War Stories

Spies Like Goss

How much of a hack is Bush’s CIA nominee?

Who's the enemy?
Who’s the enemy?

If Porter Goss becomes the next CIA director (a big if, by the way), two predictions can be made with confidence. First, to the extent possible, he will return the agency’s clandestine branch to its adventurous, gun-toting days of yore. Second, he will be ruthlessly loyal to George W. Bush.

This morning, President Bush named Goss to succeed George Tenet as the nation’s spymaster, and the appointment seems logical on several counts.

Goss, who has been the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for the past eight years, was himself a CIA spy from 1962-71, stationed in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, then in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Western Europe.

At least as pertinent from the vantage of the White House, he has been a fierce combatant in the battle against Democratic critics of the Bush administration.

Last June, when John Kerry gave what was heralded as a major speech on national security issues, the Bush-Cheney campaign tapped Goss to write the official critique. “John Kerry’s speech today,” Goss wrote in a fusillade that appeared on Bush’s Web site, “amounted to little more than political ‘me-tooism.’ ” He added that Kerry “neglected the president’s historic achievements” and “remarkable progress” while at the same time embracing “the goals that the president has already laid to make the world a safer place.”

Goss also came to Bush’s aid a few months earlier, during the Joseph Wilson-Valerie Plame scandal. One would think that a former CIA spy might be appalled by reports that a White House official had publicly exposed the identity of an undercover agent, especially as an act of political retaliation against the agent’s spouse. The blatant politicization of intelligence is, or should be, anathema to any professional spy—or prospective CIA director.

But Goss waved off the whole business. In an interview with his hometown paper, the Herald-Tribune of southwestern Florida, Goss said the uproar was the result of “wild and unsubstantiated allegations, which are being obviously piled on by partisan politicians during an election year.” There was no need to mount an investigation, he said, because there was no evidence of “willful disclosure” (though how he reached that conclusion without an investigation, he didn’t say). Then, in a jab against Bush’s favorite target, Bill Clinton, Goss cracked, “Somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I’ll have an investigation.”

It is for such reasons, perhaps, that John D. Rockefeller IV, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, has described Goss to his aides as “too political” to be placed in charge of the CIA.

That Senate committee would have to confirm Goss’ nomination before he could take the job. And here’s where the picture gets strange. It is extremely doubtful at this late date that the committee would—or physically could—hold confirmation hearings before the November election. Even if hearings were somehow rushed (say, for “national security” reasons), and if Goss won the vote, he would be essentially powerless at least for a while: Any big changes he might order would be ignored until after the election, because everyone at Langley would know that Goss would get the boot if Kerry won.

So, why is Bush nominating Goss now? One possible answer: to create the impression that he’s moving forward—that he’s doing something—in the war against terrorism. The president took a similar step last week when he announced with great fanfare the creation of a national intelligence director, as recommended by the 9/11 commission—but without giving this NID any of the statutory powers that the commission said would be needed to make the post meaningful.

Putting Goss’ name on the table now—even though he probably couldn’t become the CIA director for at least three months—has the same effect. Meanwhile, news stories will lay out Goss’ credentials. Colleagues will attest to his seriousness. Goss himself will be accorded high respect, his words (many of them no doubt in praise of Team Bush) widely reported in national media.

If Bush does win in November, Goss, like most presidential appointments, will almost certainly be confirmed (Sen. Rockefeller’s caveat notwithstanding). A recent profile in Government Executive magazine notes that Goss has “attained iconic status on Capitol Hill for his knowledge of intelligence operations and policy.”

Unlike most CIA directors, who (for better or worse) had no prior experience at intelligence before commanding Langley, Goss would come to the job with an agenda. He was a CIA case officer back in the days before the Church committee—i.e., when spies did their business competently and ruthlessly with minimal oversight or fear of exposure.

Steve Coll, in his magisterial book Ghost Wars, notes that after the 1998 terrorist bombings of the U.S. Embassies in East Africa, Goss declared publicly what many intelligence officials were saying privately—that the CIA’s directorate of operations (the branch in charge of spying) had become too “gun-shy.” Earlier this year, in his committee’s report on the fiscal year 2005 intelligence budget, Goss railed against the CIA’s timidity in such strong terms that Tenet—unwisely—replied in an angry personal letter and circulated it widely. (A sidebar about Goss’ appointment: It reflects just how tense relations must have been growing between Tenet and the White House; Tenet clearly despised Goss, and now the president takes the guy’s side.)

Nearly all the recent critiques of the CIA and 9/11 recommend that the agency beef up its “human intelligence,” its spies on the ground. Goss would take that point to heart.

However, three other vital matters are less clear.

First, as the co-sponsor of the bill extending the Patriot Act II, Goss may be less keenly concerned about reconciling the expansion of covert ops with the preservation of civil liberties—or about legal issues generally. In an interview with PBS’s Frontline, Goss said he thought no laws would need revising to give a president the authority to order assassinations.

Second, except for his attacks on the decline of clandestine operations, Goss has generally been a cheerleader for the CIA. Asked during the Frontline interview about the intelligence failures leading up to 9/11, he said: “I don’t think ‘failure’ is the right word. … Here we are, a nation at peace going along and all of a sudden some bad guys come along and they are playing by different rules. … They have simply come in and done something that is, to us, unthinkable.” (Subsequent to that interview, Goss served as co-chair of the congressional joint inquiry into 9/11 and came to a more critical assessment of the agency’s intelligence lapses, but his predisposition to the CIA remained one of support.)

Finally, there is the question of independence. Most official panels on reforming intelligence emphasize the need to separate analysis from policy—professional objectivity from politics. At least since June, Goss has been campaigning to be the next CIA director, and in that time he has served energetically as a shill for Bush’s re-election. His record might make him a good candidate for director of operations, but his behavior makes him a bad one for director of the CIA.