CIA Nominee Backs Lesser Mideast Role

Rep. Porter Goss’ distance from Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking was likely a plus in securing the nomination to lead the CIA.

In fact, Goss (R- Fla.), President Bush’s choice to succeed George Tenet as intelligence director, is about as far from the CIA’s peacemaking efforts in the Middle East as Tenet was close to it.

Tenet’s intimacy with the foundering Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2001 made him critical to Bush’s belief at the time that he should keep a line open to the process. These days, though, Bush believes the parties are better left working things out themselves — a view Goss shares.

"Porter Goss probably comes to this with a sense that the CIA doesn’t have much of a role [in Middle East peace negotiations]," said Dennis Ross, President Bill Clinton’s top Middle East peace negotiator, who has briefed Goss on occasion. "I would suspect he would prefer not to have the agency involved as it was. He’s more of a traditionalist in terms of what he thinks the CIA’s role ought to be."

Otherwise, Bush’s decision in 2001 to keep Tenet in place and his nomination this year of Goss to succeed him are remarkably consistent.

In fact, Goss had this advice for Bush in 2001, when he was asked about Tenet: Keep him; he’s a company man, and he’ll take orders. The same qualifications led Bush to nominate Goss on Aug. 10 as Tenet’s replacement.

Announcing the nomination, Bush emphasized Goss’ own company roots, first as a CIA case officer four decades ago, then as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee since 1997 and, until recently, as one of the agency’s champions in Congress.

"He knows the CIA inside and out," Bush said. "He’s the right man to lead this important agency at this critical moment in our nation’s history."

The qualities Bush perceived in Tenet in 2001 led him to forgo a tradition launched in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter sacked Bush’s father from the post and selected his own spy boss upon assuming the presidency. The younger Bush kept Tenet on precisely because the CIA director was an apolitical insider who knew the ropes.

The Middle East connection was particularly important to Bush at the time. Tenet had established a good working relationship with the Palestinian security establishment and, although Bush believed that the United States should draw back from Clinton-level involvement in the process, he wanted to maintain at least one reliable inside track.

Tenet’s first task was to set out parameters for getting the peace back on track, but Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was either unwilling or unable to implement the Tenet plan’s provisions for containing Palestinian terrorism. That was a major factor in Bush’s decision ultimately to isolate Arafat — and to pull the CIA out of the process.

Hence the nomination of Goss, a man whose experience in the Middle East is so limited, he even joked about it in an interview this year with filmmaker Michael Moore. In a segment of the interview that did not make the final cut of Moore’s controversial documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," Goss jokes, "I don’t have the language skills. I, you know, my language skills were Romance languages and stuff. We’re looking for Arabists today. I don’t have the cultural background probably."

Goss’ spy experience was as a Spanish-speaking cold warrior in Latin America and Europe. As a legislator, he did not favorably view orders Clinton gave the CIA in 1998 to cultivate a reliable Palestinian security network.

That sits well with Bush’s current belief that the Palestinians need to get their security act together, before they get back to the table, and it will also make him welcome at an agency that was never comfortable with nurturing Palestinian police to self-sufficiency.

"It wasn’t the choice of the CIA to be involved," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former agent. "The agency had always been reluctant to involve itself. It became a role outlined at the Wye talks. It wasn’t something the agency took on quite voluntarily."

Tenet was never comfortable with the role — he spoke with some revulsion at his retirement party earlier this year of having to kiss Arafat when they met — but it was, former agents said, the role of the CIA director to follow presidential orders.

"I don’t know that Goss would have much choice if the policy was the same now," Cannistraro said.

In fact, Ross suggested, Goss might face an inevitable return to the process, albeit not at Clinton-era levels, once Israel starts withdrawing from the Gaza Strip next year.

"If the administration says, ‘We want to play a role in monitoring security arrangements,’ — if we need that as part of understanding how Palestinians are fulfilling obligations once Israel pulls out — not many other agencies can do it on a discreet basis," Ross said.

In any case, Goss — who is likely to face tough questions during his confirmation hearings, but who is unlikely to face serious congressional opposition — has other things to think about.

"I wouldn’t expect that Goss would be very involved" in Middle East peace, said Maj. Gen. Ed Atkeson, a former Army man assigned three times to the CIA. "He’s going to have a full bucket there just dealing with the conclusions of the 9/11 committee."

Should the CIA return to a more active role in the process, Goss’ record in Congress is something of a blank slate as far as interest in the Middle East goes.

Goss, whose Florida constituency does not boast a large Jewish population, has kept a low profile on issues dear to the pro-Israel community, save for his reluctance to completely shut down lines of communication with Iran, a holdover from Cold War thinking that the other side should never be completely shut off.

What he brings to the job from his congressional career is a conviction that the emphasis in intelligence must be in countering terrorism, Cannistraro said.

"He says they can’t neglect basic intelligence, like weapons proliferation — he says the agency needs to get better at that," Cannistraro added.

Goss’ own political views may not be the point, as Bush chose Goss in large part for his proven loyalty. Goss has been one of Bush’s most adept allies in Congress since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was instrumental in cajoling civil libertarians in the House into holding their noses and passing aspects of the U.S.A. Patriot Act that they wanted removed, including broadened phone-tapping and search powers.

He even turned on his beloved CIA for Bush, making a 180-degree turn on his assessment of Tenet this year, when Bush’s campaign needed to distance the president from the intelligence failures of Sept. 11 and the lead-up to the Iraq War.

The agency, Goss said, was "dysfunctional" and could soon become "a stilted bureaucracy incapable of even the slightest bit of success."

That loyalty likely would extend to Bush’s pro-Israel policies, Atkeson said. "He’s going to be supportive of the president and the president’s views, and the president is very devoted to support of Israel," he said.