Spooks and Ladders

For a while, it looked like the person in Washington best equipped to force such change was Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), one of only two members of Congress with career experience in intelligence (he was a CIA case officer in the 1960s). As chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Goss had the institutional power needed to hold hearings, compel answers, and reshape policy. Known as a pragmatist, he had the trust of Democratic members for working in a bipartisan, independent manner. And he had a partner for reform in Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the committee’s centrist, pro-defense ranking minority member. While tough questions or aggressive investigations might have discomfited his party’s leadership, there was strong reason to believe that Porter Goss would demonstrate the courage to put national security above party politics.

Alas, future history books are not likely to cast Goss as a hero of the post-9/11 drama. Over the last year, Goss has failed to be much of a force for intelligence oversight. These days, if there’s fresh thinking about intelligence reform or a penetrating hearing taking place, you can be sure that it’s not happening at the House Intelligence Committee. While the Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by staunchly conservative Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), managed to produce a bipartisan report on Iraq intelligence widely praised even among those who thought it could have gone further, Goss’s committee has been practically somnambulant. Instead, the House chairman has alienated his colleagues across the aisle and become one of the Hill’s most reliable conduits for the White House line of the day.

Despite, or rather because of, this record, Goss was nominated by President Bush last month to be CIA director. The congressman had known he was on the White House’s short list for the post, and coyly hinted interest in it, long before George Tenet resigned in June. And he has acted accordingly, running interference for the Bush administration, forestalling the sorts of inquiries, and ducking the kinds of questions that might reflect negatively on the president’s national security record during an election year. In other words, he’s become exactly the kind of operator that plagues our intelligence apparatus: a career-obsessed bureaucrat prone to indulging the White House even at the expense of the national interest. You can take the spook out of the CIA, it turns out. But you can’t take the CIA out of the spook.

After graduating from Yale in 1960, Goss served as a military intelligence officer for two years, after which he joined the CIA. A case officer for eight years, Goss left the agency for health reasons in 1971. A year later, he and two CIA friends founded a weekly paper in Sanibel Island, Fla., which they eventually sold, turning a handsome profit. At about that time, Goss became politically active, joining a local “slow growth” effort near his home. In 1974, Goss was elected mayor of the island. Goss’s growing involvement in coastal South Florida’s debates over development gave him the platform he needed to run for Congress, and he remained active on environmental issues after winning his House seat in 1988. With the exception of his fight against expanding oil and gas development in the Gulf Coast, Goss hewed largely to GOP party line once in the House. Still, he quickly won praise for his leadership, his expertise, and, occasionally, his independence after he became chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in 1997.

In early 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11, Goss and Bob Graham (D-Fla.), then chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee, came together to start a joint inquiry, looking only at performance of the intelligence agencies prior to September 11 rather than more explosive questions about White House policy itself. But congressional Republicans beat back an attempt by Democrats to establish an independent commission, arguing that it would be an exercise in political finger pointing. Goss also first opposed the commission, then offered an unsuccessful compromise measure. But as momentum to charter the independent commission picked up in Congress in the fall of 2002, Goss finally signed on–despite what one congressional official describes as “intense pressure” from Dick Cheney himself.

Goss and Graham concluded their joint congressional probe in December 2002, but ran into the CIA’s insistence that the report be kept under wraps–even when the information had been made public in hearings or in the press. In fact, the CIA at first cleared only 20 percent of the report. The two chairmen then began an arduous, seven-month long negotiation with Langley before the two sides concluded the vetting. Although a good 20 percent of the report remained redacted at the end, there was widespread agreement in both parties that it would have been much worse without congressional pressure, especially from Porter Goss.

The release of the joint inquiry report was Goss’s last major bipartisan effort. Last summer, as it was becoming clear that the White House wanted Tenet out, and Goss’s name was being floated to replace him, the House and Senate intelligence panels began closed-door probes into the Iraq WMD mystery–specifically, where and how U.S. intelligence had gone wrong before the war. Goss quickly indicated he was not going to stray from the White House line on Iraq, despite the widening disconnect between administration prewar claims and the reality on the ground. Brushing aside a query about questionable statements by administration officials, Goss scoffed: “If you’re asking me about editing, go to editors someplace else….We don’t do editing in our committee.”

Several months later, when weapons inspector David Kay came back with a preliminary report about his scant findings, Goss took a more bizarre tangent, implying not just an Iraq-September 11 connection, but that WMD was used in the attacks as well. “Until we find Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, I’m going to assume they will use it again like what they did on September 11,” huffed Goss. He also cited Iraq’s “continuing atrocities in chemical and biological warfare”–in direct contradiction to Kay’s own statements that those active WMD programs had ended years earlier.

As the Bush administration’s case for the Iraq war continued to crumble, Goss continued to come to the White House’s defense, often using his perch as vice chairman of the Rules Committee to kill Democratic amendments and shut down debate. Last winter, he refused to allow an open intelligence committee hearing on whether it should call upon the White House to release all materials related to its investigation of the leak of CIA covert WMD operative Valerie Plame’s name–after promising Democrats that he would. Though knowingly outing a covert agent is a crime (and a danger to the country), and Goss himself had been a CIA agent, he nevertheless argued (without having investigated the matter) that there wasn’t enough evidence of willful misconduct on the part of the White House to merit an investigation. “Somebody sends me a blue dress and some DNA, I’ll have an investigation,” the chairman sniffed.

In April 2004, Harman and other Democrats introduced a bill that advocated the creation of an intelligence czar–not unlike the September 11 commission’s proposal for a National Intelligence Director. Goss sat on the bill for weeks before introducing a GOP alternative for intelligence reform. That bill would beef up the CIA director’s own powers rather than create a separate position above the intelligence agencies: Democrats pointed out the timing was probably not a coincidence, given Goss’s openly-expressed ambition for the director’s job.

In June of this year, when the intelligence authorization bill came to the House floor, Goss led the Republican effort to kill every Democratic amendment to boost counter-terrorism spending. He led similar GOP efforts to kill Democratic amendments to get the committee to investigate the role of intelligence officers in the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal.

The degree to which Goss has squandered his tenure as chairmanship is nowhere more obvious than in the committee’s sorry record of investigating the intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq. In July, the Senate Intelligence Committee came out with a detailed report on prewar intelligence failures that managed to win unanimous approval by its members. The Senate panel’s leaders, Roberts and West Virginia Democrat John D. Rockefeller, even managed to secure a compromise earlier in the year that will expand its Iraq probe this fall into more explosive issues about the political “use” of intelligence. While the agreement fell short of what many Democrats wanted, the Senate panel is at least working on the issue. Sen. Roberts, a loyal Republican, made the stunning admission recently that the Iraq war “would have been a lot different”–more like the Bosnian and Kosovo campaigns–if Congress knew in 2002 what it knows now. Meanwhile, Goss’s Iraq probe has virtually ground to a halt. Tensions within the once-bipartisan panel are so bad that the two sides are barely speaking.

These days, Goss is fond of laying the bulk of the blame for recent intelligence failures on the Clinton administration, specifically for starving the intelligence budget and failing to anticipate the al Qaeda threat. But Goss fails to mention that House Republicans, including Goss, backed a 6-percent cut in the intelligence budget in 1993 and subsequently passed all of Clinton’s intelligence budgets throughout the 1990s without once calling for a boost in funding or enhanced counter-terrorism efforts. Goss has been virulent in his attacks on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, accusing him of voting to cut intelligence budgets. Goss fails to mention that in 1996, he was among the cosigners of a commission report that called for more staff cuts in the intelligence agencies, arguing that intelligence spending was still 80 percent above 1980 levels. House Republicans, including Goss, did increase Clinton’s intelligence budget request in 1999–but only by 1 percent.

The Democrats have criticized the choice of Goss for CIA director on the grounds that he is too political. That’s a fair criticism, but an overly broad one. The more important. point is that Goss is willing to tailor his investigations and twist his analysis in a way that avoids inconvenient truths and pleases his political masters while advancing his own career. This is precisely the kind of “political” behavior that leaders of the CIA have too often exhibited–and that has repeatedly contributed to our disastrous intelligence failures in recent years. It may once have been possible to think that Porter Goss was just the man to bring out the best in the CIA. He now looks to be someone who will defend the worst.