WASHINGTON – The White House is getting close to naming a CIA (search) director as counterterror officials warn of a heightened risk of attack leading up to the election four months away.
The agency's current head, George Tenet (search), leaves his post a week from Sunday, the seven-year anniversary of his swearing in. Poised to take over as acting director is his deputy, John McLaughlin (search), 61.
A senior administration official said White House aides expect the announcement of the next CIA director could happen soon.
The official and others with knowledge of the process, who did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the selection process, said President Bush (search) has not made a final decision and is unlikely to do so over the long holiday weekend.
Officials close to Bush have said more than one person is under consideration to take over direction of the CIA and the 14 other agencies that make up the nation's intelligence apparatus.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., is said to be on the list. Washington insiders have speculated for a month about who else may be: Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage; former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.; Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif.; former National Security Agency director, retired Adm. William O. Studeman; and perhaps McLaughlin.
Among factors the White House must weigh when deciding whom to name and when is whether a confirmation process before the election would draw attention to intelligence failures and how it would be perceived should an attack occur this summer with only an acting director in place.
With his experience as a CIA case officer in the 1960s and as House Intelligence Committee chairman for nearly eight years, Goss has been considered the front-runner. A senior intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said harsh criticism of intelligence agencies contained in a recent House budget bill that Goss oversaw did not go unnoticed by rank-and-file or senior intelligence personnel.
"For too long the CIA has been ignoring its core mission activities. There is a dysfunctional denial of any need for corrective action," said the legislation, which includes judgments Tenet called absurd and ill-informed.
If Goss is positioning himself as a critic of the nation's intelligence apparatus, McLaughlin is doing the opposite.
In a speech last month to a Business Executives for National Security forum, McLaughlin defended intelligence agencies from widespread criticism that focused on intelligence shortcomings leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and estimates of the threat posed by Iraq.
"What shortcomings there were — and there were shortcomings — were the result of specific, discrete problems that we understand and are well on our way to addressing or have already addressed," McLaughlin said, according to prepared remarks recently posted on the CIA's Web site.
"And the focus on where we are thought to have gotten it wrong has obscured — even more than usual — the successes we have had in the fight against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," he said.
McLaughlin cited in particular intelligence's role in forming alliances against al-Qaida, removing its Afghanistan haven and helping to expose weapons proliferation activities in North Korea and Iran.
"Those are not the achievements of dysfunctional agencies," he added.
A presidential commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is to release a report this month on its findings and recommendations. The Senate Intelligence Committee also is preparing to release its investigation into the flawed prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., offered an unusually candid glimpse of his panel's report Thursday. Its conclusions, he said, "literally beg for changes within the intelligence community. What we had was a worldwide intelligence failure."