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Democrats Not Expected to Make It Painless for Goss

The GOP lawmaker's confirmation appears certain, but not without some hard questions.

August 11, 2004|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Rep. Porter J. Goss almost certainly will win approval by the Senate as CIA director, but reaction to his nomination on Capitol Hill suggested Tuesday that the confirmation process could be like a visit to the dentist -- quick but painful.

Senate Democrats said they were likely to set aside the Capitol Hill custom of genteel treatment for a fellow lawmaker and use the opportunity to pose strong questions.

Goss, a Florida Republican, is likely to face questions over prewar intelligence failures and his views on a range of issues -- including his earlier opposition to the creation of a national intelligence director, a post Bush has asked Congress to create on the recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), underscoring the urgency among lawmakers to fill the CIA post, said he could begin hearings on Goss' confirmation during this month's congressional recess rather than waiting until Congress reconvenes next month.

Voicing support for Goss, Roberts said it was important to act quickly because of intelligence information that suggested Al Qaeda could launch attacks before the November elections.

Although the hearings could get contentious, Goss is expected to become the CIA's next director because lawmakers consider the nation's intelligence apparatus in desperate need of repair -- and few want to be seen as playing politics on the matter.

But partisanship will cast a shadow over virtually every issue in the final months of the presidential campaign.

"I do expect that Democrats may attempt to use the hearings to rehash some of the issues involving the flawed intelligence prior to the war in Iraq," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a key player in the drive to reform America's intelligence system, said in a telephone interview. "But given the increased threat we are under, they do so at some risk if they are perceived as delaying action on such an important post."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Democrats were within their rights to question Goss' lack of management experience, especially given his onetime opposition to a national intelligence director to oversee the 15 far-flung agencies that collect intelligence.

Goss has offered a reform proposal different from that of the Sept. 11 commission. He introduced legislation in June that called for expanding the powers of the CIA director instead of creating a separate national intelligence director.

However, Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the Senate minority leader, said Democrats would insist that Goss "demonstrate his commitment to the swift and complete implementation of the 9/11 commission's recommendations."

Feinstein voiced dismay over Bush's selection of a politician for the CIA position, echoing the views of many Senate Democrats. "I didn't think the president would appoint someone in the political venue," she said.

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called Goss' nomination "a mistake," given his political background.

Lurking beneath such statements is a sentiment among many Democrats, including some in the House, that Goss has been excessively political as House Intelligence Committee chairman, as well as deferential to the Bush White House.

Democrats noted that Goss has criticized the national security credentials of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, both on the House floor and in newspaper essays.

A top aide to a senior Senate Democrat also pointed to reports in 2002 that Goss had sought to undermine congressional negotiations to create an independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks after a telephone call from Vice President Dick Cheney.

None of the issues is a "deal breaker," Feinstein said in a telephone interview from Aspen, Colo. "But I want to hear more from the president on whether he's proposing [Goss] as strictly director of central intelligence," and not as an interim step toward naming him the intelligence director.

Democrats were torn between an impulse to move quickly on the nomination and an urge to conduct a painstaking review of U.S. intelligence capabilities, both before and after Sept. 11.

"Democrats have an important choice to make on the Goss nomination that will reveal something about their strategy for November," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

"If they are feeling confident about the presidential race and the Senate contests, they may well decide to demonstrate some bipartisanship by sending Goss into the job quickly," Sabato said.

"However, if the Democrats are still concerned about the November outcome, they can choose to seek some political advantage here, despite the potential attacks such a tactic will generate from the GOP side of the aisle."

The Goss nomination could provide Democrats an opportunity for a review of the Bush administration's alleged mismanagement of national security matters, some experts said.

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