Another Bush gamble destined for failure?

President Bush’s choice of Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden to head the CIA is the latest example of his tendency to throw caution to the wind with big political gambles at crucial junctures of his tenure.

Bush’s nomination of a military man who headed his controversial domestic eavesdropping program sets him on a collision course with GOP lawmakers already worried that his low public standing and the endless violence in Iraq will hurt their re-election prospects this fall.

Despite a new Gallup poll showing Bush’s approval rating at 31 percent _ the lowest point of his presidency _ he gave no hint of concern over the possible grueling nomination fight ahead in announcing Hayden’s nomination to replace Porter Goss, who abruptly resigned Friday.

“Mike knows our intelligence community from the ground up,” Bush said in the Oval Office, Hayden by his side. “He has been both a provider and a consumer of intelligence. He has demonstrated an ability to adapt our intelligence services to the new challenges of the war on terror. He’s the right man to lead the CIA at this critical moment in our nation’s history.”

Bush, though, dispatched senior aides to appear on TV news shows in a pre-emptive media blitz aimed at heading off criticism.

Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, tried to ease concerns that Hayden’s promotion would give even more power to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld _ who is already under fire from retired generals over his handling of the Iraq war.

“He will not be reporting to Don Rumsfeld,” Hadley said of Hayden. “He will be working with (intelligence czar) John Negroponte and will be reporting to the president of the United States.”

But lawmakers from both parties questioned whether a general should head the civilian spy agency, which has been demoralized by an exodus of senior analysts and a loss of power after Congress overhauled the government’s intelligence apparatus in December 2004.

“There was a lot of turnover,” said John Radsan, who served as the CIA’s assistant general counsel from March 2002 to August 2004. “Well-experienced and well-respected people either resigned or were pushed aside. The CIA has lost its pre-eminent role in the intelligence community.”

Goss, a former Republican congressman from Florida, was resented by many CIA operatives because he brought in a number of his political aides with no intelligence experience. They were widely derided as “goslings” within the agency.

“The so-called ‘goslings’ will go,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “These are the former House staff members that Director Goss brought over to help him run the CIA _ a dramatic mistake, in my view.”

The CIA director now reports to Negroponte, the first intelligence chief in the reorganization sparked by failures over the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Republicans expressed concern that Hayden’s nomination could turn into a broader struggle over the wiretapping program Bush initiated after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“The debate in the Senate may end up being about the terrorist surveillance program and not about the future of the CIA or the intelligence community, which is exactly where the debate needs to be,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Hayden ran the initiative as director of the National Security Agency. He became the government’s deputy director of intelligence a year ago after Congress passed the sweeping overhaul aimed at coordinating the work of the CIA, the NSA and 13 other espionage agencies.

Bush’s nomination of Hayden cemented his reputation as a president willing to take risks _ and to endure the controversy and political damage of their consequences.

After Bush’s disputed 2000 election victory over Al Gore, he promised to govern as “a uniter, not a divider,” but soon pushed huge tax cuts through Congress over Democratic objections.

Less than nine months into his first term, Bush attacked Afghanistan in retaliation for the Sept. 11 attacks. He invaded Iraq in March 2003 despite opposition from France, Germany and other U.S. allies.

After narrowly winning re-election in 2004, Bush launched a massive Social Security overhaul that has stalled in Congress. And he has staunchly defended the domestic wiretapping, aggressive interrogation of detainees and other tough measures in the face of widespread criticism.

Negroponte, Hayden’s boss in the reorganized apparatus, praised him as a plain-spoken, independent-minded man of vast experience.

“I believe that the president has selected the best person, civilian or military, to lead the CIA during this critical period,” Negroponte told reporters at the White House.

As an example of Hayden’s independence, Negroponte noted that during the 2004 congressional debate on intelligence reform, the general recommended that the NSA be removed from the Defense Department and put directly under the control of the director of national intelligence _ the post Negroponte now holds.

“I just want to emphasize that he’s really capable of staking out independent positions,” Negroponte said.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, suggested that Hayden retire from the Air Force “to send a signal of independence from the Pentagon.”

Negroponte, however, noted that four previous CIA directors have worn military uniforms and said Hayden doesn’t intend to leave the military “at this particular time.”

Hayden, 62, said he looked forward to “meeting with members of Congress, better understanding their concerns.” Wearing his blue Air Force uniform with four stars, Hayden appealed directly to CIA employees: “Your achievements are frequently underappreciated and hidden from the public eye, but you know what you do to protect the republic.”

Hayden burst into public view in December, when the New York Times revealed that Bush had authorized secret wiretapping of calls between Americans or other people in the United States and overseas contacts suspected of having terrorist ties.

At a contentious news conference, Hayden strongly defended the eavesdropping against criticism that it violated a 1979 law requiring a special court to grant warrants for such wiretaps.

Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced plans to use the nomination to probe the wiretapping program.

Significantly for Bush, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was noncommittal on Hayden. Roberts has been a strong supporter of Bush’s aggressive foreign policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Feinstein praised Hayden.

“The Intelligence Committee hearing on General Hayden’s nomination will be closely watched,” she said. “And while I will wait until after the hearing to announce how I intend to vote, I believe that he is one of the very few people in a very limited universe who could step in at this point of time and do what is necessary to get the CIA’s house in order.”

But Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who has introduced legislation that would censure Bush for the domestic wiretapping program, was not enthused about the nomination.

“It is unfortunate that the president made such a contentious choice at a time when the intelligence community, and this country, need consensus on how to move forward,” said Feingold, also on the Senate intelligence panel. “General Hayden will need to convince me that he is committed to the rule of law in order to win my support.”