President Bush's nominee to lead the embattled CIA pledged yesterday to shelve his partisan Republican rhetoric and to encourage the agency's overseas operatives to take more risks in spying and counterterrorism operations.
"I believe that the message is out . . . that nice spies is not the formula right now, that risk will be rewarded. But I don't believe there's a full confidence in those words yet" among CIA officers, Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in a hearing on his nomination to replace George J. Tenet.
"What will I do? I will try and put confidence behind those words. . . . I will give them the chance to make the mistakes out there," Goss said. "I will give them more leash. . . . I'll probably be up here explaining to you, hopefully in closed session, about why something went wrong."
Goss, a former CIA case officer who until recently headed the House intelligence committee, predicted it would take the CIA longer than the five years Tenet had promised to rebuild the agency's human intelligence capabilities.
"On a scale of 10, we're about a three in terms of build-back," he said. "In my estimation, five years is not enough. The great bulk of what we need is more than five years out there."
The CIA, he added later in a discussion about terrorism analysts, is "borrowing analysts from other places we should not be borrowing them from, and that's not good. And it's got to stop."
Although the panel's questioning was sometimes pointed, congressional sources in both parties predicted Goss will be confirmed, partly because of his experience and partly because Democrats do not want to be viewed by voters as obstructing counterterrorism operations by delaying the appointment of an intelligence director.
If confirmed, Goss would take leadership of the CIA in a period of unprecedented change prompted by the U.S. intelligence community's failure to deter the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and by its dramatic miscalculation that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
While the CIA, the FBI and other agencies are trying to adjust their training and operations to thwart threats from decentralized Islamic terrorist groups, Congress and the public are demanding significant changes in the way the intelligence agencies are organized.
Goss was nominated to be director of central intelligence, the person who runs the CIA and oversees 14 other U.S. intelligence agencies at the Pentagon and elsewhere. The White House has not made clear whether Bush would name him to a new position, national intelligence director, if Congress creates it. The Sept. 11 commission proposed establishing that position to give one official more direct control over all 15 intelligence agencies. The aim of the proposal -- embraced in part by Bush and under debate on Capitol Hill -- is to ensure better coordination among the agencies.
The House intelligence committee that has been led by Goss completed fewer major investigations of the CIA's performance than its counterpart panel in the Senate. Goss's committee did not investigate the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad or the faulty prewar intelligence analysis of Iraq. But Goss was an aggressive member of the joint panel that in 2002 investigated the Sept. 11 attacks, and he is credited by many on the panel as having persuaded the CIA to declassify more of the 700-plus page report than it wanted.
Yesterday, he won praise from one of the administration's fiercest intelligence critics, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who co-chaired the joint inquiry on the attacks.
"I believe Porter Goss is an exceptional human being and will be an exceptional head of our intelligence community," Graham said.
Much of the confirmation hearing was taken up by Democratic efforts to highlight Goss's attacks on presidential nominee John F. Kerry and the Democratic Party. The GOP, and Goss, countered with statements about his nonpartisan nature.
"I have a commitment to nonpartisanship," said Goss, who conceded that "at times, perhaps, I engaged in debate with a little too much vigor or enthusiasm."
In more than five hours of questioning, Goss recanted some of his partisan attacks against the Democrats and said at one point, "I believe the Democratic Party does strongly support the intelligence community" and has "for a number of years."
Goss also backed off statements he made before the Iraq war that Iraq was linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, claims that were never put forward by the intelligence community. The assertions echoed those by Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials as they pushed their case for war in Iraq.
He said at the time he believed Iraq was part of the war on terrorism. "In hindsight, our interpretation of the evidence has changed," he said yesterday.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) pointed out that Goss previously declined to use the words "intelligence failure" to describe the CIA's performance in failing to detect the Sept. 11 plot. Asked whether he would use those words today, Goss responded: "In the contemporary sense that our intelligence failed us, I would."
The most prolonged debate during the hearing came after Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the committee vice chairman, challenged a Goss op-ed piece titled "Need Intelligence? Don't Ask John Kerry," which asserted that Kerry and other Democrats had underfunded the intelligence community. In fact, said Rockefeller, budgets proposed by Kerry and President Bill Clinton's administration were higher than those passed by the Republican-controlled Congress.
"How do you reconcile these facts? Do you stand by your claims?" asked Rockefeller. "Why did you feel it necessary to do that?"
"The record is the record," Goss replied, repeating the phrase in other exchanges.
"The record is the record -- that's a dismissive comment," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). "It basically tells me you're not willing to discuss some basic things in your background. . . . The fact is you reserve judgment whenever it gets close to being critical of the administration."
On the contrary, said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), "I have never seen a partisan bone in his body."