IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Senate confirmation raises political stakes

President Bush’s announcement that he is submitting the name of Porter Goss to the Senate as his nominee to serve as CIA chief forces the Democrats to make a decision: to use the Goss confirmation hearings as a venue for criticizing Bush, or to ask Goss enough questions to determine whether he’d know how to run the agency, and then vote on the nominee.
DC: CIA Tenet and FBI Mueller at Senate
As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. John Edwards will play a role in grilling CIA nominee Porter Goss during his confirmation hearings.Trippett / Sipa Press file
/ Source:

President Bush’s announcement Tuesday that he is submitting the name of Florida Rep. Porter Goss to the Senate as his nominee to serve as Director of Central Intelligence makes sense both as a way to ensure that the spy agency has competent leadership and as an election-year move to fend off Democrats’ criticism of Bush’s handling of intelligence matters.

For Democrats, will the Goss nomination end up being a gift-wrapped present or a ticking time bomb?

It forces the Democrats to make a decision: to use the Goss confirmation hearings as a venue for criticizing Bush, or to ask Goss enough questions to determine whether he’d know how to run the agency, and then vote on the nominee, so that the agency isn’t left without a permanent leader for the next several months.

As a former 10-year CIA operative, and as House Intelligence Committee chairman for the past eight years, Goss appears to be as qualified as anyone in Washington could be to run the CIA.

“He is a very able, experienced choice who understands the intelligence profession and understands Congress,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John Warner, R-Va. “He will serve as an important bridge between the executive branch and the legislative branch as we work together to build the best intelligence community possible.”

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, sounded a more cautious note, saying “we need to look closely at both his record and his support for the reforms proposed by the 9/11 Commission, including the establishment of a Director of National Intelligence with adequate budgetary and personnel authority to lead the 15 intelligence agencies.”

Goss may face severe questioning from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, which will conduct the Goss confirmation hearings.

Earlier this summer, Rockefeller voiced opposition to Goss.

'Unquestionably independent'
“We need a director that is not only knowledgeable and capable but unquestionably independent,” said Rockefeller in late June. “I strongly urge the president to look for an individual with unimpeachable, nonpartisan national-security credentials and the stature and independence to bring about much-needed reform of our intelligence agencies.”

On Tuesday Rockefeller issued a statement noting his previous opposition to Goss.

"I said then (in June) and I still believe that the selection of a politician, — any politician, from either party — is a mistake." But he added that he "will work with (Intelligence Committee) Chairman (Pat) Roberts to move the process forward. Porter Goss will need to answer tough questions about his record and his position on reform, including questions on the independence of the leader of the intelligence community."

Democrats were peeved that Goss used a speech on the House floor in June to criticize Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry’s votes on intelligence funding. He held up a placard with a 1997 quote from Kerry that argued for intelligence budget cuts.

"I got books full of that stuff," Goss said. "The Democratic Party did not support the intelligence community."

Whatever else Goss is, he is not the kind of technocratic, non-partisan spy-master that CIA chief Allen Dulles was in the 1950s.

Kerry himself issued an innocuous statement Tuesday calling for "fair, bipartisan and expeditious confirmation hearings" for Goss. He also said "the most important position is one that hasn’t been created yet, National Intelligence Director with real control of budgets and personnel."

Risks for Bush and Edwards
The confirmation hearings pose risks for both Bush and for Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, who is a member of the Intelligence panel.

Edwards could choose to use the hearings as a platform for assailing Bush on intelligence matters, but if he were heavy-handed in his approach, it could hurt Edwards and Kerry, rather than Bush.

One substantive question that Edwards or any other member of the Intelligence Committee could ask Goss is whether, in his years as House Intelligence Committee chairman, Goss himself could have done more to correct CIA failures. Was Goss a vigilant congressional overseer of the CIA or a lax one?

Whatever the disagreements on the details of restructuring the intelligence agencies, Bush’s action in picking Goss does have the political advantage for him of being exactly that: an action. He can tell voters he is moving ahead to protect the nation.

Cost of delay
Any Democratic delay or filibuster would run the risk of making them appear more interested in seeking political advantage at a time of extraordinary concern over possible al-Qaida attacks, than in protecting the nation from such attacks.

Bush has put both Edwards and Kerry in the position of needing to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

A vote to confirm would be a vote of confidence in Goss, and thus, in Bush as well, while a ‘no’ vote would give Republicans campaign ad fodder. By this point, even part-time TV watchers could almost write the script for such ads themselves: “When President Bush tried to appoint a new CIA director to help protect the nation against al-Qaida, John Kerry and John Edwards stood in his way. Call Kerry and Edwards and ask them ‘why.’”

If confirmed, Goss would face daunting questions about how to restructure the agency to better protect the nation. Congress is not likely to resolve the larger issue of whether there ought to be a Director of National Intelligence to oversee the CIA, the National Security Agency and other spy agencies until after the November election.