Anthony Lake withdrew his nomination to be director of the CIA on Monday, telling President Clinton he could no longer tolerate endless delays that were damaging the intelligence community, people's reputations and the body politic.
Lake notified Clinton at the White House residence at 4:45 p.m., saying that he was sick of being "a dancing bear in a political circus."
Lake said he expected that the Senate would drag out his confirmation hearings well into the spring with new demands that FBI background materials be made available to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, along with news reports of improper political contacts between the Democratic National Committee and the CIA, involving the National Security Council, which Lake headed.
"I have gone through the past few months and more with patience, and I hope with dignity," Lake said in a letter to Clinton released by a former White House official Monday night. "But I have lost the former and could lose the latter as this political circus continues."
The decision was a victory for Lake's Senate opponents, who had attacked his integrity in highly political and sometimes personal exchanges during the confirmation hearings. They questioned his finances, his decision to keep from Congress the arming of Bosnian Muslims by Iran and his knowledge of reported attempts by the Chinese to influence American politics.
But the decision by Lake to withdraw, according to the former White House official, was a form of protest that might "encourage people to think about what Washington is doing to itself."
"Washington," said Lake's letter, "has gone haywire."
The Senate Intelligence Committee, whose members would have narrowly approved Lake had a vote been held Monday, was planning to delay a vote on the nomination until mid-April. His opponents hoped that by then some still-hidden bombshell would explode.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., had demanded and received raw FBI files on Lake and was considering seeking to share them with other senators. Shelby also was considering issuing subpoenas for testimony by members of the NSC staff who served under Lake, Clinton's national security adviser from 1993 through 1996.
"After three months, I have finally lost patience, and the endless delays are hurting the CIA and the NSC staff in ways I can no longer tolerate," Lake said in his letter.
The former White House official said he hoped Clinton would nominate George J. Tenet, the acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Tenet, 44, was in charge of intelligence matters on the NSC staff under Lake from 1993 to 1995, when he became deputy director of central intelligence.
The hearings on the nomination were to have resumed today.
Shelby, in an interview Monday, said: "There was nothing disqualifying in the files. Now, was that a complete file? We don't know." He added that he still had reservations about Lake's fitness for the job.
Lake thought that Shelby's desire to "spread the files" meant the committee would not vote for weeks and that the full Senate would not take up the nomination until weeks after that, the former White House official said.
Another delay might have been based on the announcement by Tenet that he had began an investigation into whether there had been improper contacts between the CIA and the DNC on behalf of a political fund-raiser, Roger Tamraz, an international oil financier with a checkered past.
"I wish Mr. Lake well," Shelby said. "I can see why he's frustrated with the process. The process is protracted. But I didn't think the process was brutal. I thought Mr. Lake was getting a fair hearing. . . .
"The CIA is at a crossroads," he added. "It needs someone with extremely good managerial skills. Mr. Lake did not demonstrate those qualities."
The committee's vice chairman, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., said Monday night that "the committee was damaged and the committee's capacity to confirm was damaged by the way this confirmation was conducted."
"Tony Lake was mistreated," he said. "Now, it was possibly disqualifying that he didn't have procedures at the NSC that said nobody from the DNC can call here on behalf of a donor. But there were personal accusations that weren't true, some made by Sen. Shelby. Tony Lake had no integrity problems. There was nobody who said there was something in his past."
The withdrawal was the latest in a 10-year series of political disasters for candidates to become the nation's intelligence chief. It leaves the CIA bereft of leadership and the confirmation process in the realm of national security, once deemed bipartisan or even apolitical, in disrepute.
In 1987, Robert Gates, then acting director and a logical successor to the late William Casey, ran into the political buzz saw of the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra scandal. He was confirmed four years later, under President Bush, after a bruising hearing that set a bitter precedent. Retired Air Force Gen. Michael P.
C. Carns, nominated by Clinton in 1995, withdrew after vague reports that he had violated immigration laws to hire a favorite Filipino servant.
Political storms also capsized retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman's nomination as defense secretary in 1994 and Sen. John Tower's nomination for the same post in 1989.
But the Intelligence Committee "has never been politicized like this," said the former White House official, who spoke with an occasional spark of controlled fury Monday night in a National Security Council office. "The delays, and the damage the delays are doing," he said, inflicted "a real cost to the agency." He said they had turned the confirmation into "a charade" and "a spectacle."
At the White House residence Monday afternoon, Clinton tried to talk Lake out of withdrawing, said White House spokesman Mike McCurry. He said Clinton told Lake: "I want you to stay in the fight. I'll fight for a whole year if that's what it takes. You'd be a great CIA director."
But the president soon saw it was pointless to argue.
Clinton stood despite his injured knee, McCurry said, embraced Lake and accepted his decision with anger and resignation.