The CIA director's coat caught fire. Smoke rose from Allen Dulles's tan tweed jacket as he sat behind his desk, lighting his pipe, talking to a young Porter Goss. Goss was hoping to become a clandestine service officer. This was his final interview.

"And I thought, Oh my God, this is part of the test, this is the last test. Do I scream 'Fire'? Do I dump coffee on him? What do I do?" Goss told an interviewer in 2002. "And so, finally, during the next question -- as smoke was billowing out -- I just sort of stared at his coat with a look of alarm. And that's all that ever happened, and I never knew whether it was part of the test. But, anyway, I got the job."

More than 40 years later, Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) is being considered for another intelligence job, this time as the agency's chief. During his Senate confirmation hearings, set to start tomorrow, the former chairman of the House intelligence committee will face a different kind of test. The intelligence community, which failed to stop the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and to provide an accurate assessment of prewar Iraq, is by many accounts, in flames. For some observers, Goss's suitability for the job comes down to these questions:

Did Goss, as oversight chairman, see these failings and, if he did, how did he respond?

For a man who is often described as affable and straightforward, Goss, 65, is caught up in a complicated nomination. Amid proposals for intelligence reform, his job title and duties remain unclear. With a presidential election in seven weeks, his tenure is uncertain, and his hearings will take place in the turmoil of a political season. While supporters hail him as experienced and steady, critics assail him as too partisan and, like the young man who watched the CIA director's jacket burn, inclined to do nothing.

White-haired and with a patrician bearing, he is an insider's insider -- a former officer with Army intelligence and the CIA, and an eight-year veteran of the intelligence committee. While some point to his resume as proof that he is part of the problem, others wave it to say that he's the solution.

"Porter Goss is uniquely qualified," said his friend, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who co-chaired with Goss the joint congressional inquiry into the intelligence community's performance surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks. "The position urgently needs the kind of leadership he can bring. He's the right person at the right time to do this job."

"It's totally insane," said the former spy and CIA critic Bob Baer of Goss's nomination. "He was hand in glove with [ex-CIA director George J.] Tenet on just about everything. . . . He has an unhealthy attachment to the past."

Baer said he once testified before Goss's committee: "It was a public gesture. Afterward he said, 'Great work,' like a politician. What he really meant to say was: 'If you don't shut your mouth, I'm gonna cut your throat.' "

Goss and his staff declined to be interviewed in the lead-up to his hearings. Although recently Goss has stepped up criticism of the agency, in 2002 he told a Washington Post reporter he would not use the word "failure" to describe the intelligence lapses before Sept. 11. "I don't like to see the left-wingers splattering mud on an agency that's done some very fine work. It demoralizes people taking the risk," he said.

Despite the controversy over his nomination, observers expect that Goss will be confirmed. Hill Democrats concede that they are reluctant to block his appointment, for fear of being accused of obstructing the war on terrorism. Republicans admire the eight-term congressman, who has served on the powerful House Rules Committee, and who counts former president George H.W. Bush, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Vice President Cheney among his friends.

Things tend to work out for Goss, he has noticed, attributing his success to deus ex machina, a Latin phrase that means, literally, "god from a machine." In the plays Goss studied as a classics major at Yale, a god would appear at the last minute like a lightning bolt to resolve a crisis.

"My whole life is just bumping from one thing to another," Goss told the Times of the Islands, a Florida Gulf Coast magazine, in the same interview in which he described Dulles's smoking jacket. His life has been, he said, a fortuitous chain, linked by twists of fate.

A Life of Secrets

Goss, a multimillionaire, grew up in Waterbury, Conn., in the type of old New England family where last names were given as first names. (A longtime friend described Goss's family as "rich," as opposed to his wife's, which was "filthy rich.") At Yale, he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and signed up with Army intelligence.

Before he graduated in 1960, in what Goss described as a deus ex machina moment, he took a wrong turn at the graduate employment center and bumped into a recruiter for the CIA. At first, Goss has said, he thought he was talking to a representative from his father's metal company. He told the CIA recruiter he had stopped by to say hello to his father's friends. The recruiter assumed Goss was the son of a spook. By the time they straightened things out, he was hooked.

Goss read the agency's book list on spies and on Russia and passed the polygraph test, in which he was forced to confess embarrassing secrets. During training, he learned how to pick locks, jump out of planes at night, drive a boat through an ice storm and blow things up. He also underwent psychological training, studying the art of manipulation.

He kept his activities secret. "I made up this cock-and-bull story," he told Times of the Islands. Friends and family thought Goss worked at the Pentagon, as a second lieutenant in intelligence.

For the rest of the 1960s, Goss took undercover assignments in the Middle East, Central Europe, South America and Africa, recruiting and supervising spies.

Then on a visit to Washington in 1970, he was found unconscious in his hotel room and was hospitalized with what he called systemic blood poisoning. The source of the poisoning was never discovered. Former colleagues still whisper about a jab from an umbrella tipped with ricin, only half in jest.

Goss's cloak-and-dagger life ended as unexpectedly as it had begun. Weakened from months in the hospital, Goss, then 31, chose to resign from the CIA rather than accept a desk job. His face pale and gaunt, his heart, lungs and kidneys damaged, Goss and his wife, Mariel, looked south for a place to recover. Grace Whitehead of Sanibel Island, Fla., whose husband had been Goss's boss in Europe, recalled a phone call from Goss's nurse in 1971: "She said, 'Porter wants a house.' I said, 'How many children?' She said, 'Four children, two dogs, a cat and two turtles.' "

Goss, along with two other ex-CIA colleagues who had retired to Sanibel, started the Island Boat Rental out of a shack, using a shoebox for a cash register. They later founded a newspaper, the Island Reporter, on Whitehead's dining room table. Their activities turned political in a drive to stem development. Goss and his friends led the effort to incorporate the island, creating a City Council, which, in 1974, elected Goss as the city's first mayor.

Residents who opposed incorporation resented the "Sanibel spooks" and distributed fliers charging that the CIA was taking over their island.

Others, such as Charles Bigelow, called them "the CIA cabal." Bigelow served on the Lee County Commission with Goss when Graham, then Florida's governor, appointed Goss to a vacancy on the commission in 1982. In time, Bigelow said, he grew to respect Goss for his ability to frame issues: "He's a master of political language."

That said, Goss is reticent by nature, friends said. They described his style as quiet, low-key. "It's frayed Brooks Brothers," Whitehead said. "He always carried this leather attache. You know it's 100 percent Italian leather, but it looks like it's been dragged through three wars."

Even Goss's family found him reserved. "As children, we knew you didn't ask Dad," said Goss's son Mason, 36. "There's so much I don't know. I guess it's by design."

Mason Goss and his siblings discovered that their father had served in Army intelligence and in the CIA only when Goss ran for Congress in 1988. They read about his spying life in a newspaper profile. Mason: "One of us said, 'Is that true?' It was, 'Yup,' and that was that."

Goss seldom gave his children advice, his son said, "but he'd always say, 'You need to finish the race.' " The adage has taken on new meaning, Mason said, now that Goss is poised to lead the CIA decades after illness had forced him to drop out. "Maybe here's a way for my dad to complete something -- a race I didn't even know he was running."

Partisan Objections

Not everyone on the sidelines is cheering.

Democratic members of the House intelligence committee say Goss is a GOP loyalist, who, as intelligence chief, would be co-opted by a Republican White House. They said Goss had refused to investigate why the Bush administration had falsely asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He also refused to probe a possible intelligence connection to prisoner abuse in Iraq and media leaks exposing a covert CIA agent's identity.

Some Democrats were also angered this summer when he attacked Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry for proposing intelligence cuts in 1997. Goss himself had sponsored legislation in the 1990s that would have cut intelligence personnel by 20 percent, a deeper cut than Kerry's.

Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), an intelligence panel member, said Goss is "a good person," but a party stalwart who failed to implement needed reform: "He's a steady hand, but I don't see him as a reformer because we didn't do that in the committee, not in a meaningful way."

The Family Steering Committee, representing relatives of Sept. 11 victims, also has opposed Goss's nomination. "Do we want someone who failed in oversight capacities to lead the intelligence community?" said Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband worked on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center. "I don't see the point in promoting people who fail at their jobs."

Breitweiser said that when the victims' families met with Goss to advocate an independent commission to investigate the attacks, he was not supportive. Four steering committee members said that when they made the rounds on Capitol Hill, Goss's staff turned them away, saying that he wasn't there. Mindy Kleinberg, whose husband, Alan, worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center, recalled pushing into Goss's office, only to find the congressman hiding: "They said he wasn't there -- and he was right behind the door." Goss's spokeswoman did not return repeated calls for comment.

Another critic, Melvin Goodman, a CIA analyst for 24 years, said Goss had the wrong background for the job because he had worked for the operational side of the CIA and did not understand the agency's analytical role. Goss's call for increased human intelligence, or undercover agents, was "simplistic nonsense," said Goodman, because agents would not be able to penetrate the "small groups of nihilistic cousins" that make up al Qaeda cells.

Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst, said that Goss's reputation on the Hill as a political mediator was also a negative: "If someone is popular in Congress, to the intelligence person that is the kiss of death. If you tell the truth, you're going to be unpopular."

Baer said that when he appeared before Goss's committee, the chairman was not sufficiently aggressive in his questions: "We had a saying in the CIA, 'Keep them in the dark and feed them manure, like mushrooms.' " Fundamentally, Baer said, Goss is an anachronism: "His knowledge of the CIA is from a romantic era."

Nominee Has Defenders, Too

But one prominent Goss supporter, former CIA director R. James Woolsey, said that harking back to an earlier time "might not be all bad. When Porter was a case officer, the agency had a bolder view of what they could and should do. One should not assume that the evolution over 30 years has been in a direction that we want." Woolsey said Goss has good judgment, strength of character and experience as an operations officer, which would be a plus in the war on terror, since "terrorists don't go to embassy receptions."

Robert Andrews, a former defense official who was responsible for policy on the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said Goss's understanding of the war on terror is more sophisticated than most, noting his approach to the detainees. "They were considered by most of the policy community in D.C. as a big pain in the butt," Andrews said. When Andrews needed financial or logistical support, "Porter was our go-to guy, because he understood their value as an intelligence source." One of the detainees had been Osama bin Laden's driver, Andrews said, and a handful had been his bodyguards.

Another Goss defender, Eleanor Hill, former staff director of the joint congressional inquiry, dismissed charges that Goss was soft on the agency. She said that in 2003, he negotiated with the intelligence community for seven months, pushing to declassify larger portions of the joint report: "He went to the mat with the community on that."

As for complaints that Goss failed as an intelligence overseer, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a supporter, said, "It's not true about the person -- it is true about the Congress." Congressional oversight of intelligence -- described as "dysfunctional" in the recent Sept. 11 commission report -- is a larger problem that should not be pinned on Goss, Nelson said.

"The CIA needs a leader, and Porter will be that strong leader," Nelson said, adding after a beat, "Until John Kerry is elected. Then I expect the CIA director to be Bob Graham."

It's enough to send Goss running for his summer home on Fisher Island, off the coast of Connecticut. Or perhaps packing off to Retreat Farm, his 575-acre expanse in Orange County, Va., where miniature donkeys guard karakul sheep and conservancy chickens lay pale green eggs. "This is the opposite of Washington," Goss was quoted as saying of his organic farm in the August issue of Virginia Living. "This is nice. This is not cutthroat."

It's his basic decency that may be his biggest challenge, Woolsey said: "He's a very nice guy. He may have to shuck a bit of his niceness."

"He's always been so well liked," said his Sanibel friend Grace Whitehead. "It's going to be hard for him." Whitehead recalled the amiable Goss back when his shock of white hair was curly brown. He had joined the local theater and was acting in the role of Hermes, messenger of the gods. Goss wore wings on his heels and on his helmet. He wore his wife's white silk nightgown, cut off at the knees, trimmed with Christmas tinsel.

"Porter was a ravishing beauty in this nightgown," Whitehead said. During intermission, Goss stepped outside and smoked a cigarette. His biggest worry as an Olympian god was that the wind would blow up his nightgown. Just in case, Goss wore a pair of matching satin panties. A joke, Whitehead said, compared to the troubles that come with being intelligence chief.

Whitehead chuckled. "It's a dreadful job; he may need help from the gods."

Time for a deus ex machina.

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Hearings start tomorrow on Rep. Porter J. Goss's nomination.In August, President Bush nominated Rep. Porter J. Goss (D-Fla.), a former spy, to head the CIA. Porter Goss, left, with wife Mariel and son Mason. About his tight-lipped father, Mason says: "There's so much I don't know. I guess it's by design."In 1984, Goss was elected to a four-year term on the Lee County Commission in Florida, after he was appointed to a vacancy.In 2002, Rep. Goss co-chaired a congressional inquiry into intelligence about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with Sen. Bob Graham (D.-Fla.), right.