It was a quiet day in September, in a small town in Florida, but Porter Goss could not quell his anxiety about an impending attack by international terrorists. They were coming, he said, and they were certain to pass through the local airport.
It was time to act. An ex-CIA man turned politician, Goss backed a mission worthy of a spy movie. He voted to arm airport cops with Uzis -- those stubby black submachine guns that can deal death at the rate of 10 bullets a second.
"Terrorists pick on the weak," Goss warned. "We're telling people that if you plan to come here and cause trouble, you won't get away with it."
And so it came to pass that the commissioners of Lee County, Fla. -- with Goss as chairman -- procured eight Uzis to defend the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, in the retiree haven of Fort Myers, against the menace of global terrorism. Catering as it did to snow-weary tourists from America's heartland, the airport never faced a hijacking or any other showdown with murderous criminals. The guns were never used.
Today Rep. Goss (R-Fla.) blushes, then laughs, when reminded of that vote 16 years ago. He chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and is one of Congress's most respected voices on terrorism. Those Uzis, he says, sent a message that the little airport was serious: "The idea was, if we're going to play in the big time, we have to be big time."
An overreaction? Perhaps, but today it gives Goss the sheen of prescience. The terrorists were coming, eventually. Now the main question facing Goss, as he helps steer a joint House-Senate investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks, is why nobody in the far-flung intelligence bureaucracy -- 13 agencies spending billions of dollars -- paid attention to the enemy among us. Until it was too late.
Goss says he is looking for solutions, not scapegoats. "A lot of nonsense," he calls this week's uproar about a CIA briefing that alerted President Bush, five weeks before Sept. 11, that Osama bin Laden's associates might be planning airline hijackings.
"None of this is news, but it's all part of the finger-pointing," Goss declared yesterday in a rare display of pique. "It's foolishness."
A well-mannered legislator with a well-manicured pedigree (Connecticut-born, wealthy, Yale Class of '60, major in ancient Greek), Goss has repeatedly refused to blame an "intelligence failure" for the terror attacks. As a 10-year veteran of the CIA's clandestine operations wing, Goss prefers to praise the agency's "fine work."
"The trouble with the failure word," he says, "is that it is being used politically for various agendas."
"We're not in the 'Gotcha!' business," agrees Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Goss's friend and, as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, co-chair of the investigation. Both say the crucial issue isn't what the president knew before 9/11 but whyhe didn't have more precise intelligence to act upon.
"The right question is, why didn't the president have the necessary intelligence to take the right steps to avoid the tragedy?" says Goss.
As Graham put it, "No one should expect the president or members of Congress to go put on their James Bond uniforms and become case officers."
On and off Capitol Hill, some critics have been grumbling that Goss is too close to the CIA and that Graham is inclined to tread softly, too.