In his first public performance since being spotlighted as a candidate for CIA director, House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss (search) defended an intelligence budget bill from Democratic complaints that it doesn't adequately fund counterterrorism.
Eyes and attention were on Goss, just as much as the legislation, which was headed for House passage late Wednesday.
After 16 years in Congress, Goss, R-Fla., is retiring at year's end. Insiders have suggested the 65-year-old former CIA officer is on the short list of candidates to replace outgoing CIA Director George Tenet (search), who is departing next month.
Goss has declined repeated requests for interviews on whether he is interested in the job.
"It's the president's call," Goss said Wednesday. "I have no comment."
His Republican and Democratic colleagues lined up to praise him Wednesday. But many Democrats also used the debate to express outrage that the House was considering a bill that would authorize less than one-third of the money the intelligence community says it needs for an emergency counterterrorism fund (search), used for operations around the globe.
"It is irresponsible of us to shortchange our counterterrorism efforts, particularly when we know Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are planning terrorist attacks against us right now," said California Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Republicans defended the amount proposed for counterterrorism. They say the bill's aim is to change how Congress funds one particular counterterrorism account — to provide funding on a quarterly basis, giving Congress more oversight. That, they say, shouldn't be perceived as a cut.
"This intelligence bill funds the intelligence community at its highest levels in history," Goss said.
The intelligence authorization bill provides broad outlines for intelligence spending in the 2005 budget year, which begins in October. Many important details about the bill are not known publicly because intelligence budget information is traditionally classified.
Experts have suggested it costs at least $40 billion annually to fund the intelligence community, which includes the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office and a dozen other agencies.
Goss said the bill increases investment in human intelligence capabilities, improves intelligence analysis and strengthens agencies' language capabilities.
In a harshly worded criticism, one section of the bill says immediate and far-reaching changes are needed for the agencies' clandestine service, which handles the collection of human intelligence, or HUMINT.
"The damage to the HUMINT mission through its misallocation and redirection of resources, poor prioritization of objectives, micromanagement of field operations and a continued political aversion to operational risk is — in the committee's judgment — significant and could likely be long-lasting," the bill says.
The bill says the agency must learn to accept well-meaning internal and external criticism or it will become "incapable of even the slightest bit of success."
In a letter to Goss Wednesday, Tenet said he was deeply disappointed with the way the bill questions the capabilities of the clandestine service, which has had successes in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
"To suggest that an organization that was key to all these victories ... is on the verge of being incapable of 'the slightest bit of success' is frankly absurd," the outgoing director wrote.
When Tenet leaves next month, the agency will be taken over temporarily by the current deputy director, John McLaughlin. It's unclear if President Bush will keep him on as acting director through the November elections, or try to appoint someone as his term winds to a close.
In addition to Goss, other names that have been floated include Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and former CIA director Robert M. Gates.