Loyal company man?

It remains unclear not only how far CIA nominee Porter Goss would go in restructuring the agency but how long his new job would even exist.


Suzanne Goldenberg
August 13, 2004 6:21PM (UTC)

For a loyal company man, Porter Goss appeared to be going out of his way to offend his former and potentially future employers at the CIA, saying that the agency was so badly managed it risked becoming "a stilted bureaucracy incapable of even the slightest bit of success."

Intelligence insiders say the attack on the directorate of operations where Goss once worked was the result of careful calculation and was intended to demonstrate the commitment of the Republican congressman to reforming the agency.

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It was delivered seven weeks ago -- when there was already intense speculation that Goss would be nominated to head the CIA -- in a report from the House intelligence committee, which he headed until Tuesday. In the broadside, Goss accused the CIA of ignoring its core mission activities, adding that the agency was so badly run it was heading "over a proverbial cliff."

If his appointment as CIA director is confirmed by the Senate, Goss will inherit that monument to mismanagement. What is less clear, however, is not only how far he will go in restructuring the CIA but how long his job will exist.

Intelligence reform proposals popular among Democrats include the appointment of a national intelligence czar, who would outrank the CIA chief and control the budgets of 15 information-gathering services. That proposal is likely to become a key element of Goss's confirmation hearings, which are expected to begin in early September. While the Democrats do not want to be seen as obstructing a key appointment in the war on terror, the proceedings are likely to become a platform from which to attack the Bush administration on intelligence.

While Goss certainly has the pedigree to be CIA chief, he presents a potentially rich target. Now 65, he is the product of a patrician Connecticut upbringing, having graduated from an elite preparatory school and Yale University. He spent two years in the Army in military intelligence before joining the CIA in 1962. It was the height of the Cold War, and Goss, who speaks Spanish, worked as a clandestine case officer based in the Miami office.

At a time when the CIA was obsessive about the idea of communist infiltration of trade unions -- and undertook to sabotage or destroy so-called front organizations -- his beat was the labor movements of Central America and, later, Europe. Goss has spoken little about his 10 years in the agency, beyond an aside that he was in the region during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. "I had some very interesting moments in the Florida Straits," he told reporters recently.

In the early 1970s, he contracted a bacteriological infection that almost killed him. The CIA ordered him into a desk job. It was not what he wanted, and Goss left the agency.

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While he was in the hospital, doctors had advised him to recuperate in a warm climate, and he chose Sanibel Island, in southwest Florida, in part because a fellow CIA case officer had retired there. Goss moved to the island in 1971, installing his wife, four children, a Great Dane, a cat and two turtles in a small, rented three-bedroom house. "He was kind of puny looking," said Grace Whitehead, the widow of Goss's CIA colleague. "He blossomed here."

The Florida ventures started small: a boat-letting agency with funds kept in two shoeboxes on the kitchen table of the Whitehead home. They did not stay small. The late Mr. Whitehead founded a newspaper, largely as a vehicle from which to campaign for Sanibel to be incorporated as a municipality, and Goss was the chief reporter. When Sanibel -- with a population of 1,200 -- was incorporated, Goss became mayor.

He used the office to protect Sanibel from the developers who have reduced much of the Florida coast to hideous concrete high-rises. About two-thirds of the island has been designated as a conservation zone; the rest is an enclave of extremely expensive homes.

He was gradually drawn into state politics and ran for Congress in 1988. His area is so heavily Republican that Goss was reelected unopposed in four subsequent elections.

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Although he is on the right on several of America's defining issues -- he opposes abortion except in the case of rape, opposes gay marriage and supports the death penalty -- in his early years in Congress he had a good reputation with local environmentalists in Florida. He sought a ban on oil drilling off the Florida coast, and supported speedboat bans to protect manatees. However, Laura Combs, from Save the Manatee, said he later did a U-turn on wildlife protection.

He became chairman of the House intelligence committee in 1997. That, and his years in the CIA, are his main credentials for the job.

"Frankly, I can't think of anybody who is that close to the agency without being in it at this time," said Peter Earnest, a 36-year veteran of the CIA, who is now director of Washington's Spy Museum.

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But critics say Goss can claim relatively few accomplishments for a lifetime devoted to intelligence issues.

"He has been head of the intelligence oversight committee for eight years. Can you point to one substantive thing that he has done in his position as chair?" said a former counterterrorism official. "Instead of being a visionary, an activist, someone who would take the lead in getting the agency to reform, instead of addressing repeated intelligence failures that have occurred, Porter Goss was missing in action. He was just playing the status quo."

During the years when Goss's committee was entrusted with oversight of America's intelligence community, the CIA failed to predict in 1998 that India would conduct a nuclear test, or that al-Qaida would bomb U.S. embassies in East Africa, U.S. warplanes mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and a small al-Qaida motorboat blew a hole in the U.S. Navy destroyer USS Cole. Then came the attack by hijacked aircraft on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001.

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The final report of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also challenged Goss's record, saying that he had given little attention to al-Qaida or terrorism before the attacks. Between January 1998 and the attacks, Goss's committee held just two hearings on terrorism. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held eight hearings; the Armed Services Committee held nine.

But until relatively recently Goss had the respect of his Democratic colleagues for a pragmatic, bipartisan style. That balance was gradually eroded over the last year, congressional staff say, as he cemented an alliance with the Vice President Dick Cheney and became more forthright about his Republican loyalties. Democrats accuse him of being too concerned with sparing the administration embarrassment.

He blocked House investigations into the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and Washington's links with its erstwhile Iraqi ally, Ahmed Chalabi.

The final straw for Democrats arrived the same week that Goss delivered his diatribe against the CIA. During a debate in the House on security, he held up a sign with a 27-year-old quote from the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, calling for budget cuts to the intelligence services. Goss later expressed regret, but by this week, when his nomination was announced, Democrats said he was too partisan to be CIA director.

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Goss could fall down on another point: his willingness to make reform. He is not a subscriber to the view of the 9/11 commission that the White House should appoint a national intelligence chief who would assert overall financial and managerial control of America's 15 intelligence services.

Instead, he has fixed his sights firmly on the CIA. He introduced legislation last June that would give the agency director control over the $40 billion combined budgets of the 15 intelligence services. "Right now we have got this anomaly where we give the authority to one person and the money to someone else," Goss told the Tampa Tribune last June. "That's the problem."

That stand -- which is in line with the administration -- could prove a major liability for Goss if the Democrats turn the confirmation hearings into a test of absolute fealty to the reforms urged by the Sept. 11 commission.

But well-wishers say that does not mean that Goss is averse to restructuring the CIA. Frank MacGaffin, a former deputy director, believes the insider knowledge that remains Goss's strongest suit will drive him to change the way the agency operates. "He knows where things went wrong, and he must also have the same guilty knowledge that I and others have of the imperative of fixing it before there is another attack," MacGaffin said. "That guilty knowledge tells you that if you don't change some very essential things, it is going to happen again."

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Suzanne Goldenberg

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