte (then ambassador) is standing nearby on the tarmac. In later years, Negroponte was deputy national security adviser to Reagan, under the national security adviser, Colin Powell.

Reagan was “a nice gentleman. I always thought he was clearly more with-it than a lot of people appreciated. He did his homework. He showed up for work at exactly 9 in the morning and left at 5, but he always took a bunch of homework with him. And if you gave him stuff to read, he took it as an assignment. And he’d give it back to Colin the following morning. He’d say, ‘Well, because you gave it to me, I read it.’”

Yes, I say, that’s a well-known fact about Reagan: If you gave him something, he read it — so you had to be careful what you gave him! Negroponte chuckles: “He might say, ‘Well, maybe you could give me a little less . . .’”

Negroponte says, “He read Gorbachev’s books. I was impressed by something. I was ready to think that maybe he wasn’t that into these subjects, but before one of his trips to Russia — spring of 1988 — he had a meeting with a bunch of academics at lunch.” These were various Russia experts: “Jim Billington, people from Harvard, everybody.” Before lunch began, Negroponte asked Reagan, “Is there anything you would like me to do?” Reagan answered, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll just go around and ask each person to talk and we’ll have a conversation.” Reagan had read the necessary, and he clearly knew the score.

“He was very good,” says Negroponte — good overall. “A very self-assured gentleman.” One day, Negroponte went with Powell to brief Reagan on a free-trade agreement. The president said, “You don’t have to tell me about the merits of free trade. I remember the Smoot-Hawley tariff!” “The guy was great,” says Negroponte. “Wonderful.” And “in any meeting, he had five, ten minutes of jokes.”

Amazing how merry Reagan was, as he went about doing critical work.