By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 18, 2002; Page C01
It was a quiet day in September, in a small town in Florida, but Porter Goss could not quell his anxiety about an impending attack by international terrorists. They were coming, he said, and they were certain to pass through the local airport.
It was time to act. An ex-CIA man turned politician, Goss backed a mission worthy of a spy movie. He voted to arm airport cops with Uzis -- those stubby black submachine guns that can deal death at the rate of 10 bullets a second.
"Terrorists pick on the weak," Goss warned. "We're telling people that if you plan to come here and cause trouble, you won't get away with it."
And so it came to pass that the commissioners of Lee County, Fla. -- with Goss as chairman -- procured eight Uzis to defend the Southwest Florida Regional Airport, in the retiree haven of Fort Myers, against the menace of global terrorism. Catering as it did to snow-weary tourists from America's heartland, the airport never faced a hijacking or any other showdown with murderous criminals. The guns were never used.
Today Rep. Goss (R-Fla.) blushes, then laughs, when reminded of that vote 16 years ago. He chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and is one of Congress's most respected voices on terrorism. Those Uzis, he says, sent a message that the little airport was serious: "The idea was, if we're going to play in the big time, we have to be big time."
An overreaction? Perhaps, but today it gives Goss the sheen of prescience. The terrorists were coming, eventually. Now the main question facing Goss, as he helps steer a joint House-Senate investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks, is why nobody in the far-flung intelligence bureaucracy -- 13 agencies spending billions of dollars -- paid attention to the enemy among us. Until it was too late.
Goss says he is looking for solutions, not scapegoats. "A lot of nonsense," he calls this week's uproar about a CIA briefing that alerted President Bush, five weeks before Sept. 11, that Osama bin Laden's associates might be planning airline hijackings.
"None of this is news, but it's all part of the finger-pointing," Goss declared yesterday in a rare display of pique. "It's foolishness."
A well-mannered legislator with a well-manicured pedigree (Connecticut-born, wealthy, Yale Class of '60, major in ancient Greek), Goss has repeatedly refused to blame an "intelligence failure" for the terror attacks. As a 10-year veteran of the CIA's clandestine operations wing, Goss prefers to praise the agency's "fine work."
"The trouble with the failure word," he says, "is that it is being used politically for various agendas."
"We're not in the 'Gotcha!' business," agrees Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Goss's friend and, as head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, co-chair of the investigation. Both say the crucial issue isn't what the president knew before 9/11 but whyhe didn't have more precise intelligence to act upon.
"The right question is, why didn't the president have the necessary intelligence to take the right steps to avoid the tragedy?" says Goss.
As Graham put it, "No one should expect the president or members of Congress to go put on their James Bond uniforms and become case officers."
On and off Capitol Hill, some critics have been grumbling that Goss is too close to the CIA and that Graham is inclined to tread softly, too.
The committees' investigative work, and most of the hearings, will be conducted in secret. Public sessions -- which Goss predicts will start in June -- are not expected to be anything like the no-holds-barred spy scandal hearings run by Sen. Frank Church in the 1970s.
"The contrast is so stark as to be amazing," says Richard V. Allen, President Reagan's first national security adviser, who has long admired Goss's "unassuming" style. If Goss had led the Church Commission probe, "the outcome could be the same, reining in the excesses of the intelligence community," says Allen, "with much less spin."
The co-chairmen -- so similar of mind they're like "Frick and Frack," in Goss's description -- vow to pose tough questions and serve as truth-seeking advocates for the citizenry. "We are going to go where this takes us," Goss says.
"If the facts indicate there were people whose behavior warrants sanctions, we'll say so," says Graham.
"I have a very low tolerance level," says Goss, striking a patrician tone, "for lack of performance." He relaxes his lanky frame in a leather office chair and poses a question to himself:
"Can I be trusted to be objective in the very responsible role I have as chairman . . . because of my past association with the CIA? The answer, I believe, is yes." He calls himself "harder on the agency than anybody" and points out, "I don't want to be embarrassed, as an alumnus of the organization."
Spoken like a true Company man.A Sea Change
Resting in his Washington hotel room, the spy felt lightheaded. His pulse raced. He called a doctor. Then he collapsed.
When 31-year-old Porter J. Goss regained consciousness, he was in a hospital, undergoing treatment for a massive infection. It was 1970. The CIA had called him to Washington from his home base in England, where he lived with his wife, Mariel, and four children.
Goss nearly died, and doctors had no idea what caused the staph infection of his heart and other vital organs. Neither did he. (He rules out deliberate poisoning.)
"This was out of the wild blue," says Goss, now 63. The illness put him in a wheelchair, cut short his CIA career and pushed his life in a new direction.
The son of a metals company sales manager, Goss grew up in Waterbury, Conn., and recalls watching World War II artillery shells being transported to the factory floor as a boy. But he wasn't working class. His family could afford to send him to Hotchkiss prep school and Yale, where he joined the Army ROTC and made his first contacts with the Central Intelligence Agency. He trained as a military intelligence officer after graduation, and by 1962 he was working at the CIA, deployed to Miami in time for the Cuban missile crisis.
He did photo interpretation and "small-boat handling" but doesn't want to lay out specifics. "I had some very interesting moments in the Florida Straits," he says. "I don't think I'd be comfortable going to Cuba." (Though earlier this year he visited the U.S. base at Guantanamo, wanting to make sure that debriefings there of Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners were "getting the proper results.")
Goss was facile with languages, a student of Greek and Latin who spoke Spanish and French. The CIA sent him to various "hot spots," including Haiti, Santo Domingo and Mexico. He recruited and ran agents, foreign nationals who could help collect what he calls "the gold," the prized nuggets of information that resided inside people's heads: Their "plans and intentions."
Goss was a clandestine service officer in Western Europe when his illness struck. The agency offered him a desk job, but he decided to retire and relocate to Sanibel Island, off Florida's Gulf Coast. He had friends from the CIA there, including retired supervisors in the directorate of operations who were planning business ventures. "Come on down, we can ease you back," they told him.
Goss recalls a long, painful rehabilitation with the help of his wife, "trying to get my health back, a few steps a day," forcing himself to walk a couple hundred yards from his house to the shoreline.
"We started a new life," he says. "We just started all over again, completely."
With two ex-spy partners, he went into the newspaper business. They established a weekly called the Island Reporter in 1972, and Goss became politically active. By December 1974 he was elected the island's first mayor, winning 1,356 votes. He was paid $1 a year. (It helped that his wife came from a rich, old Pittsburgh industrial family.)
As it turned out, that part of Florida was a magnet for former spooks. Attending a meeting with other local mayors -- from Naples, Fort Myers and Cape Coral -- Goss realized they were all former CIA men. So were some of the reporters covering the meeting.
"Of the eight people in the room, seven were agency people!" he says, chortling.
In local elections, conspiracy theories flew. Was the CIA trying to establish Sanibel as a base for another Bay of Pigs invasion? After all, the CIA reportedly had trained Cuban insurgents on nearby Useppa Island in 1960.
Goss and his partners eventually sold the paper "at an obscene price," he says. He continued his political rise when then-Gov. Bob Graham, impressed by Goss's slow-growth efforts to protect the environment in Sanibel, reached across party lines in 1982 and appointed the Republican to fill a vacancy on the scandal-wracked Lee County Commission. In 1988, Goss ran for Congress and won.Losing the Human Factor
"King Neptune," a newspaper cartoonist nicknamed him: Porter Goss, protector of sea creatures, foe of those who would exploit dolphins in water shows.
The congressman focused initially on what he calls "stewardship of natural resources." He tends to strike balances -- an avid boater who also supports zones to keep manatees safe. As he moved on to the foreign affairs, rules and intelligence committees, he gained a reputation as an honest broker, straight-talking, given to thoughtful deliberation rather than grandstanding. "He's always been policy-oriented as opposed to politics-oriented," says Allen, the former Reagan adviser. (Allen once owned a condo on Sanibel.) "He strikes me as quite atypical of a Washington politician."
As House intelligence chairman since 1997, Goss aimed shots at the Clinton White House, part of a consistent barrage of warnings about the nation's "underinvestment" in the intelligence community, a manpower deficit at the FBI, poor interagency coordination, and a lack of language training among CIA operatives, as well as military officers. "We inherited some serious mess from the Clinton administration," he said yesterday.
Old-school spooks such as Goss often wax nostalgic about the days when "HUMINT" (human intelligence) trumped technological wizardry, when operatives spoke the local lingo and blended into cultures to make connections. The surprise attacks of 9/11 are often attributed, in part, to the CIA's inability to penetrate Islamic terror cells because of a lack of language skills and a paucity of on-the-ground HUMINT.
As this week's headlines show, there were rumblings and red flags last summer that something big was afoot. But counterterrorism operatives evidently weren't close enough to their targets to find the gold: those 19 hijackers' intentions and plans.
"We get piles and piles of information, but how much of it is actually intelligence?" laments one veteran intelligence officer.
"We're like a watchmaker who can't do things in a delicate environment," says another counterterrorism expert. "We've lost the feeling in our fingertips."
"I certainly concur with that," Goss says. "Wholeheartedly.
"I know what a good penetration of a hard target is -- and looks like, talks like and sounds like," he adds, explaining how his background serves him well on the oversight committee. "We are being too namby-pamby about taking risks to get the good penetrations of the hard targets in denied areas. . . . Now, that's the old guy talking to you.
"It's changed very much," he says of the spy agency. "I don't think I could get a job as a case officer today."
Before President Bush's election, Goss's name surfaced as a candidate for the top CIA job amid speculation that Bush would replace Director George Tenet, a Clinton appointee. But Goss brushes that off as a rumor "traveling around the Beltway smoke circuit" and says, "I have never asked for [that] job."
Goss supported Tenet as a holdover and has not wavered in his support amid calls by others for Tenet's resignation after 9/11. After blasting Tenet last fall, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman, also described Goss as "close to a lot of people" at the CIA, telling Roll Call, "I don't think we should be too close to anybody we have oversight of, because you can't do your job."
But other prominent Republicans -- namely Bush and Vice President Cheney -- maintain great faith in Goss. Though Goss had said he would not run again, Cheney was dispatched earlier this year and helped persuade him not to retire. Goss also recalls seeing the president on two occasions and quotes him thusly:
" 'Porter, listen, I really want you to stay.' He said, 'This intelligence stuff is important. I want you here.' " And, Bush told him, "You've got it exactly right."Going for the Gold
On the morning of Sept. 11, Goss and Graham were having breakfast with a Pakistani general named Mahmud Ahmed -- the soon-to-be-sacked head of Pakistan's intelligence service. Ahmed ran a spy agency notoriously close to Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
A Goss aide handed a note to his boss. Goss read it and handed it to Graham. Soon they would evacuate the Capitol, but not before Goss, the designated speaker pro tempore, symbolically opened the House for one minute.
The discussion that morning touched on Taliban links to terrorism, but Goss says his greatest worry was the dispute in Kashmir -- and the nuclear weapons possessed by feuding Pakistan and India. A few weeks earlier, Goss and other lawmakers had visited the region on a fact-finding tour, but he admits he wasn't focused on bin Laden at the time.
"I had it wrong," he says. "I was looking east [toward Kashmir] instead of west [toward Afghanistan] when I was standing in Islamabad."
He says this with no embarrassment or defensiveness. This is part of why people like Goss. When he gets it wrong, he doesn't dissemble. "Seek Ye the Truth" -- that's the CIA's motto. He would affix the same slogan to his investigation.
"This is a professional, responsible, nonpartisan activity," Goss says. But as far as what kind of weaknesses, flaws or lapses (don't call them failures) he thinks the investigation will uncover -- and how to fix them -- there is little point asking. The chairman is an impenetrable target in a denied area.
That's the way it is in the intelligence game. "You can spend two hours in here saying, 'I've talked to Porter Goss,' and still not have a clue what my plans and intentions are," the Company man says, before bidding farewell to his interrogator with a handshake and smile.