CIA Nominee Vows to Shake Partisan Past

Times Staff Writer

Under sharp questioning from Senate Democrats, Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) pledged Tuesday to shed his partisan past and to embrace reform if he is named chief of America’s beleagured intelligence community.

Goss, President Bush’s nominee for director of central intelligence, also surprised members of the Senate Intelligence Committee when he said he would need more time than previously thought to build the CIA’s clandestine service and other human intelligence capabilities “to get to where we need to be” in the war on international terrorism.

“On a scale of 10, we’re about 3 in terms of build-back,” Goss said. “The great bulk of what we need is more than five years out there.”


“That’s a rather frightening answer,” responded Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).

George J. Tenet, who stepped down in July after seven years as director of central intelligence, told the independent Sept. 11 commission last spring that he needed five more years to train enough spies and other intelligence operatives. Tenet’s admission at the time raised fresh concerns about problems in the U.S. intelligence community.

Alternately defensive and contrite on the first day of his confirmation hearing, Goss conceded in his opening statement that “at times, perhaps, I engaged in debate with too much vigor or enthusiasm” during his eight terms as a conservative Republican in Congress.

But Goss repeatedly vowed that he would be “forthright and objective” as chief of the CIA and the nation’s 14 other intelligence agencies. “If confirmed, I commit myself to a nonpartisan approach to the job,” he said.

Several senators praised Goss’ unusual credentials for the job as the nation’s top spy. Goss, 65, served as an Army intelligence officer and spent nearly a decade as a CIA clandestine officer in Latin America and Europe in the 1960s.

If confirmed, Goss said, he would enforce what he called “tough love” at the CIA to ensure accountability for mistakes on his watch. Some members of Congress, along with survivors of U.S. victims of Sept. 11, have complained that no one in government has been fired or disciplined for mistakes that contributed to the failure to foresee or prevent the terrorist attacks.

During the 4 1/2 -hour hearing in a packed meeting room, Democrats repeatedly charged that Goss had shown little inclination to investigate CIA abuses or failures during his seven-year tenure as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Several pointed out that Goss had initially opposed creation of the Sept. 11 commission, for example.

“I am very troubled about your commitment to intelligence reform,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). Goss’ answers, he said, “suggest it’s going to be business as usual at the agency.”

In response to a question, Goss backed away from a controversial provision in an intelligence reform bill he introduced in June that, according to critics, would loosen long-standing restrictions and allow the CIA to collect domestic intelligence on Americans. Under current law, the CIA is responsible for foreign intelligence collection and analysis and is not a law enforcement agency.

Goss said he was trying to start a debate with the provision, but that he did not believe the “foreign intelligence apparatus should be used domestically.” The CIA, he added, “should have no arrest powers in the United States of America.”

Goss also was asked about CIA shortcomings described in a harshly worded letter that was delivered to committee members shortly before the hearing. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the author, whom she did not identify, was a CIA officer with 22 years of experience.

According to Feinstein, the CIA officer charged that the agency had fewer operations officers today in the U.S.-based CIA unit focusing on Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden than before the Sept. 11 attacks, and that the agency had made “no systemic effort to groom Al Qaeda expertise.”

“Today, the unit is greatly understaffed because of a hiring freeze and the rotation of large numbers of officers in and out of the unit every 60 to 90 days, a process in which experienced officers do less substantive work and become trainers for officers who leave before they’re qualified to support the mission,” Feinstein read from the letter.

“The excellent management team now running operations against Al Qaeda has made repeated, detailed and on-paper pleas for more officers to work against the Al Qaeda and has done so for years -- not weeks or months -- but has been ignored,” she read.

“I largely agree with that,” Goss replied when asked about the criticism.

A U.S. intelligence official later disputed the CIA officer’s claims, however.

“His assertions are off the mark,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There are far more operations officers working against the Al Qaeda target both at CIA headquarters and overseas than before Sept. 11. Our knowledge of, and substantive expertise on, Al Qaeda, has increased enormously since 9/11.”

He added: “This is a global war on terrorism. There is an enormous amount of data that needs to be collected and analyzed to wage that war. One never has enough resources.”

Despite the sometimes harsh questions Tuesday, no strong opposition has emerged to Goss’ nomination and Goss drew warm personal testimonials from Florida’s two Democratic senators, Bob Graham, a former head of the intelligence committee, and Bill Nelson.

The Senate committee will hear more testimony Monday and then is expected to approve the nomination, sending it to the full Senate. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has indicated he wanted the Senate to vote on the nomination as early as next week.

Even if he is confirmed by the Senate, Goss’ future is hardly secure seven weeks before the presidential election.

Both Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry support creation of a national intelligence director position, which would almost certainly supplant that of director of central intelligence. The White House has not indicated whether it will consider Goss for the new post if Bush is re-elected.

Goss fended off questions about his own views on how Congress and the White House should best overhaul the intelligence community. “I will play the hand I am dealt,” he said.