Although the name Porter Goss had been floating around the nation's capital for months as a possible successor to George Tenet, the public knows little about the former Florida Representative and CIA agent President Bush tapped to reform the intelligence agency.
Who is Porter Goss? A former agent himself, Goss has a long history in the intelligence community. He has served 10 years as a Florida Congressman and has chaired the House intelligence committee since 1997. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Porter Goss is a prodigy who caught the CIA’s eye while he was mere junior at Yale, and served as a clandestine agent in some of the hottest spots of the Cold War. Recently, Goss showed courage in describing the intelligence policies of John Kerry, his potential next boss, as “unrealistic and dangerously naive.”
While there will be much public wrangling over whether Goss is the man to head the CIA over the next few weeks, there can be no argument that he has led a remarkable life. Goss, 65, was born in Connecticut to a well-to-do family. He attended the elite Hotchkiss preparatory school before heading off to Yale in the 1950s, where he studied ancient Greek and joined Army ROTC. (This was during the time ROTC could still meet on Yale's campus.) Although he was approached by the CIA as an undergrad, Goss joined the Army after graduation, serving two years in military intelligence. Goss joined the CIA after finishing his Army stint in 1962.
Fluent in Spanish and other romance languages, Goss served as a clandestine officer in Central America and Western Europe for close to a decade, where he recruited and supervised foreign agents. Goss has shown professional reticence about his activities during this time period, although in 2000 he did tell a group of reporters that he had experience with “small boat handling,” including “some very interesting moments in the Florida Straits.” This comment has largely been interpreted as Goss admitting some sort of role in the Cuban Missile Crisis—an insinuation he has not denied, and, in fact, lent further credence to by acknowledging that he would feel distinctly uncomfortable visiting Cuba. Without any specific details, Goss has also noted he was active in Haiti (next door neighbor to the Dominican Republic, where the U.S. took military action in 1965) and Mexico, where Soviet and Cuban agents were widely known to be active.
Even less is known about Goss’ time in Europe, except that it was toward the premature end of his career, which ended in 1970. Goss had arrived in Washington, D.C., whether for business or pleasure is not clear, when he collapsed from a near-fatal, mysterious blood infection. It took Goss months to recover, and when he reported back to the CIA for duty, the agency declined to put Goss back in the field. Not interested in a desk job, Goss moved on, settling down in the small community of Sanibel Island in Florida, where he recuperated from his illness and adjusted to civilian life.
It was on Sanibel Island that Goss entered the public eye. One of Goss’ neighbors, also a former CIA officer, started a newspaper, the Island Reporter, and hired Goss as the chief reporter. The goal of the paper was largely to agitate for the island to be incorporated as a municipality, and when it succeeded, Goss left journalism to serve as mayor of the small town of 1,200 in 1974. Before long, Goss gained a reputation as a pragmatic man who was willing to listen to the concerns of both environmentalists and developers along his section of the Florida coastline. After a stint on the Lee County Board of Commissioners (former Democratic presidential candidate and Florida Senator Bob Graham still praises Goss’ work with that body), his popularity on both sides of that bitter divide caught the eye of state Republican Party officials, who encouraged him to run for Congress in 1988. A strong social conservative, Goss won five elections for the House seat.
In the aftermath of September 11, Porter worked closely with Democrats on both terrorism and intelligence issues, and gained a reputation as a bipartisan reformer. Although Goss has stepped up criticism of Democrats on intelligence issues in recent weeks, most of the sniping about him being too partisan for the CIA post came after the announcement of his appointment. Even the Democrats now charging that Goss is under Dick Cheney’s thumb have indicated they will not put up any serious challenge to his nomination.
Clearly, President Bush has reform on his mind, and sees Goss’ fearlessness and insider status as key in making real change happen. Announcing the Goss nomination, Bush said the Congressman had “built a reputation as a reformer” and would be “a reformer at the CIA.” Goss is unafraid to criticize the CIA, but he is also not afraid to defend the agency. Goss also knows what it is like to be a case officer risking life and limb in an exotic locale on behalf of his nation. “It is imperative that these men and women understand in these troubled times that this House holds them in the highest regard and appreciates that the work accomplished by them is critical to the defense of our liberty and security,” Goss said at a recent hearing. “Amid great sacrifice and often intense conditions, the men and women of the intelligence community continue to perform their missions with great energy and admirable devotion to duty.”
Goss instead places the blame for America’s intelligence failure on the bureaucracy and the lack of funding for human intelligence from Congress, an oversight Goss worked to correct. He spoke out against the Clinton administration’s preference for technology over human intelligence on the ground. Goss believes agents with the right resources and leadership will get the job done.
Expect the extreme Left to launch a vicious attack on Goss. After all, Goss inexplicably granted an interview to Michael Moore for his film Fahrenheit 9/11, telling the rotund filmmaker, “I couldn't get a job with the CIA today. I am not qualified.” With a long history as a field agent and on intelligence issues in the House of Representatives, he is clearly qualified to hold the job. This country would be well served by an open and frank discussion of what Goss plans to do with the CIA—and whether he has the emotional distance from his past to bring needed reforms to the agency. George H.W. Bush, a longtime federal bureaucrat, was capable of overseeing such changes; Goss likely will, as well. If he does improve this critical component of our national security, Porter Goss will once again serve his country honorably.