WASHINGTON -- President Bush chose Porter Goss, a Republican congressman and one-time spy, on Tuesday to lead the CIA as the troubled agency struggles to repair its tarnished reputation and confront new terror threats and the uncertainty of a massive intelligence reorganization.
"He knows the CIA inside and out," Bush said of Goss, who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and served as a clandestine CIA officer in the 1960s in Central America and Western Europe. "He's the right man to lead this important agency at this critical moment in our nation's history."
Twelve weeks before the presidential election, senior Democrats complained Bush had turned to a partisan politician to fill what is nominally a nonpolitical position. Bush also was accused of trying to change the subject on a day when more than 100 House Democrats urged the president to call a special session of Congress to deal with intelligence changes proposed by the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.
"The selection of a politician -- any politician from either party -- is a mistake," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Having independent, objective intelligence going to the president and the Congress is fundamental to America's national security."
Goss could face tough questioning at his Senate confirmation hearings. Like Bush, Goss has expressed reservations about some of the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations. Goss also has been openly critical of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, working in concert with the Bush campaign at times.
Former CIA chief Stansfield Turner, a Kerry supporter, called Goss' selection "a terrible appointment" and said it was intended "to help George Bush win votes in Florida."
'Reform is never easy'
More broadly the nomination reinforced Bush's efforts to keep the nation focused on the war on terrorism, his strongest suit in his battle for re-election.
Bush tried to put Democrats on the defensive about intelligence changes, telling a campaign audience in Pensacola, Fla., "Reform is never easy in Washington. You've got a lot of entrenched interests there."
The CIA nomination could put Goss in line to become the nation's first national intelligence director, if Congress follows the Sept. 11 Commission's recommendations to create that position, administration and congressional officials said. The proposed director would oversee all of the nation's 15 intelligence agencies and serve as the president's chief intelligence adviser, a role now played by the CIA director.
"He could be this new person, if we go there," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, a member of the Intelligence Committee. "He'll be someone who can walk in to the president and look him in the eye and tell him what the truth is and not flinch."
Bush offered Goss the CIA job over dinner Monday night and the two men announced the news in a morning appearance in the Rose Garden before the president began a five-day campaign trip. Late Tuesday, Goss said he was immediately relinquishing his position as Intelligence Committee chairman pending Senate confirmation.
If Bush is not re-elected, Goss' position could be short-lived, subject to the decision of the next president. White House press secretary Scott McClellan would not rule out Goss being picked for national intelligence director or say whether Goss is a leading candidate.
If confirmed, Goss will take over a spy agency undercut by findings of grave U.S. intelligence failures before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and by erroneous CIA reports that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The Sept. 11 Commission that investigated the attacks recommended major changes in the intelligence community.
The CIA and other intelligence agencies also are under pressure because of warnings that al-Qaida and its allies might try to strike the United States in a way that triggers a political impact like the March train bombings in Madrid, Spain, that preceded a change of government
"America faces determined enemies who plan in many nations, send trained killers to live among us and attack without warning," Bush said. He said that Goss, who also served as an Army intelligence officer before joining the CIA, "knows the agency and he knows what is needed to strengthen it."
John McLaughlin, who has served as the CIA's acting director since George Tenet stepped down on July 11, called Goss a friend. "He is no stranger to the rigors and complexities of foreign intelligence in our democracy," McLaughlin said. "And he understands the crucial role intelligence plays in defending our freedoms."
The administration debated whether to choose a permanent successor to Tenet before the fall elections, thus putting itself in the position of having to defend its choice in confirmation hearings held in a politically charged atmosphere.
"I would find it very hard to support any nominee who did not endorse the 9/11 commission recommendations on intelligence," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "The focal point of this nomination is not who he is but these recommendations."
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said he considered Goss "a very good choice" and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called Goss "uniquely qualified."
Goss has served in Congress for 16 years, including eight as head of the Intelligence Committee. He had planned to make his 2000 election bid his last but decided to stay on after the Sept. 11 attacks.