PRESIDENT Bush's nomination of Porter J. Goss as director of Central Intelligence is controversial, both in the need to do so at this point and in the particular choice of Mr. Goss for the post.
The structural question is whether the nomination of any successor to George J. Tenet as head of the CIA at this point is necessary or appropriate. The argument that it is agrees with the notion that the director plays a vital role in the national effort to assure America's security, and that the job should not be vacant for any appreciable amount of time.
If the position were not to be filled now, it likely would not be filled until after Congress convenes in late January, leaving a six-month gap from when Mr. Tenet left and a successor took his place.
The structural argument against filling the slot now says that, in the wake of the 9/11 Commission's report, the whole issue of whether the United States needs an over-arching intelligence chief, what that official's status and responsibilities should be - particularly whether he should have budget and hiring and firing authority - and what his relationship with the director of the CIA should be, remains up in the air. Congressional hearings are currently under way on the subject. It is a major issue in the presidential campaign.
The returns are still very much out on what should be done. Something should be done because what there is in place now failed miserably, as has been amply documented by the commission's report. So, particularly with a competent intelligence professional, John E. McLaughlin, currently serving as acting CIA director, why rush to name a replacement, particularly in the highly politicized context of the fall of an election year?
Then there is the question of whether Mr. Goss, 65, a seven-term congressman from Florida, who has served for the past seven years as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, is appropriate for the job. He is a Yale fraternity (Fence Club) and senior society (Book & Snake) boy like Mr. Bush, so they should be able to talk. He is from Florida, the state where Mr. Bush's brother is governor and which gave Mr. Bush the 2000 election, so the political chemistry should be fine.
Mr. Goss served two years in U.S. Army intelligence and worked at the CIA himself for nine years, so that, coupled with his years on the House oversight committee for the CIA, should give him enough knowledge of the agency and the craft to be effective. The 9/11 Commission report did not give high marks to Congress for the quality of its oversight of the intelligence community.
Shortcomings in that area are obviously a reflection on Mr. Goss' approach to intelligence during his period as chairman and member of the House committee. Reform is still very much needed in that area. It also appears that congressional confirmation of Mr. Goss' nomination will be time-consuming, because it is important and controversial. Whether Congress should be occupying itself with this appointment in the few weeks remaining of this session, rather than approving the budgets for the different departments and seeing to other important matters, is also a good question.
On balance, we believe that Mr. McLaughlin should be left in place until the new Congress takes office in January, at which time, if Mr. Bush is still president and wishes to renominate Mr. Goss, the appointment can be considered at a more deliberate pace. In any case, Mr. Goss' qualifications do not suggest that replacing Mr. McLaughlin with him is a matter of screaming urgency.
In the meantime, the recommendations of the 9/11 commission should be front-and-center for consideration in the intelligence field.