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A Cloak But No Dagger

"We're like a watchmaker who can't do things in a delicate environment," says another counterterrorism expert. "We've lost the feeling in our fingertips."

"I certainly concur with that," Goss says. "Wholeheartedly.

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"I know what a good penetration of a hard target is -- and looks like, talks like and sounds like," he adds, explaining how his background serves him well on the oversight committee. "We are being too namby-pamby about taking risks to get the good penetrations of the hard targets in denied areas. . . . Now, that's the old guy talking to you.

"It's changed very much," he says of the spy agency. "I don't think I could get a job as a case officer today."

Before President Bush's election, Goss's name surfaced as a candidate for the top CIA job amid speculation that Bush would replace Director George Tenet, a Clinton appointee. But Goss brushes that off as a rumor "traveling around the Beltway smoke circuit" and says, "I have never asked for [that] job."

Goss supported Tenet as a holdover and has not wavered in his support amid calls by others for Tenet's resignation after 9/11. After blasting Tenet last fall, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman, also described Goss as "close to a lot of people" at the CIA, telling Roll Call, "I don't think we should be too close to anybody we have oversight of, because you can't do your job."

But other prominent Republicans -- namely Bush and Vice President Cheney -- maintain great faith in Goss. Though Goss had said he would not run again, Cheney was dispatched earlier this year and helped persuade him not to retire. Goss also recalls seeing the president on two occasions and quotes him thusly:

" 'Porter, listen, I really want you to stay.' He said, 'This intelligence stuff is important. I want you here.' " And, Bush told him, "You've got it exactly right."

Going for the Gold

On the morning of Sept. 11, Goss and Graham were having breakfast with a Pakistani general named Mahmud Ahmed -- the soon-to-be-sacked head of Pakistan's intelligence service. Ahmed ran a spy agency notoriously close to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.

A Goss aide handed a note to his boss. Goss read it and handed it to Graham. Soon they would evacuate the Capitol, but not before Goss, the designated speaker pro tempore, symbolically opened the House for one minute.

The discussion that morning touched on Taliban links to terrorism, but Goss says his greatest worry was the dispute in Kashmir -- and the nuclear weapons possessed by feuding Pakistan and India. A few weeks earlier, Goss and other lawmakers had visited the region on a fact-finding tour, but he admits he wasn't focused on bin Laden at the time.

"I had it wrong," he says. "I was looking east [toward Kashmir] instead of west [toward Afghanistan] when I was standing in Islamabad."

He says this with no embarrassment or defensiveness. This is part of why people like Goss. When he gets it wrong, he doesn't dissemble. "Seek Ye the Truth" -- that's the CIA's motto. He would affix the same slogan to his investigation.

"This is a professional, responsible, nonpartisan activity," Goss says. But as far as what kind of weaknesses, flaws or lapses (don't call them failures) he thinks the investigation will uncover -- and how to fix them -- there is little point asking. The chairman is an impenetrable target in a denied area.

That's the way it is in the intelligence game. "You can spend two hours in here saying, 'I've talked to Porter Goss,' and still not have a clue what my plans and intentions are," the Company man says, before bidding farewell to his interrogator with a handshake and smile.


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