By picking a loyal GOP lawmaker to head the CIA, President Bush tried to reassert himself on an issue where he has been losing ground -- but did so at the cost of inviting Democratic accusations he is politicizing intelligence.
Aides had said six weeks ago that Bush was on the brink of naming Rep. Porter J. Goss of Florida to replace George J. Tenet, who left office a month ago today. Democratic senators, in unusually tough statements about a fellow lawmaker, warned that Goss would be an unacceptable choice because of what they described as his partisanship. Even some Republican senators said the confirmation battle would not be worth it.
Bush nominated him anyway.
Administration officials said the White House calculated that the president could not lose: Democrats would either cave when faced with a fight, or Bush could accuse them of obstructing CIA stability at a time when the nation is under threat of a terrorist attack.
Republican officials said the White House is also worried by polls showing erosion in Bush's image as commander in chief after Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) endorsed, more than a week before Bush, a reorganization of the intelligence services recommended by the commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
A Republican political operative, who requested anonymity because of participation in the party's regular conference calls, said the president turned back to Goss because "poll data showed Kerry had closed the gap with Bush on handling of terrorism and was slightly ahead as fit to be commander in chief." The operative also said polls showed the president's embrace of the commission's suggestion for a new intelligence director "was not understood by the public." Goss had to be named "to show Bush was moving ahead."
Officials in both parties said Bush's calculations about the outcome of the confirmation process are likely to prove correct. Senate Democrats said they would not fall into a trap like the one Bush set before the midterm elections of 2002, when he used his opponents' objections to his version of a Department of Homeland Security to paint them as soft on defense.
Indeed, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, a former member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, reacted cautiously to Bush's announcement.
"I believe we must have fair, bipartisan and expeditious confirmation hearings on the nomination of Porter Goss to run the CIA," he said in a statement. "But the most important position is one that hasn't been created yet, National Intelligence Director with real control of budgets and personnel. We need to move urgently on this and other recommendations by the 9/11 Commission to make America safer. . . . I hope that Congressman Goss shares this view and will now support the creation of this important post."
Even while predicting Goss would be confirmed, Democrats said they will use his hearings for a lengthy airing of what they consider the Bush administration's intelligence mistakes.
"Democrats are going to insist that the whole gamut of intelligence failures which have occurred on the Bush White House watch will be thoroughly aired, and not just 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction," a Democratic leadership aide said.
The timing of the president's surprise announcement yesterday of Goss, who has been under consideration since Tenet announced his retirement on June 3, gave Democrats in Congress another reason to argue politics is at play.
"He did it to top the Nancy Pelosi meeting," said one senior House Democrat, referring to the House minority leader, who brought her colleagues in from vacation to show their support for the 9/11 recommendations. Her call for a special session to pass reforms by the third anniversary of the attacks "will be buried," the legislator said.
Flynt L. Leverett, who was a senior director on Bush's National Security Council last year and now is informally advising Kerry, said the Goss selection was also a way for Bush to slow-walk a revision of the nation's intelligence machinery. "They could try to get serious about intel reform, which I think they're reluctant to do, or they could try to change the subject, and this is a way of changing the subject," he said.
Democrats promised Goss's confirmation hearings will be marked with examples of his recent partisanship in intelligence matters, positions that contrast with his more bipartisan approach in past years.
On June 1, Goss took part in a Bush-Cheney conference call with reporters to critique Kerry's first national security speech. He described one of Kerry's nonproliferation proposals as "naive," and answered "clearly yes," to a question about whether Bush's policy toward North Korea was producing results. North Korea, he said, is "no longer making the progress they were making at Yongbyon [their key nuclear production site] and other places because we have called their bluff."
In fact, since the Bush administration confronted the Pyongyang government, North Korea has thrown out inspectors, removed nuclear fuel from internationally monitored storage, and may have increased the size of its nuclear arsenal, according to U.S. intelligence.
On June 23, Goss stood up on the House floor during debate on the intelligence authorization bill and, using a chart about reductions in the intelligence budget in 1997, criticized "distinguished members of the Congress as Senator John Kerry" for such actions. "I got books full of that stuff," Goss said, adding: "There is no doubt where the record is. The Democratic Party did not support the intelligence community."
His remarks picked up a theme that Bush was making at the time in campaign speeches. Such actions led Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, to state he would fight Goss's appointment as CIA director, which was then in the rumor stage.
Yesterday, Rockefeller said in a statement, "I am concerned with the president's choice, but will work with Chairman [Pat] Roberts to move the process forward."