updated 9/14/2004 6:54:40 PM ET 2004-09-14T22:54:40

President Bush’s nominee to head the CIA promised Tuesday to shed his political past and provide precise, objective and independent intelligence to the president and Congress. But he also cautioned it may take longer than the past CIA director’s estimate to hire and train all the operatives needed worldwide to combat terrorism and other threats.

“I have made a commitment to nonpartisanship,” retiring Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., told the Senate Intelligence Committee at his confirmation hearing. He conceded that during his 16 years in Congress he may “at times” have engaged in debate with too much vigor.

“Rest assured, however, I understand completely the difference in obligations the position of [director of central intelligence] carries with it and that which the role of a congressman carries,” said Goss, who was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Long build-up predicted
If confirmed, Goss would take over the agency just months after the CIA’s last director, George Tenet, shocked some on the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by saying it would take five years to install the kind of clandestine service needed to deal with international terrorism. Tenet blamed the situation on tight budgets after the Cold War.

Goss, however, said Tuesday that it would take more than five years to train and place all the clandestine operatives the CIA needs. “I don’t believe five is enough,” Goss said. “It’s a long build-out, a long haul. It’s been started.”

U.S. intelligence

In his testimony, Goss also outlined a series of commonly cited priorities for the U.S. intelligence community. They included improving human intelligence and analytic capabilities, expanding intelligence sharing with state and local law enforcement agencies and improving foreign language capabilities.

Goss, a former Army intelligence and CIA clandestine officer, would assume at a tumultuous time the helm of the CIA and the dual role as head of the 14 other agencies in the U.S. intelligence community.

At the Sept. 11 commission’s recommendation, Congress and the White House are considering separating Goss’ would-be position into two jobs — a CIA director and a national intelligence director. The commission said the latter position should be empowered with budget and personnel authority over all of the nation’s spy network.

Goss has said he believes the authority to control budgets for foreign intelligence should be consolidated in a central office. But if confirmed, he said Tuesday, he will “play the cards that are dealt to me on this subject.”

Bush has endorsed giving the new national intelligence director budgetary authority but not all of the powers the commission suggested. The Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has endorsed adopting the commission’s 40-plus recommendations in their entirety.

Goss’ political record reviewed
Even as Goss focused on substantive intelligence issues Tuesday, Democrats repeatedly returned to sometimes terse exchanges about whether Goss could be an independent and nonpolitical CIA chief.

The panel’s top Democrat, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, admonished Goss for his criticism of Kerry, including a March opinion article he co-wrote titled “Need Intelligence? Don’t Ask John Kerry.” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Goss, as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence from 1996 until August, was insufficiently committed to intelligence reform.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also asked Goss about comments he made to The Associated Press about the prison abuse scandal in Iraq. During an interview in May, Goss called ongoing Senate investigations “a circus.”

“What you’re saying by that comment is certainly a lack of respect not only for this committee, but this body,” Feinstein said. “How can there be mutual respect?”

Goss said the comment was directed toward the “media frenzy” that was going on over the pictures of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad.

“It was not made as a serious comment. It was not meant as a serious comment. It was not reported as a serious comment,” he said. “It was lighthearted jesting about our rivalries that go back and forth on the Hill.”

Vote could come next week
While Goss has vocal critics in the Senate, no one so far has said publicly they will vote against him. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has indicated he wants the Senate to vote on the nomination as soon as next week.

At Tuesday’s 4½-hour hearing, Goss also backed away from a controversial provision he included in an intelligence reform bill in June to loosen long-standing restrictions on the agency’s ability to operate inside the United States.

He said he had been trying to start a debate on an important issue — the blurring of lines between foreign and domestic intelligence. As the CIA’s director, he said, he would go to policy-makers for guidance on intelligence and law enforcement capabilities.

“I do not believe that foreign intelligence apparatus should be used domestically,” he said.

Goss responded that his record spoke for itself on a number of tough issues, including his initial opposition to the Sept. 11 commission and his positions on intelligence spending in the 1990s. Goss and the Democrats have accused each other of supporting devastating budget cuts.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., accused Goss of dismissing many of the questions from senators.

“Whoever briefed you for this hearing and said that when you get in a tight spot over something you have said or done, keep repeating ‘the record is the record,’ did you no great service,” Durbin said.

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