by Jim Lobe
After endorsing an appeal from the bipartisan 9/11 Commission to drastically overhaul the U.S. intelligence community, President George W. Bush on Tuesday nominated as his next director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) the longtime chair of a congressional panel that the commission called complacent in the run-up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The choice of Rep. Porter Goss, who has chaired the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives since 1996, drew skepticism from a number of sources, who said Goss’ tenure had been marked primarily by his coziness with former CIA Director George Tenet, at least until the administration decided it would try to blame all its pre-war claims about Iraq on the agency.
“When George Tenet announced his retirement I made it clear that I thought his replacement should be someone of unquestioned capability and independence who could restore the credibility of America’s intelligence community,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the ranking opposition Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which must now hold confirmation hearings on the Goss nomination.
“I said then and I still believe that the selection of a politician — any politician, from any party — is a mistake,” Rockefeller added, noting that the nominee “will need to answer tough questions about his record and his position on reform, including questions on the independence of the leader of the intelligence community.”
Others were more blunt. Stansfield Turner, the CIA director under former President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) described the nomination as the “worst in the history of the post,” while Mel Goodman, a former top CIA analyst, currently at the Center for International Policy (CIP), said the Florida congressman “has all the wrong credentials,” including a nine-year stint in the 1960s as a covert CIA operative in Latin America and Europe.
Still others described Goss as a “cat’s paw” for Vice President Dick Cheney, whose office, according to a number of retired intelligence officials, played a key role in corrupting the intelligence process in the run-up to Washington’s attack on Iraq in March 2003.
The nomination, which is also for the position of director of central intelligence (DCI), comes amid an increasingly intense debate sparked by the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission to urgently reorganize the intelligence community in light of its total failure, despite numerous opportunities, to detect and prevent the 9/11 attacks.
The most far-reaching of the proposals include the creation of a White House-based national intelligence director (NID) who would allocate the $40-billion-a-year budget among the 15 different agencies that make up the intelligence community, and hire and fire the directors of each one. While the DCI is supposed to oversee all 15 agencies, only the CIA falls under his direct control, and about 90 percent of the intelligence budget goes to agencies that are controlled by the Pentagon.
After considerable pressure from the 9/11 Commission itself, Bush accepted the notion of creating a NID but rejected giving the post such far-reaching powers. His reaction drew scorn from reform proponents in Congress, which last month created a special committee to draft legislation that would put most of the commission’s proposals into practice.
The fact that the intelligence community’s future is so uncertain made Goss’ nomination for a position whose job description may be substantially altered in the coming months particularly remarkable, especially because the administration recently retreated from signs that it was in a hurry to replace Tenet with a political appointee.
But White House concern that Bush would be blamed for not providing new leadership to the flagship spy agency in the event that a new terrorist attack takes place on U.S. territory before the November elections apparently forced the decision. Having nominated Goss, the administration would be able to shift blame onto the Democrats if a terrorist attack does in fact occur and its nominee has not yet been confirmed.
Goss, who has long been mentioned as a leading candidate for the job and has actively campaigned for it, has spent 16 years in the House, where he acquired a reputation as a relatively moderate Republican and Bush family loyalist who was primarily interested in intelligence and the environment. Like Bush himself, Goss, who is 65, was born into wealth in Connecticut and graduated from Yale University before joining the CIA.
First as a member and then chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Goss made himself a champion of the CIA and Tenet on Capitol Hill, until the moment in June when Tenet announced his resignation — and then Goss transformed himself virtually overnight into one of the agency’s fiercest and most partisan critics.
That “abrupt shift,” as the Wall Street Journal described it, was particularly dramatic on the release of a staff report by the committee that accused the CIA of “ignoring its core mission … for too long. There is a dysfunctional denial of any need for corrective action,” the report declared, adding that the CIA was heading “over a proverbial cliff” after years of mismanagement and neglect.
Goss’ sudden about-face was particularly galling for Tenet, who fired back, calling the staff report “frankly absurd.” The Los Angeles Times called Goss’ behavior “particularly brazen,” noting that if things were so bad, “where was Mr. Intelligence Committee Chairman all those years?”
That criticism was less directly expressed in the 9/11 Commission’s final report, which scored both congressional intelligence committees for failing to take seriously al-Qaeda and other terrorist threats in advance of 9/11, but noted that the House committee had the worst record of the six major national-security panels, having held only two hearings devoted to counter-terrorism in the three and a half years before the attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Goss has also been criticized for excessive loyalty to the Bush administration.
At Cheney’s behest two years ago, he fought for denying the 9/11 Commission the power to subpoena witnesses and key White House documents in negotiations in Congress, according to a Newsweek account. More recently he has battled his Democratic vice chair, California Rep. Jane Harman, over resisting hearings on the role of Bush political appointees — particularly in the Pentagon and Cheney’s office — in pressuring the intelligence community, especially the CIA, to tailor its analyses to the administration’s political goals.
Goss’ role as the Bush-Cheney campaign’s choice to criticize Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s speech on national-security issues in early June also did little to endear him to Democrats; indeed, it prompted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to rule out the possibility of supporting him for CIA director.
Several retired CIA officials agreed that Goss has been both too close to the CIA and to the administration to be a credible director. Ray McGovern, a retired career officer, scorned him for being a “Republican party loyalist first and foremost,” who “has long shown himself to be under [Cheney’s] spell and would likely report primarily to him and to White House political adviser Karl Rove.”
“Goss was a very strong supporter of the agency and not one who was ever associated with any proposal for change, or, for lack of a better word, reform,” said David McMichael, a former CIA analyst. “To find him being the nominee can be interpreted as saying, ‘This is business as usual.'”
Jim Lobe is Inter Press Service’s correspondent in Washington, DC.