Banter With the Beast

Negroponte Is Unbloodied and Unbowed

After 44 years in foreign service, John Negroponte has no regrets. He talks to Lloyd Grove about the Iraq intelligence “fiasco,” Osama bin Laden’s death—and why the end of the Cold War was a bigger deal than 9/11.

07.03.11 12:07 PM ET

Diplomat and spymaster John Negroponte is not only a towering figure of the Cold War, he’s literally a towering figure—clocking in at 6-foot-3.

At the Aspen Ideas Festival, he’s a vast presence, a balding bear of a man who, at age 71, nevertheless glides from panel to panel. He speaks about foreign policy and national security—drawing on 44 years of government service, two of them as President George W. Bush’s first Director of National Intelligence—in the clipped, patrician cadence of a London-born son of a Greek shipping magnate. 

“I was sent to Saigon as a foreign service officer in May of 1964. That shaped the next 10 to 12 years of my career,” Negroponte tells me as we sip coffee in our shirtsleeves under a white tent at the Aspen Meadows resort. He notes that he was roommates and close friends with the late Richard Holbrooke, another star of the foreign policy establishment. “Through the prism of Vietnam, you can say that I was a cold warrior, yes. But I understand that the world has changed. I’ve lived in nine different countries in my overseas assignments. I don’t think I have blinders on about that.”

Yet the legacy of the old world order—where the planet’s two superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., contended for spheres of influence, occasionally threatening annihilation—has left its indelible mark. When I ask him which historic event was more significant, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union or the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, Negroponte doesn’t hesitate.

“Oh, the collapse of the Soviet Union, no question about it—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany—the way it happened was absolutely extraordinary and unimaginable even months before it actually occurred,” Negroponte says, adding that the end of the Cold War had “an ice-breaking effect” across the planet—notably the transformation of India, a country of more than a billion people nominally aligned with the Soviets, from a socialist to a free market economy and an important American ally.

On the day that al Qaeda’s hijacked jetliners hit the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Negroponte had been prepping for Senate confirmation hearings to become Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations. It’s revealing that he doesn’t recall how and where he heard the news that Osama bin Laden had finally been killed—a mission that wasn’t accomplished on his watch at National Intelligence or, for that matter, during Bush’s two terms as president.

Bin Laden’s death was “not an event of the level of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor or the Berlin Wall falling, or when Kennedy was assassinated—which is probably the first major event that I remember as a young person,” Negroponte tells me. “I didn’t jump up and down. I was just pleased and somewhat pleasantly surprised, frankly, because after 10 years I sort of said, ‘Gosh, will we ever find this guy?’…I thought, good riddance!”

Six months after 9/11, of course, Bush famously belittled “the idea of focusing on one man”, adding “I don’t know where he is. I just don’t spend that much time on him.” Now, Negroponte says: “I think in part that was because we weren’t getting him, and he wanted to be able to explain that we’re still doing useful work, which was true, and we were going after the network.”

The intelligence bureaucracy was profoundly broken when Negroponte took over in 2005. He assumed the top job after serving nine months as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and overseeing the diplomatic end of the ruinous American invasion—which would never have happened if Bush hadn’t been relying on falsehoods concerning Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. 

“Do you want me to say [the Iraq invasion] was a mistake?” Negroponte demands. “I’m not going to say that. But if you’re asking me, would I have done the same thing if I were in the president’s shoes, I don’t think I would have, okay? I don’t think I can answer you better than that.”

Negroponte says he wishes Bush had permitted the U.N. weapons inspectors enough time to do their jobs instead of rushing into war—and discounts the widely-accepted narrative that Vice President Cheney and his minions cleverly maneuvered the president into making the ill-fated decision. 

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“I don’t think you can really try to lay it at some Vice Presidential Assistant’s doorstep,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s the President of the United States who decides. For his reasons and in his judgment, he felt it was in the national security interest of the United States to do this. Did he believe this WMD information? He probably did. I mean, I suspect George Bush made his decision in good faith. But if you ask me, what would I have done, I would have given the inspection process a chance.”

Continuing his delicate dance, Negroponte adds: “Mistakes or non-mistakes, it’s not part of the vocabulary. You do what you do, and it’s done at the time based on the best available information and under the circumstances that prevail. I think what’s so horrifying in this particular instance is how absolutely wrong the intelligence was about WMD. That is a fiasco.”

Negroponte tried to fix the problem, especially the dysfunctional relationship between the FBI and the CIA that stymied the sharing of valuable intelligence and hampered the accurate analysis of threats and timely action to quash them.

“I think one of the more significant things was that there wasn’t as good a link between our foreign intelligence and our domestic intelligence,” Negroponte says. “And I think after 9/11, that stuff is much, much better than it used to be. Secondly, we’ve got to remember that technology is really our friend in this. In the old days, we all went around with blocks of paper and yellow pads, and they kept scraps of information in files. Nowadays everything is done on this virtual, electronic basis. Think of what that can do in terms of your ability to respond in real time.”

When I ask what he thought of the Obama White House releasing details about the intelligence gathered from bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Negroponte cautions that the less said, the better. But unlike many in the intelligence community, he says he wasn’t outraged by the leaking of Valerie Plame’s CIA identity.

“I thought that was, frankly, a tempest in the teapot,” he says with a smile. “I think people talk too much about intelligence, and probably people in Washington would do better to seal their lips a little bit more. But on the other hand, I don’t think she was an operative at the time that she was outed. She had some non-operational role.” He adds with a chuckle: “I noticed that she hasn’t exactly remained silent since.” Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson—the subjects of the movie Fair Game starring Noami Watts and Sean Penn, “made a pretty good business out of all of this, if you ask me,” Neproponte says. “They are not suffering.”

Way back before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when he was Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras—the staging area for the U.S. proxy war against Nicaragua’s Cuba-loving Sandinistas and, by extension, the Russkies—he loomed over the ideological combat zone as a nearly physical expression of American muscle and manifest destiny.

He was, in the lexicon of his left-leaning detractors, the “Proconsul of Honduras”—basically running the tiny Central American country that was the original banana republic—and, much to his dismay, the nickname stuck.

“It was ridiculous—a bunch of nonsense,” says Negroponte, who inevitably was branded the “Proconsul of Iraq” when he took up residence in 2004 at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. “Our involvement in Central America was controversial at the time, and I was a lightning rod for that. For example, some of the critical articles said I was personally directing Contra operations [of the anti-Sandinista rebels]. I never had even been to a Contra camp. My focus was on economic assistance and strengthening the Honduran military—their own capacity to defend themselves and making them feel secure vis-à-vis Nicaragua, which at the time was developing a very disproportionate security capability.”

He adds: “It was a wonderful experience. I loved being ambassador in Honduras, love the country, and we [Negroponte and his English-aristocrat wife Diana] adopted five Honduran children—so we’re very lucky beneficiaries.”

I ask him if he misses the simpler days of the Cold War, when we met the enemy and he spoke Russian.

“I guess it was simpler in some sense, because you could conceive of this bipolar world,” he says, “but the world did have its complications nonetheless. There were regional conflicts, there were local situations that weren’t that easy to slit into the overall Cold War framework…Speaking now as a former professional diplomat, some of the very same skills that we needed then are the ones we need now: strong language-in-area expertise; real knowledge of Asia, Africa, Latin America, with the preponderance of economic power and political influence starting to shift away from the Western counties and toward the so-called emerging markets. Understanding the rest of the world, particularly the emerging world, is going to become even more important than it was before.”

These days Negroponte is vice-chairman of McLarty Associates, the international consulting firm started by Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff Mack McLarty, and also teaches at Yale and occasionally talks to friends in the Obama administration.

Sounding like a man who is keeping his options option, he is full of praise for President Obama, newly appointed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“She a wonderful secretary of state—I have the greatest admiration for her,” Negroponte says. “I think she gets it.” Obama, meanwhile, “has done a good job” in the foreign policy realm, he says. “He’s dealing with the new reality, and I think he’s well suited to do that. The new reality is we can’t afford to have a couple hundred thousand people deployed and fighting overseas for the indefinite future. We’ve got to get our fiscal house in order and we’ve got to trim back on our military engagement overseas without abdicating our international responsibilities. I think he’s trying to find the right balance in accomplishing that.”

Would Negroponte like to get back in the game?

“I’ll be 72 years old on the 21st of July,” he parries. “I mean, I’ve worked for government for 44 years. Never say never, but  that’s not really part of my plan….’Like’ is probably not the right word. Would I serve again if asked? I certainly wouldn’t reject it out of hand. “