BY ANY CONVENTIONAL standard, Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) is an ideal nominee to serve as director of central intelligence. Not only has he spent the past several years heading the intelligence committee in the House of Representatives, but he served earlier in his career in military intelligence and, for nine years, as a clandestine officer in the CIA itself. He has, in other words, a rare combination of substantial insider experience and the vantage point of someone who has also served in an oversight capacity that has given him insight into reforms that ought to take place in the intelligence world.
That said, Mr. Goss's nomination is likely to spark controversy -- and not just because it comes mere months before an election in which intelligence reform and terrorism are substantial issues. While Mr. Goss has Democratic admirers, key Democratic senators have questioned whether he is too partisan for the supposedly politically neutral job of heading the nation's intelligence effort. Indeed, under his leadership, the bipartisanship that has traditionally marked the work of the House intelligence committee has eroded over the past year. This is not all Mr. Goss's fault; bipartisanship is on the run just about everywhere, and committee Democrats have certainly played a role in the deterioration of relations. But neither is he blameless, and the decision to nominate him consequently risks picking a fight.
Any such fight would be exceptionally unfortunate, as it would further politicize the ongoing debate -- sparked by the recent Sept. 11 commission report -- over intelligence reform. Indeed, because of that debate, the job to which Mr. Goss has been nominated is something of a moving target. Part of the core of the discussion, after all, is whether and how to split the functions of the director of central intelligence. As a consequence, it is not at all clear at this stage exactly what job Mr. Goss is being nominated to fill. This problem is only compounded by the possibility of a change in administration. Having an acting intelligence chief in a time of heightened terrorism concerns is certainly undesirable, and a nominee who would command a broad bipartisan consensus and would be likely to be retained by whoever wins in November would be the surest way to guarantee that the war on terrorism continues at full vigor. But installing a new director of central intelligence immediately will hardly serve this end if Mr. Bush ultimately fails to win reelection and John F. Kerry then chooses to replace Mr. Goss. The latter's accession, if that comes to pass, will have caused only an additional set of transitions, all taking place in a sensitive time. Mr. Goss is undoubtedly well qualified to head the CIA. But it is fair to ask whether nominating a figure of partisan controversy in an election year to a post in flux by an administration that may well cease to exist is the best way to ensure continuity in the intelligence community's crucial work and bipartisanship in the larger debate over reform.