Guardian Profile: Porter Goss By
nominee for CIA director faces an uphill battle in getting Democrats in
the Senate to back him after lacklustre years as head of the house
intelligence committee. And if he is confirmed, his job may soon be
For a loyal company man,
Porter Goss appeared to be going out of his way to offend his former and
potentially future employers at the CIA, saying that the agency was so
badly managed it risked becoming "a stilted bureaucracy incapable
of even the slightest bit of success".
Intelligence insiders say the attack on the directorate of operations
where Mr Goss once worked was the result of careful calculation, and was
intended to demonstrate the commitment of the Republican congressman to
reforming the agency.
It was delivered seven weeks ago - when there was already intense
speculation that Mr Goss would be nominated to head the CIA - in a
report from the house intelligence committee, which he headed until
Tuesday. In the broadside, Mr Goss accused the CIA of ignoring its core
mission activities, adding that the agency was so badly run it was
heading "over a proverbial cliff".
If his appointment as CIA director is confirmed by the Senate, Mr Goss
will inherit that monument to mismanagement. What is less clear,
however, is not only how far he will go in restructuring the CIA, but
how long his job will exist.
Intelligence reform proposals popular among Democrats include the
appointment of a national intelligence tsar, who would outrank the CIA
chief and control the budgets of 15 information-gathering services. That
proposal is likely to become a key element of Mr Goss's confirmation
hearings, which are expected to begin in early September. While the
Democrats do not want to be seen as obstructing a key appointment in the
war on terror, the proceedings are likely to become a platform from
which to attack the Bush administration on intelligence.
While Mr Goss certainly has the pedigree to be CIA chief, he presents a
potentially rich target. Now 65, he is the product of a patrician
Connecticut upbringing, graduating from an elite preparatory school and
Yale University. He spent two years in the army in military intelligence
before joining the CIA in 1962. It was the height of the cold war, and
Mr Goss, who speaks Spanish, worked as a clandestine case officer based
in the Miami office.
At a time when the CIA was obsessive about the idea of communist
infiltration of the trade unions - and undertook to sabotage or destroy
so-called front organisations - his beat was the labour movements of
central America and, later, Europe. Mr Goss has spoken little about his
10 years in the agency, beyond an aside that he was in the region during
the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. "I had some very interesting
moments in the Florida Straits," he told reporters recently.
In the early 1970s, he contracted a bacteriological infection that
almost killed him. The CIA ordered him into a desk job. It was not what
he wanted, and Mr Goss left the agency.
While he was in hospital, doctors had advised him to recuperate in a
warm climate, and he chose Sanibel island, in south-west Florida, in
part because a fellow CIA case officer had retired there. Mr Goss moved
to the island in 1971, installing his wife, four children, a great dane,
a cat and two turtles in a small rented three-bedroom house. "He
was kind of puny looking," said Grace Whitehead, the widow of Mr
Goss's CIA colleague. "He blossomed here."
The Florida ventures started small: a boat letting agency with funds
kept in two shoeboxes on the kitchen table of the Whitehead home. They
did not stay small. The late Mr Whitehead founded a newspaper, largely
as a vehicle from which to campaign for Sanibel to be incorporated as a
municipality, and Mr Goss was chief reporter. When Sanibel - with its
population of 1,200 - was incorporated, Mr Goss became mayor.
He used the office to protect Sanibel from the developers who have
reduced much of the Florida coast to hideous concrete high-rises. About
two-thirds of the island has been designated as a conservation zone; the
rest is an enclave of extremely expensive homes.
He was gradually drawn into state politics and ran for Congress in 1988.
His area is so heavily Republican that Mr Goss was re-elected unopposed
in four subsequent elections.
Although he is on the right on several of America's defining issues - he
opposes abortion except in the case of rape, opposes gay marriage and
supports the death penalty - in his early years in Congress he had a
good reputation with local environmentalists in Florida. He sought a ban
on oil drilling off the Florida coast, and supported speedboat bans to
protect manatee. However, Laura Combs, from Save the Manatee, said he
later did a U-turn on wildlife protection.
He became chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence
committee in 1997. That, and his years in the CIA, are his main
credentials for the job.
"Frankly, I can't think of anybody who is that close to the agency
without being in it at this time," said Peter Earnest, a 36-year
veteran of the CIA, who is now director of Washington's Spy museum.
But critics say Mr Goss can claim relatively few accomplishments for a
lifetime devoted to intelligence issues.
"He has been head of the intelligence oversight committee for eight
years. Can you point to one substantive thing that he has done in his
position as chair?" said a former counter-terrorism official.
"Instead of being a visionary, an activist, someone who would take
the lead in getting the agency to reform, instead of addressing repeated
intelligence failures that have occurred, Porter Goss was missing in
action. He was just playing the status quo."
the years when Mr Goss's committee was entrusted with oversight of
America's intelligence community, the CIA failed to predict in 1998 that
India would conduct a nuclear test, or that al-Qaida would bomb US
embassies in east Africa, US warplanes mistakenly bombed the Chinese
embassy in Belgrade, and a small al-Qaida motorboat blew a hole in the
US navy destroyer USS Cole. Then came the attack by hijacked aircraft on
the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001.
The final report of the commission investigating the September 11
terrorist attacks also challenged Mr Goss's record, saying that he had
given little attention to al-Qaida or terrorism before the attacks.
Between January 1998 and the attacks, Mr Goss's committee held just two
hearings on terrorism. The Senate committee on intelligence held eight
hearings; the armed services committee held nine.
But until relatively recently Mr Goss had the respect of his Democratic
colleagues for a pragmatic, bipartisan style.
That balance was
gradually eroded over the last year, congressional staff say, as he
cemented an alliance with the vice-president, Dick Cheney, and became
more forthright about his Republican loyalties. Democrats accuse him of
being too concerned with sparing the administration embarrassment.
He blocked house investigations into the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse
scandal and Washington's links with its erstwhile Iraqi ally Ahmad
The final straw for Democrats arrived the same week as Mr Goss delivered
his diatribe against the CIA. During a debate in the house on security,
he held up a sign with a 27-year-old quote from the Democratic
challenger, John Kerry, calling for budget cuts to the intelligence
services. Mr Goss later expressed regret, but by this week, when his
nomination was announced, Democrats said he was too partisan to be CIA
Mr Goss could fall down on another point: his willingness to make
reform. He is not a subscriber to the view of the 9/11 commission that
the White House should appoint a national intelligence chief who would
assert overall financial and managerial control of America's 15
Instead, he has fixed his sights firmly on the CIA. He introduced
legislation last June that would give the agency director control over
the $40bn (£22bn) combined budgets of the 15 intelligence services.
"Right now we have got this anomaly where we give the authority to
one person and the money to someone else," Mr Goss told the Tampa
Tribune last June. "That's the problem."
That stand - which is in line with the administration - could prove a
major liability for Mr Goss if the Democrats turn the confirmation
hearings into a test of absolute fealty to the reforms urged by the
September 11 commission.
But wellwishers say that does not mean that Mr Goss is averse to
restructuring the CIA. Frank MacGaffin, a former deputy director,
believes the insider knowledge that remains Mr Goss's strongest suit
will drive him to change the way the agency operates. "He knows
where things went wrong, and he must also have the same guilty knowledge
that I and others have of the imperative of fixing it before there is
another attack," Mr MacGaffin said. "That guilty knowledge
tells you that if you don't change some very essential things, it is
going to happen again."
Life in short
Waterbury, New Haven County, Connecticut, November 26 1938
BA Yale University, 1960
Wife, Mariel Robinson; four children; 11 grandchildren
Reported assets worth between $6m (£3.3m) and $24m last year
US army 1960-62; CIA, 1962-72; member of city council and mayor,
Sanibel, Florida, 1974-82; chair, Lee County, Florida, Commission
1985-86; Republican congressman, US House of Representatives, 1988 to
Bush on Goss
'Over 15 years of service, Porter Goss has built a reputation as a
reformer. He'll be a reformer at the CIA. I look forward to his counsel
and his judgments as to how best to implement broader intel reform,
including the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission'
Goss on his nomination as CIA director
'I think every American knows the importance of the best possible
intelligence we can get to our decision-makers'