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A lousy choice to lead the CIA

"Have they all drunk the Kool-Aid?" asked a former CIA colleague, referring to the stampede to appoint a new director and radically restructure the intelligence community.

The Kool-Aid allusion was to the "group-think" that led disciples of self-anointed "messiah" Jim Jones to mass suicide in 1978.

Attorney General John Ashcroft warned on May 26 that the government has "credible intelligence from multiple sources that al-Qaida plans an attack on the United States" before the November election. Yet the president and Congress have picked this very time _ as our intelligence and security forces are ordered to battle stations _ to create a mammoth distraction and uncertainty among those on whom we rely for our safety. As my colleague put it: "It just doesn't parse."

Besides, if President Bush doesn't win re-election, Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., confirmed to be CIA director on Wednesday, has but six weeks before becoming a lame duck. And then still further disruption and uncertainty would be in store for an intelligence community that yearns in vain for stability.

I reminded my friend that this is not about stability, efficiency or preparedness. The current hyperactivity is driven by politics, and experience has shown that politics and intelligence reform are a noxious mix. By way of example:

+ In the light of 9/11 and the debacle in Iraq, no politician wants to risk being seen as putting the brakes on intelligence reform.

+ In this highly charged atmosphere, the Republican-led Senate would confirm Inspector Clouseau were the president to nominate him. As one wag put it, referring to Goss: A bird in the hand is worth it for Bush. And even if the president is re-elected, he cannot be sure he will have so docile a Senate next year.

+ Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., recently commented: "Porter is a team player . . . and will probably defer to what the president wants." Which, of course, is a very large part of the problem, so dramatically illustrated by the sycophancy of former CIA director George Tenet.

"The record is the record." With those words, Goss tried to deflect questioning at his nomination hearing on Sept. 14. Okay, we'll bite. Let's look at that record.

On June 19, 1997, the Washington Post reported: "The House Intelligence Committee criticized U.S. intelligence agencies for having limited analytical capabilities . . . an uncertain commitment and capability to collect human intelligence . . . a lack of analytic depth and expertise . . . a lack of foreign language skills and limited in-country familiarity."

The panel's sharply written report on the fiscal 1998 intelligence authorization bill carried more weight than usual because for the first time it was chaired by a former CIA operations officer, Rep. Porter J. Goss, R-Fla. Goss chaired that committee for the next seven years, overseeing a steady decline in all of those key areas.

The fact that during that period he did not use the committee's power of the purse and its watchdog prerogative to ensure that those deficiencies were corrected gives a hollow ring to his current assertion, "I can make that happen."

Instead of doing so as head of the intelligence committee, Goss spent seven years cheering for the CIA _ which he still affectionately calls his "alma mater" _ until last June when the signals from the White House changed and he stunned everyone by abruptly becoming its harshest critic. To their credit, Sens. Carl Levin, Richard Durbin and Mike DeWine asked tough questions of Goss during his confirmation hearing but found him entirely unresponsive.

Goss lacks what is demonstrably a sine qua non qualification for a director of central intelligence: experience managing a large, highly complex organization. Moreover, the job requires the kind of nonpartisan approach that is alien to anyone who has functioned for very long in the highly politicized ether of the U.S. Congress.

Goss coauthored an opinion piece in March claiming that in the 1990s Sen. John Kerry "was leading efforts in Congress to dismantle the nation's intelligence capabilities."

And in June, Goss interrupted debate on the House floor by displaying a sign with a 1977 quote from Kerry that called for cuts in the intelligence budget. These antics raise legitimate concerns about his ability to be nonpartisan. Even more troubling to veteran intelligence analysts is the way Goss' prepared statement parroted the president's rhetoric. Terrorists "are committed to the destruction of our economy and our way of life," he said, boilerplate that merits as much credence as the now thoroughly discredited prewar claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The situation is much more complex than that.

If Goss believes what he said, he has not read the definitive work on "why they hate us," CIA analyst Michael Scheuer's recent book Imperial Hubris. And if he doesn't grasp this complexity, how could he possibly convey it to leaders relying on his counsel?

Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst for 27 years, from the Kennedy to George H.W. Bush administration, has written "A Compromised CIA: What Can Be Done?," a chapter in Patriotism, Democracy and Common Sense published this month by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation.