Inside and out

August 11, 2004

IF RECENT WARNINGS are to be believed, terrorists are poised to strike U.S. targets at any moment. The best way to thwart them is through shrewd detective work by intelligence operatives. Thus, it's an awkward time for a "Help Wanted" sign on the nation's top spy job.

But Mr. Bush's nomination yesterday of Florida Rep. Porter J. Goss to head the Central Intelligence Agency comes with its own set of complications -- not the least of which may be throwing a monkey wrench into efforts to reorganize the nation's vast intelligence network.

Mr. Goss could either become the chief advocate and architect for reform or a turf-protecting roadblock who helps the Bush administration resist all but cosmetic changes.

With just months to go in a highly divisive presidential election campaign, the timing for a thoughtful, temperate debate about Mr. Goss' approach to new dynamics of the job is not auspicious. Democrats have already served notice that they regard the choice of Mr. Goss as too partisan to head the CIA because he is a Republican office-holder.

From a standpoint of experience, though, Mr. Goss, 65, could hardly be more qualified for the post. As President Bush said, the nominee knows the CIA "inside and out."

He spent 10 years in the agency's clandestine service, working as an undercover field officer in Europe and Latin America, after military service as an Army intelligence officer. During his 16 years as a House member from the southwestern coast of Florida, Mr. Goss has played a leading role in overseeing the intelligence agencies, serving most recently as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

That makes him part of the problem, though, according to the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which faulted Congress for not pursuing its oversight duties aggressively enough. Critics say Mr. Goss has been too protective of his CIA pals.

But now Mr. Goss has been thrust into a position where he can put his unique combination of professional and political experience to use in helping not only to reshape the CIA but to create the new post of national intelligence director, a key recommendation of the 9/11 commission.

President Bush has broadly endorsed the new position, but important disputes remain over how much power it should have. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry and his Capitol Hill allies also want speedier action on the legislation than congressional Republicans envision.

Mr. Goss' nomination could either serve as the catalyst to spark serious debate on these complicated issues, or as a stall tactic to delay meaningful action until after the November election.

The nominee should make the choice himself -- using his political skills to help forge a consensus on the most practical redesign for the U.S. intelligence network and, in the process, adding luster to an already distinguished career.

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