The White House has put off for now a decision on whether to name a new CIA director before the November election, as officials continue to search for a candidate they believe could do the job and survive Senate confirmation during a heated campaign, according to senior administration and congressional officials.
For four weeks, administration officials have said President Bush would come forward with a nominee to succeed George J. Tenet, who left the post last week so the job would not be held by an acting director if terrorists attempt an attack on the U.S. homeland to disrupt the election.
Thomas R. Pickering says the timing bad right now for a new CIA leader.
(Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
The early White House favorite, Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), a former CIA case officer who is chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was expected by administration officials to breeze through confirmation because of his position on Capitol Hill. That view dissolved after senior Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, including the panel's vice chairman, John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), said they considered Goss too partisan.
With the CIA under attack for faulty intelligence on Iraq and lawmakers in both parties pushing for reform of the intelligence community, the Democrats threatened to turn a confirmation hearing for Goss or any other nominee they consider too partisan into a review of the Bush administration's prewar case for ousting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
More recently, White House aides, always speaking anonymously, have floated other names as they continue looking for a viable nominee. John E. McLaughlin, the deputy director, has taken over as acting head of the CIA, and officials said he is a candidate to hold on to the job.
Other names offered by administration officials have included Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage; former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.); former ambassador Thomas R. Pickering; Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the National Security Agency; John J. Hamre, deputy defense secretary in the Clinton administration and now president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; and former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), now co-chairman of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Bush's deputy national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, has also been mentioned in news reports, as has former Navy secretary John F. Lehman, although a White House official said last week Lehman was not under consideration.
Nunn and Pickering have said they are not interested. Armitage, a close friend of Tenet, has told friends he wants to leave government this year.
Pickering, a former senior ambassador, said in an interview that it would be a bad idea to name a director before the Nov. 2 election, given the campaign-year battle over intelligence failures.
"I could not think of a worse time" for a new director to try to take over the CIA, Pickering said. "The politics are terrible," and to survive the nominee "ought to have a solid background" within the agency and "ideas of how to reorganize it."
Nunn, who is practicing law and working on nuclear control matters through the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said in a statement he is "not interested."
When McLaughlin took over on Monday as acting director, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice hinted there may be a delay in naming a permanent successor to Tenet when she told CNN that the president is still "considering his options."
She said Bush is "looking hard at what will be needed for intelligence reform," noting that the 9/11 commission will make recommendations later this month, the Senate intelligence committee will have reform hearings next week and the president's panel, the Silberman-Robb Commission, will not report until March next year.
Rice said the president has confidence in acting director McLaughlin, describing the 32-year CIA veteran as "a very fine professional who is going to run the agency and is quite capable of doing that in a way that supports our most important priorities, including the war on terrorism."
A senior administration official, who said he believes Bush may yet put forward a nominee before the election, said the White House realizes that Senate confirmation hearings would have to be delayed until September, just weeks before Election Day.
Last Sunday, on NBC's "Meet the Press," Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said Bush will have to send up "an extraordinary nominee." If he does, Roberts went on, "we will go full time into the hearings to get him -- or her -- confirmed." Rockefeller, on the same program, said the "standard" for the nominee should be that "whoever is reelected or elected president will [want to] continue to use that person."
In his first week on the job, McLaughlin gave interviews to National Public Radio and CNN and is scheduled to appear on Fox News Sunday, in effect introducing himself to a wider audience than he has reached before.
"Being acting director doesn't mean being part-time director. This is a full-time job," he said on CNN. "That's what the president has asked me to do." He added, "It's his decision whether I continue in this capacity or whether he nominates someone else."
Yesterday, in a pep talk to CIA employees, McLaughlin acknowledged that "as an agency and a community, we are taking some heat right now, and there will be more when the 9/11 commission releases its findings, perhaps as early as next week."
"Some criticism is justified; much is not," he said, adding, "we will correct the record when critics go too far."