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THOMAS OLIPHANT

Bush's hidden trap in CIA nomination

WASHINGTON
RESURRECTING the nomination of Porter Goss to run the CIA for what might turn out to be the shortest tenure on record only makes sense if there is a bruising fight over his confirmation that draws in Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

The fact that there won't be a fight and that Kerry has shrewdly stayed away from President Bush's latest confusion of national security and presidential politics only underscores how cynical the nomination was.

The Democrats have correctly smelled a rat. Instead of taking Bush's bait, they wisely plan to put the rat on display. Two years ago, Bush covered up one of the grandest flip-flops of his presidency -- his embrace of a new Department of Homeland Security after nearly a year of opposition to this enlargement of government -- with the clever insertion of a "poison pill." The White House framed the work rules of the new department with just enough restrictions to draw the opposition of labor-supporting Democrats and turned those work rules into a matter affecting the very security of the nation.

Presto, change-o -- as fast as you could say Karl Rove -- the Democrats were portrayed as opposing their own idea, President Bush became its courageous champion, and Democrats were condemned for more weakness on national security. To this day, there are few people who can summarize the actual difference over the department's work rules.

The initial reaction to the announcement of Goss's nomination bordered on contempt, but from the office of Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle to Kerry's campaign cooler heads prevailed. Advisers correctly saw two paths -- either a fight over Goss's inconsequential record for seven years as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and his partisan behavior this year; or a disciplined focus on the reform recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The former, of course, is a typical Washington fight; the latter is something that has the public's attention.

Moreover, it would have been only a matter of moments between the start of a confirmation fight and the launching of a White House campaign to portray the Democrats as more interested in crippling the vital CIA and leaving it leaderless than in helping crush terrorism. Without the fight, Democrats can publicize Goss's shortcomings without blocking an early vote or even opposing him.

One month ago, the Goss-as-director trial balloon had been deflated. The White House had lost interest as the election approached, and George Tenet's acting replacement, deputy director John McLaughlin, stepped in credibly. According to the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pat Roberts of Kansas, there was no point in proceeding, especially given the objections of his ranking Democrat, West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller to naming a politician to a post where recent experience had above all demonstrated the centrality of independence.

What changed was that Kerry's status as a potential commander in chief improved after the Democratic Convention. The White House started looking for actions Bush could take to shore up his own position, and naming a new CIA boss made it to the short list, especially if it could provoke Democratic opposition. By restricting themselves to asking embarrassing questions, the trap has been avoided.

This way, Goss can be asked about his disinterest in consolidating authority over foreign and domestic intelligence work in one, responsible official. He can be asked about his one proposal in this area that would only and marginally expand the budgetary authority of the CIA director.

He can be asked about his steadfast refusal on Bush's behalf to have his committee investigate the colossal intelligence failure where Saddam Hussein's alleged cache of unconventional weapons was concerned before last year's invasion.

He can also be asked to explain his position as an integral part of the pre-9/11 establishment that failed to anticipate or even recognize the rise of Al Qaeda. He can also be asked to explain his abrupt transformation from protector of the agency where he worked as a young man (he's 65 now and already one of this year's announced congressional retirees) to sharp critic just when it served Bush's interests to shift blame to Tenet's tenure and off himself.

For icing, he can be asked to explain a string of statements and writings questioning Kerry's national security credentials -- one in pseudo-dramatic form on the House floor two months ago -- that he has issued as one of the Bush-Cheney campaign's designated hitters.

The ranking Democrat on Goss's committee, Jane Harman of California, has consistently had the perfect nominee in mind since Tenet resigned: nobody. Anything else would inevitably introduce politics and complicate the vital task of reform.

She was correct. For a change, it's encouraging to see the Democrats pass up a fight not worth the effort or the pitfalls. Correction: My thanks to constitutional experts who pointed out that I recently erred while noting that conservatives were ignoring their states rights principles on social issues. They are embodied in the 10th, not the 11th, amendment to the Constitution. Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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