Goss viewed as smart, eager, partisan

Profile: The former operative nominated to head the CIA was known for modest change and big intelligence budgets during his tenure in Congress.

August 11, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON — Rep. Porter J. Goss, WASHINGTON -- Rep. Porter J. Goss, once a CIA operative in Central America and Europe, has not been known for embracing broad reforms of the U.S. intelligence apparatus during his tenure as head of the House Intelligence Committee.

More typically, the Florida Republican has used a genteel style to back modest change and boost the intelligence community's budgets to historic levels.

President Bush's nomination of Goss as director of central intelligence has put the one-time city council member and newspaper owner in the midst an effort seen as one of grave urgency: adopting far-reaching reforms to improve U.S. intelligence capabilities.

Goss' supporters speak of his integrity and breadth of knowledge on intelligence matters, and say that such qualities make him an excellent choice for the job.

His detractors say he is too much a part of the old U.S. intelligence apparatus that failed to predict the Sept. 11 attacks and which concluded erroneously that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Some also complain that Goss is too partisan for what is typically seen as a nonpartisan post.

Either way, people close to him say Goss, 65, seems to have wanted the job for a long time.

Speaking in the White House Rose Garden along with Bush, Goss said he was honored and "extremely grateful" for the assignment.

"The essence of our intelligence capability is people," he said. "And we have some wonderful Americans doing a great job. I used to be part of them when I worked for CIA. I'm very proud to be associated with them again."

Goss has carved out a highly public role as head of the House Intelligence Committee.

He first became a local hero in county politics in the 1980s, when he pressed for the preservation of a small Florida island.

But it was his decision to use his position as a congressman to protect wild bottleneck dolphins in the early 1990s that secured the favor of his constituents. Aides dubbed him "King Neptune." At one point, he fought the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which wanted to acquire dolphins from the Florida coast.

Goss made waves nationally in the mid-1990s, when, sensing voter disaffection with lawmakers' perks, he tried to force members to shoulder certain publishing costs and cut their cost-of-living raises.

"I've always been fond of him," said former New Hampshire Sen. Warren B. Rudman, co-author of the pre-9/11 Hart-Rudman report of 2001, which was critical of the intelligence community. "He is very smart and thoughtful -- and very deliberate."

Goss, colleagues say, has always been eager to stand out. He will likely face a difficult Senate approval process. But he has made a lot of friends in his 15 years in Congress, and his calm manner has carried him far.

In June, in a move Democrats criticized as showmanship, Goss took to the House floor and held up a sign bearing a 1997 quote from Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. "Now that that struggle, the Cold War, is over, why is it that our vast intelligence apparatus continues to grow?" Goss read.

"This is why the problem [with U.S. intelligence] exists," Goss declared. "The Democratic Party did not support the intelligence community."

Goss, born and raised in Waterbury, Conn., graduated from Yale University before joining the Army intelligence service. He served in the CIA from the early 1960s to 1971, working in Western Europe and Central America, though Goss has never publicly discussed the details.

In 1970, a sudden, life-threatening infection ended his CIA career and sent him to Florida with his wife and four children to recuperate. He has lived there ever since.

After Goss recovered, he and some former CIA buddies started a newspaper called the Island Reporter. But his real interest was always politics. He was first elected as a member of the Sanibel City Council in 1974. Fourteen years later, Goss ran for a seat in Congress and won.

He was appointed to the House Intelligence Committee in 1995, became chairman in 1997 and won a special dispensation from congressional leaders so he could hold that post past the six-year term limit.

"He's an intelligent and thoughtful person with broad experience and knowledge of the entire range of intelligence activities," said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.

"On the other hand," Aftergood said, "over the past year he has led the committee in an unusually partisan manner, to the point where committee Democrats have expressed extreme frustration."

As chairman, Goss has become most known for "skyrocketing budget requests" for the intelligence community, Aftergood said.

Robert Baer, a former CIA operative, said Goss' reputation as polite and gracious might not be the ideal qualities for a director of central intelligence at a time when the U.S. intelligence community is under intense pressure to adopt broad reforms.

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