New chief for CIA, with strings attached
Porter Goss would bring experience to top spy role, but must face down critics
WASHINGTON — For Florida congressman Porter Goss, the top job at the Central Intelligence Agency would cap a career that has spanned spying for the agency in the 1960s, then overseeing it as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The downside: The job, as he has known it, may soon no longer exist.
Both President Bush and the ubiquitous 9/11 commission have called for downscaling the job of CIA director in favor of a new national intelligence director. Mr. Goss may become a candidate for the NID slot, and in either post he is sure to face daunting challenges.
First, however, he has to make it through tough questions at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday from Democrats who oppose his nomination as too partisan. Should Democrats take back the White House, he would likely be one of the first out the door.
The new director, whatever the final job description, will need both to be a reformer and to rebuild battered morale at an agency still reeling from criticism over everything from missed cues before the 9/11 attacks to a failure to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union. Supporters say Goss, with experience inside the agency and overseeing it from Capitol Hill, is uniquely qualified to do both.
"If you want to keep workers motivated and instill pride and a sense of dignity, it's probably good to have someone who has worked there," says Jim Walsh, a security expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. But he adds that agents may "take a wait-and-see attitude ... to a person who may not be there in six months."
Still, Goss's recent public criticism of the agency as "dysfunctional" worries some insiders, who say that he and other critics are missing the reforms that have gone on since 9/11. In a June 23 report that accompanied the 2005 intelligence authorization bill, Goss's committee chided the CIA for ignoring its core mission of spying. CIA Director George Tenet promptly dubbed the criticism "absurd."
"He was very harshly critical of the agency, in what I characterize as nothing less than a political attack. It's a great concern, because you want to avoid even an appearance of politicizing this very important intelligence position," says Lee Strickland, a 30-year veteran of the CIA now at the University of Maryland.
A Yale major in Ancient Greek, Goss was a perfect fit for the highbrow culture of the agency when he joined it in 1960. California Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, calls it the "white male from Yale" bias. These were the glory days, when the best and brightest signed on for life and rarely talked about it.
The public record on Goss's clandestine years is sparse. He has said he was in Cuba during the 1962 missile crisis, and also served in Western Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In 1971, he retired to southwest Florida's Sanibel Island, best known for its concentrations of seashells and retired CIA spies.
There he started a newspaper, the Island Reporter, and was elected the island's first mayor in 1974. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1988, and took over the gavel as chair of the intelligence committee in 1997. After the 9/11 attacks, Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida, then chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, collaborated on an unusual joint investigation of intelligence- community failures - a precursor to the 9/11 commission. Graham now supports Goss for CIA director.
But many colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle do not. Democrats didn't appreciate the poster Goss brought onto the floor of the House last June that cited Sen. John Kerry's 1997 call for reductions in the US intelligence apparatus after the end of the cold war. "He's far too political" for the job, says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, a member of the panel that will grill Goss.
Other issues Democrats plan to raise: Why did Goss, as chairman of the House oversight panel, fail to investigate the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame? Did he selectively declassify material to discredit former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke and help the Bush administration? And, most important, as a key player overseeing an agency now deemed dysfunctional, isn't he part of the problem?
But Democrats are unlikely to block the nomination altogether, to avoid being labeled obstructionist.