President Bush nominated Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), a CIA officer-turned-politician, as director of central intelligence yesterday and said he would rely on Goss's counsel on the politically volatile issue of intelligence reform in the midst of a presidential campaign.
"He knows the CIA inside and out," Bush said in a Rose Garden announcement yesterday morning. "He's the right man to lead this important agency at this critical moment in our nation's history."
Key Senate Democrats, who have the power to hold up the nomination by filibuster, indicated they would not oppose Goss outright but would question his independence at a time when the prewar intelligence on Iraq and the failure to thwart the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have become tender subjects for the White House.
"I am concerned with the president's choice," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. "Porter Goss will need to answer tough questions about his record and his position on reform, including questions on the independence of the leader of the intelligence community."
The nomination appeared, at least in part, to be an attempt by Bush to demonstrate leadership on intelligence as it becomes a defining factor of the campaign. Two weeks ago, the White House said it was in no hurry to find a permanent replacement for acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin. But since then, Bush's Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), has gained ground in public opinion polls for embracing all of the reforms urged by the Sept. 11 commission and challenging Bush to act. By naming Goss, Bush hopes to counter charges that he has been inattentive, and to gain a loyal leader with deep experience in intelligence matters.
Goss becomes the nominee at a time of historic demands on the intelligence community, with an elevated terrorist threat level in three major cities, a high-tempo hunt for al Qaeda around the world and a boiling insurgency in Iraq. Meanwhile, political leaders in Washington are locked in a fight over whether and how best to restructure the entire intelligence apparatus without endangering operations.
Democrats, including some who recently criticized the prospect of a Goss appointment, moderated their comments about him yesterday to avoid being viewed as obstructionist, keeping their rhetorical focus on the president.
Kerry issued a statement that did not say whether he supports Goss's nomination but that reiterated his support for the Sept. 11 commission's recommendation to create the post of national intelligence director to manage the CIA and the 14 other U.S. intelligence agencies and their budgets.
"We need to move urgently on this and other recommendations by the 9/11 Commission to make America safer," the statement read. "I hope that Congressman Goss shares this view and will now support the creation of this important post."
If confirmed, Goss will come to the job with his own ideas about reform. He recently introduced legislation to greatly elevate the authority of the CIA and its director, giving the chief the budgetary and personnel power over all 15 intelligence agencies -- an approach that bears some similarities to the Sept. 11 commission's proposal. Both Goss and the commission, however, would go further in some ways than Bush, who supports naming a national intelligence director but opposes granting that person spending and hiring-and-firing authority.
Goss announced yesterday that he would step down as committee chairman immediately, with no obvious successor. The Senate intelligence committee has not yet scheduled a nomination hearing, and leaders said they are likely to take up the matter in early September.
Goss, 65, served as a CIA case officer for nine years during the Cold War, recruiting spies in Central America and Western Europe. He retired from the agency when it appeared his traveling days were over; started a newspaper on Sanibel Island, a Florida resort; became mayor of Sanibel and then county commissioner; and was elected to the House in 1988. He took over the chairmanship of the intelligence panel eight years ago.
Although Goss has hammered the CIA in the recent past for its performance in Iraq and before Sept. 11 -- at one time calling its human intelligence "dysfunctional" -- he is viewed as a friend of the CIA to the extent that some consider him too friendly to the agency.
Former CIA officers said his appointment would bring much-needed stability at a time of great uncertainty.
"Porter Goss has always been an avid supporter of intelligence," said James L. Pavitt, who retired last week as the CIA's deputy director of operations. "If he comes in with the intent to make intelligence better and to build on the efforts we've already made . . . I think the building will get behind him. It is critically important we have a director leading the place now."
At the same time, many intelligence experts believe that Goss is partly responsible for the shortcomings of the intelligence community, given his role as chairman of the House oversight committee. "Our oversight is broken," said Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the panel.
John MacGaffin, the CIA's former number two at the Directorate of Operations and a senior FBI adviser, said: "He's better qualified than anyone else around today. At the same time, he's also part of the problem; that is, all the things the 9/11 commission chronicled went on during his watch and came as no surprise to him. The question is, when push comes to shove, can he avoid politicization and move forward on the changes?"
As intelligence committee chairman, Goss managed oversight of the CIA's budget, its performance in the field, the accuracy of its intelligence estimates, and its counterterrorism and covert operations. The agency's failures are to some extent the failures of the oversight committees, which because of secrecy demands conduct much of their work without public scrutiny.
Goss has acknowledged the need for change. "The way the intelligence business has expanded, given what we are confronted with, I'm sorry to say, but the days of a handful of people" overseeing intelligence "are gone," Goss told The Washington Post in an interview this spring.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said the question for Congress "is how Mr. Goss used his front-row seat as chairman of the House intelligence committee to make this country safer over the last seven years."
"In my view, the answer to that question will offer a valuable indication as to how Mr. Goss would protect Americans as the director of central intelligence," Wyden said.
Some intelligence experts said yesterday that they consider Goss too close to the agency to become an effective leader in a time of change.
Former CIA director Stansfield Turner, who served in the Democratic Carter administration, called Goss's nomination, "the worst . . . in the history of the job."
"To put somebody who is so highly partisan in this job will further diminish public confidence in our intelligence," Turner said.
Goss was not always seen as a partisan on intelligence matters.
On the unusual joint House-Senate panel that in 2002 investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, Goss fought aggressively with the White House and the intelligence community over access to information.
"He would always tell me, 'We are going to follow the facts wherever they lead,' " said Eleanor Hill, executive director of the joint inquiry, the first to expose the deep problems in the intelligence community. "He was extremely helpful to me. He pushed on declassification. We got a lot of push-back from the intelligence community, and he wasn't intimidated by them."
Goss's tenacity won him the respect, and now the endorsement, of Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who co-chaired the joint inquiry with him and first appointed him to a Florida county commission seat in 1983.
"He helped keep a potentially divisive, partisan circumstance under control," Graham said. "He worked hard to see the Republicans and Democrats on this committee were kept in the loop. . . . He's an independent person by nature and understands what has to be done to modernize the community."
Staff writers Helen Dewar and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.