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Goss to step down as House Intel chairman

By SHAUN WATERMAN, UPI Homeland and National Security Editor

WASHINGTON, Aug. 10 (UPI) -- Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., nominated by President Bush Tuesday to be the new director of central intelligence, is resigning as chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, United Press International has learned.

In a move designed to placate critics who have questioned his commitment to intelligence reform and promised him a rough ride in confirmation hearings, Goss "has sent a letter tonight to the Speaker (of the House) temporarily resigning his chairmanship, pending his confirmation," an aide who asked not to be named told UPI Tuesday evening.

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The move would be effective immediately, said the aide, and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the current vice chairman, would likely preside over a Wednesday hearing -- the second in an unprecedented summer-recess series at which the panel will consider the intelligence reforms proposed by the Sept. 11 Commission.

But congressional observers pointed out that Boehlert already chairs the House Science Committee and that the chamber's bylaws prevent any member from presiding over two full committees. Since Boehlert's immediate successor, Rep. Douglas Bereuter, R-Neb., recently resigned his seat, the chairmanship would normally pass to Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.

The increasingly heated debate about restructuring the 15 U.S. intelligence agencies collectively referred to as the "intelligence community" is the context both for Goss's sudden resignation and the battle he will likely face over his confirmation.

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Since his nomination Tuesday the eight-term lawmaker has faced questions about an apparent conflict of interest because the Intelligence Committee is considering reforms that might enhance or diminish the powers of the post to which he was nominated. The director of central intelligence currently runs the CIA and -- at least notionally -- also manages the other 14 intelligence agencies.

Goss's own legislative proposal for intelligence reform cuts against the grain of other reform plans, including those of the Sept. 11 Commission, all of which would create a new post -- the national intelligence director -- to manage the intelligence community. Goss's bill, by contrast, would give enhanced powers to the existing director to enable him to coordinate the activities of the community more effectively.

Another congressional source confirmed to UPI that Goss had stepped down from the chairmanship to avoid "even the appearance of a conflict. ... He is very sensitive to that," the source said.

Goss's resignation also highlights the difficulties he may face in winning confirmation.

Although Republicans welcomed his nomination and Democrats acknowledged his credentials as a former clandestine CIA officer, lawmakers of both parties warned that he faces a rough ride in Senate confirmation hearings.

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But despite charges from President Bush's opponents that his appointment would politicize the director's post and some doubts from intelligence officials that he was the right man for the job, congressional staff from both parties agreed that it would be difficult for Senate Democrats to effectively block Goss's confirmation -- a move that Republicans could paint as obstructing the president's efforts to provide leadership to the CIA during a time of war.

"I'll think there'll be a (confirmation) fight right through that perhaps will last until the election," Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., told UPI.

But he added that no one would be able to question Goss's expertise, pointing not just to his unprecedented seven years as committee chairman but to a decade in the CIA and a stint in Army intelligence.

Instead, Weldon said, the debate would likely "be around his political reputation; (Democrats) will say he's too partisan."

Goss, a member of the moderate Republican Mainstreet organization, recently criticized Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for his voting record on intelligence funding.

Weldon added that he doubted Goss would continue to oppose the appointment of a new intelligence director now that it had been embraced by the White House. "I think in the end he'll probably defer to what the president wants," he said. "Porter's a team player."

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Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee that will hold Goss's confirmation hearing, said in a statement that the nominee was "uniquely qualified in terms of experience and expertise to lead the intelligence community."

But Democratic Vice Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said that no politician of either party could be the right candidate under current circumstances. The nominee, he said in a statement, ought to be of "unquestioned capability and independence ... an individual with unimpeachable, non-partisan national-security credentials."

Democrats said their concerns about the politicization of the post were especially acute given what they said was a root cause of the errors intelligence agencies made in suggesting there were stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons in Iraq.

This "massive" failure, said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., appeared "to have been the result of the shaping of intelligence reporting by the intelligence community to support the policies of the administration in power."

Levin said that ensuring the intelligence community provided "objective, independently arrived-at ... assessments" to policymakers would "be a major focus for me ... in my assessment of the Goss nomination."

Rep. Jim Turner of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said that there was "a special burden" on Goss "as there is on any member of Congress appointed to the administration to reassure the Senate that his responsibilities will be carried out in a very non-partisan way."

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Some Democrats also suggested that Goss's record on the Intelligence Committee was unimpressive and questioned his commitment to reform.

Committee member Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, told UPI: "It's a matter of record that we have not been doing our job in oversight. The responsibility (for that) rests with the chair." He cited what he said was the committee's failure to aggressively investigate abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the outing of clandestine operator Valerie Plame and the failure of U.S. pre-war intelligence on Iraq.

A former senior intelligence official also questioned Goss's leadership on the panel, saying the committee "hasn't been very effective. ... They've not had much positive effect."

But most lawmakers agree that blocking Goss's confirmation is unlikely.

"No one wants to be the skunk at that garden party," said one.

Confirmation hearings have not yet been scheduled. The Senate will be in recess until Sept. 7.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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