House Speaker Chews Out Cheney

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, a 64-year-old ex-high school wrestling coach, ordinarily is not a shouter. But according to Capitol Hill sources, he engaged in a high decibel rant last week when he met with Vice President Dick Cheney. The speaker was enraged by the sacking of his friend and former colleague, Porter Goss.

Hastert was so vituperative that a private session with President George W. Bush in the living quarters of the White House was scheduled immediately (although Hastert aides said the meeting had been planned previously). The speaker toned down his volume on the hallowed ground and did more listening than talking. But the president did not slake Hastert’s wrath over the abrupt sacking of Goss as CIA director.

That wrath reflects the feeling in the House Republican cloakroom that Goss, who gave up a safe congressional seat from Florida for a thankless cleanup mission at the CIA, is being made a scapegoat for the government’s intelligence mess. But Hastert’s discontent goes beyond the CIA. The GOP mood on Capitol Hill, particularly the House, is poisonous. With pessimism rising over a contemplated loss of their majority in the 2006 elections, Republican lawmakers blame their parlous condition on Bush’s performance.

Cheney was on the Hill last week to receive the Distinguished Service Award, along with three other former House members: Lindy Boggs, Father Robert Drinan and Goss. To Hastert and his Republican colleagues, this was inadequate compensation for Goss’ shabby treatment.

Hastert had urged Goss to postpone his retirement and seek another term in Congress, and Bush then talked Goss into taking on the arduous mission of bringing the CIA under presidential control. Two days before Goss was shown the door, Hastert met with John Negroponte. The director of national intelligence gave the speaker no hint that Hastert’s friend at the CIA was being fired.

Hastert, who served with Cheney in the House for two years (1987-88), let the vice president have it in their private meeting. He said he trusted his close friend Goss, who had performed well at the nasty job of cleaning out an agency filled with critics of the president and his policies. The speaker made clear he considered the crude treatment of Goss a personal insult.

Cheney took this so seriously that he quickly scheduled a White House meeting of Bush and Hastert (that did not appear on public schedules of either the president or the speaker). With the vice president sitting in, Bush expressed his high regard for Goss. Hastert had criticized the choice of Gen. Michael Hayden as Goss’ successor, and Bush urged the speaker to support the nominee.

It was not merely that Hastert and other House Republicans objected to the sacking of Goss. They resented the demeaning way it was performed. In particular, it could be inferred there was some scandalous reason for Goss’ departure. It has been incorrectly tied to published reports of Dusty Foggo, Goss’ handpicked No. 3 CIA official, being under investigation in the Duke Cunningham bribery and corruption scandal.

Critics of Goss claim that, as a legislator, he was a poor administrator (the complaint that habitually follows a high-profile sacking in government). But they do not appreciate the anger Bush generated among Goss’ friends in Congress. One senior House Republican, asking that his name not be used, told me: "Porter was unceremoniously kicked in the butt. He was treated with contempt."

Correctly or not, the treatment of Goss has caused speculation in Congress that Bush is making a peace offering to his critics at Langley. A president waging a global war against terror can hardly function with an intelligence agency whose employees make off-the-record speeches against his policies, contribute to his political opponents and leak secrets to the news media. Was getting rid of Goss the equivalent of a white flag of surrender?

Such interpretations suggest that there is basically non-communication between Bush and fellow Republicans in Congress. The president had to summon the speaker of the House to calm him down because he had given him no heads-up earlier. More than difficulties at the CIA need to be resolved as the GOP lurches toward the dreaded mid-term elections.