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Bush CIA Pick Goss Has Easy Confirmation

Now the hard part for the former secret agent and Intelligence panel chairman: presiding over a battered agency in a job that may disappear.

September 23, 2004|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) as director of central intelligence, handing him a post with an uncertain future and the task of taking over America's battered spy services as they confront their worst crisis since the CIA was created after World War II.

Goss, a former CIA agent and a longtime defender of the agency, now faces a series of Herculean challenges if America's vast intelligence apparatus is to regain credibility after the disasters of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks and inaccurate prewar claims about Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

"I hope he has his hip boots ready," said Craig Eisendrath, an intelligence expert at the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based think tank that has been critical of the Bush administration. "I can think of at least a dozen major problems."

Among the most pressing and sensitive demands Goss faces are overseeing CIA covert operations to eliminate Al Qaeda and other global terror groups, responding to the need for more accurate and timely intelligence to curb the bloodletting in Iraq and to support U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and dealing with mounting calls for a sweeping reorganization of the nation's 15 intelligence agencies.

President Bush said he was pleased that Goss, a former CIA clandestine officer and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, won confirmation as CIA chief and head of the intelligence bureaucracy. Goss was confirmed by a 77-17 vote.

"He is the right man to take on the essential mission of leading the CIA at this critical moment in our nation's history as we face the challenges and the dangerous threats of this century," Bush said in a statement.

But Goss will have little room to lead reforms, at least in the short term.

Experts say he would not be able to impose systemic changes until the White House and Congress agree on how and when to rewire the intelligence community -- including settling the question of whether Goss' new job remains in existence.

Goss has sharply criticized Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, and thus is unlikely to keep his job if Bush loses the election.

"I don't see how you can do much of anything until you know if you're going to head the CIA for more than a few weeks or not," said a recently retired senior CIA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He's going to be in a holding pattern at least until the election, and probably until he has a firm fix on his position."

Loch K. Johnson, a former Senate Intelligence Committee aide, said Goss must focus first on fending off a recent proposal by Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, calling for dismantling the CIA and assigning its staff to a new national intelligence agency.

"That's threat No. 1," Johnson said. "That's the chief threat on the domestic front." Bob Inman, a retired Navy admiral and former director of the National Security Agency, one of the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies, said Goss is likely to focus on two priorities even if he keeps his job and keeps the CIA intact.

"Terrorism is the top of the list," Inman said. "And then, he has to move pretty quickly to work on the budget for next year. Those are two things he has to do right away." The intelligence budget is classified, but officials have said it totals about $40 billion, or about 25% more than before the Sept. 11 attacks. Most of the money pays for spy satellites, electronic eavesdropping, high-tech sensors and other items that draw little attention but consume the bulk of the budget.

The best-known part of spying -- actual spies -- costs far less. But Goss said last week that the CIA needs at least five more years to build its army of clandestine operatives to steal secrets, tap phones and computers, recruit spies and defectors, and provide what's known as "humint," or human intelligence.

Those comments came as a surprise to experts and observers because Goss was largely viewed as a staunch defender of the CIA during most of his seven years as head of the House oversight committee.

But many remain skeptical that Goss would challenge the agency's core problems.

"The cultures of mediocrity have produced significant intelligence failures over the last few years," said Flynt Leverett, a former CIA counterterrorism officer who served in the Bush White House until last year. "To fix those, he's going to have to break a lot of pottery at the CIA. He's not shown any kind of willingness to do that so far." Other officials said that in closed-door hearings, Goss had been extremely critical of spying gaps -- especially involving human intelligence -- for years.

"Everyone says we need more humint," said another veteran CIA officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But you can't just manufacture a good case officer.... The wash-out rate and the failure rate are very high. It's very hard to do. And it takes a long time."

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