President Bush has decided he needs to choose a new CIA director to replace George J. Tenet before the election, and the leading candidate is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter J. Goss, senior administration officials said yesterday.
Goss (R-Fla.), who served as a CIA case officer for nine years beginning in 1962, has announced he will retire from Congress at the end of the year. After Tenet announced he would leave in July, Goss, 65, told reporters he had not been approached for the job but "would have to consider it seriously if offered."
Although administration officials predicted yesterday that winning Senate confirmation for Goss would be little more than a formality, some Democrats disagreed and predicted such hearings would assertively probe both the CIA's performance under Bush and Goss's fitness for the job. Democrats have urged Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to prepare for an extensive confirmation hearing this fall, according to several Democratic congressional aides.
White House officials had said earlier they were contemplating leaving Tenet's top deputy, John McLaughlin, as the acting head of the agency after Tenet leaves July 11. But the White House has been told to expect blistering criticism of the CIA in a report from the Senate Intelligence Committee in the next few weeks, and McLaughlin was intimately involved in many of the decisions and conclusions that will be called into question. Bush aides also said the president wants someone who can play a strong leadership role within the agency and in public.
Administration officials said Bush is focusing on Goss as his choice for the job, although White House communications director Dan Bartlett said last night that no final decision has been made. "The president has not made a decision, and there's more than one candidate," Bartlett told the Associated Press.
Bush advisers said naming a replacement for Tenet would show that the president was taking seriously the need for changes in the intelligence community. But several Democrats noted yesterday that if Kerry won the November election, it would be unlikely that he would keep Goss, should he win Senate approval.
On Capitol Hill late yesterday, as word of the potential appointment circulated, senior Republican and Democratic staff members said there has been no word given to the Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) or to the ranking Democrat, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.). "It is the Democrats that give advance notice to the Senate, not these Republicans," one GOP congressional staffer said. Even high-ranking CIA officials were left in the dark, according to one senior intelligence official.
The administration officials who spoke on a guarantee of anonymity said that if Bush were to choose someone inside the administration, it would risk a drawn-out inquest into the decision making that led to the invasion of Iraq, which is the subject of several investigations.
But Democrats on the Hill disputed the idea that Goss would sail through the process. "We could have a referendum on the CIA," said one senior Democratic staff member yesterday.
Intelligence will come under close scrutiny during the presidential campaign, one reason that led Tenet to leave before the end of the year. While Republicans said choosing Goss would give Bush a clean break and allow him to say that changes were being made, Democrats yesterday responded that some would describe Goss as an attempt to politicize the agency directorship.
Rockefeller has told aides he is concerned that Goss, a vocal supporter of Bush's, has become "too political" for the CIA director job, an aide to the senator said yesterday.
Goss was selected by the Bush-Cheney campaign to critique a June 2 national security speech by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). Goss called Kerry's nonproliferation proposals "unrealistic and dangerously naive," saying they amounted to saying, "We're going to get all the nukes in a lockbox somehow."
As the intelligence authorization bill was on the House floor Wednesday, Goss gave what could be considered a speech in support of his candidacy for CIA director.
"For the past seven-plus years, I have been working to refit the intelligence community for its future . . . to posture it for the days ahead. We have always worked hard on the committee to create a constituency for intelligence inside and outside of this institution. We have insisted that the committee be both supportive advocates and constructive overseers."
The report on the bill by Goss's panel sharply criticized the CIA for "ignoring its core missional activities" and having "a dysfunctional denial of any need for corrective action."
In an unusually frank letter, Tenet yesterday wrote Goss that his criticism was "ill informed" and "frankly absurd."