For most of his 15 years in the House, Porter J. Goss had a reputation as a Florida Republican true to his Connecticut and Yale roots: conservative in his outlook but accommodationist in his tactics and rarely itching to start a public fight.
The low-key approach helped the multimillionaire former CIA officer form lasting alliances with many of his Democratic colleagues despite his role in the conservative House GOP leadership. He voiced criticism of both the CIA and the Bush administration during a congressional inquiry into intelligence failures before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But over the past year or so, Goss's accommodating style on intelligence matters has begun to change. This summer, he took to the floor of the House on behalf of the Bush campaign, leading an unusually pointed attack on Democrats and their presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). He feuded with Democrats on his own House intelligence committee over how deeply the panel should probe intelligence missteps before the Iraq war and other issues.
This apparent transformation appears likely to be at the heart of an extensive Senate debate this fall over Goss's nomination to head the CIA. Republicans yesterday hailed Goss's extraordinary career as both a clandestine intelligence officer and chairman of the House intelligence committee, while Democrats and CIA critics argued that too often he curried favor with the Bush White House and is too closely identified with the hidebound culture of the CIA.
Over the past month, Goss, 65, exhibited little enthusiasm for the broad intelligence changes proposed by the Sept. 11 commission, urging caution instead and proposing legislation to expand the power and budget of his old agency.
"It's regrettable that he's as close to the agency as he is," said Frank J. Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative Washington think tank. "He's been implicated in the dysfunctional congressional oversight that the 9/11 commission documented. I don't know that those things are disqualifying, but there may be other candidates that are better."
Because of his experience with intelligence, "no one is going to blow smoke at him," said Robert McNamara, former general counsel at the CIA. "But one of his challenges he'll have is to completely divorce himself from the policy side of things."
Bush officials and leading Republicans said yesterday that Goss's history as an old CIA hand and political mediator would serve him well as CIA director, even as Congress and the administration quarrel over proposed changes in the intelligence system during a presidential campaign. Old friends and colleagues from both parties also said that the skills needed to steer the CIA are similar to those used by Goss 30 years ago, when he began as a small-town Florida mayor balancing the needs of environmentalists and land developers.
Sen. Bob Graham, the departing Florida Democrat, worked closely with Goss during the Sept. 11 inquiry and on numerous other intelligence issues over the years. When Graham was Florida's governor, he appointed Goss, then the GOP mayor of Sanibel, to the Lee County Commission, which had been rocked by scandal over the construction of a regional airport.
"He helped bring the commission back to a position of public respect," Graham said.
Goss's time in Lee County also provided a glimpse of his early concerns about terrorism -- including the commission's purchase in the 1980s of eight Uzi submachine guns for police officers at the Southwest Florida Regional Airport.
Goss grew up in Waterbury, Conn. He attended the Hotchkiss preparatory school and went on to Yale University, where he joined the Army ROTC, majored in ancient Greek and had his first encounter with the CIA.
He worked in the CIA's clandestine operations division over the next decade, recruiting and supervising spies in Central America and Western Europe, though Goss has always declined to provide many details. In 1970, during a trip to Washington from London, Goss collapsed from a blood infection that attacked his heart and kidneys. The illness required months of difficult recuperation.
The CIA offered him a desk job, but Goss reluctantly decided to retire from the agency instead. He moved to Sanibel Island, an environmentally pristine enclave of high-end homes near Fort Myers on Florida's west coast that is also home to many former clandestine officers. With two other agency veterans, Goss started a local newspaper, the Island Reporter. He made his first venture into politics during the development wars that roiled Florida in the 1970s.
Goss's political maneuverings in Sanibel provide a glimpse of his later role in Washington, friends and associates say. As Sanibel's first mayor in 1974, he was instrumental in incorporating the city and helped fend off landowner lawsuits challenging restrictive zoning laws that kept out most development.
Yet staking out a position as an anti-growth environmentalist did not stop Goss from gaining the support of local builders' groups, who noticed his penchant for balancing business and preservation interests after he was appointed to the Lee County board by Graham.
Through most of his career on Capitol Hill, Goss has been seen as a straight shooter, well regarded on both sides of the aisle, even though on most key issues he has sided with the conservative GOP leadership. Part of Goss's high profile in the House stems from his less publicized role as vice chairman of the House Rules Committee, the body that plays traffic cop to legislation reaching the floor. Democrats see him as part of the highly partisan Republican leadership that has sharply constricted votes permitted on controversial bills.
Several Democratic aides said yesterday that he has taken a more partisan stance recently as the Bush administration's intelligence record has come under heavier criticism from Democrats.
Immediately after the 2001 attacks, Goss worked closely and smoothly with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats on terrorism and intelligence issues, one senior Democratic aide said. But more recently "Porter has been under heavy pressure from the administration to carry its water on a lot of things on the Hill," the aide added.
In one example widely cited by Democrats, Goss helped derail -- although only temporarily -- a bipartisan, bicameral deal to create the Sept. 11 commission in the fall of 2002. Negotiators thought they had a deal, but Goss insisted he had not signed off on it.
More recently, Goss angered some Democratic colleagues this summer during a debate over the intelligence budget, when he held up a sign quoting Kerry in 1977 as saying, "Now that that struggle, the Cold War, is over, why is it that our vast intelligence apparatus continues to grow?"
"I got books full of that stuff," Goss said at the time. "There is no doubt where the record is. The Democratic Party did not support the intelligence community."
When Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) said he was stunned Goss would "distort the record on the floor of the House," Goss backed down, saying he did not mean "to be combative or confrontational or to be insensitive or to in any way offend my colleagues on the other side."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), a member of the House intelligence committee that Goss chairs, said Goss has refused to investigate why the administration falsely asserted Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, as well as a possible intelligence connection to prisoner abuse in Iraq and the media leaks surrounding a CIA officer's identity.
"We have not done our job; we have not had the kind of oversight we should have had in those areas," Reyes said, adding that when it comes to probing the agency, Goss "was much more aggressive when we had a Democrat in the White House."
Goss had planned not to run for reelection in 2002, but President Bush and other Republicans urged him to continue after the Sept. 11 attacks because of his intelligence background.
Two years later, Goss had definitively ruled out running for another term and had indicated that he and his wife, Mariel, planned to spend more time together at their 575-acre farm in Rapidan, Va., where they raise Piedmont cattle, karakul sheep and seasonal produce.
On Sanibel Island yesterday, his old friend Sam Bailey was thinking about the evenings they have spent together, sipping wine, in Goss's waterfront Florida home.
"I feel a little sorry for him; he won't have much time to use it now," he said.
Staff writers Helen Dewar, Juliet Eilperin and Dana Priest in Washington and Manuel Roig-Franzia on Sanibel Island; researcher Don Pohlman; and research editor Margot Williams contributed to this report.