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What does future hold for CIA?

It might be true, as he claims, that Anthony Lake had the votes to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency, but his nomination got done in by one of Washington's roughest political power plays _ the death of a thousand cuts.

Lake's opponents, led by Republican Richard Shelby, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, simply wore him down with one questionable line of investigation after another, topped by what was shaping up as an endless series of demands for documentation and additional questioning. Whatever his qualifications to be the country's overall intelligence director, Lake's opponents seemed determined to make him bleed until he collapsed or went away.

So 3{ months after he was nominated to be CIA chief, President Clinton's former national security adviser decided that enough was enough and stepped aside.

The question now is whether the brutal process that finally broke Lake's will might also have caused long-term damage to the United States' intelligence gathering apparatus. Or worse, whether as some intelligence professionals believe, that the damage was already done before Lake's name even came up for the CIA job.

The salient statistic here is that the United States has had five directors of central intelligence over the past six years. That's an average of 14 months each during a critical period when the nation was trying to adjust to a new world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War.

Most bureaucratic institutions _ and that's what the Central Intelligence Agency is _ would have trouble surviving such an ordeal. And there are signs enough that the CIA has barely done so.

Coming at a time when Washington is about to open crucial negotiations with Russia on new arms control initiatives and expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, concerns about the CIA's effectiveness are especially unwelcome. White House spokesman Michael McCurry hinted Tuesday the president would act quickly _ possibly as early as today _ to nominate a new CIA chief so the agency's intelligence-gathering abilities wouldn't be compromised.

Leading a list of candidates for the job was George Tenet, 44, the CIA's acting director. Others mentioned as possibilities included Jamie Gorelick, the outgoing deputy attorney general; former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia; Morton Abramowitz, a former foreign service officer now retiring as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott; and Frank Wisner, currently ambassador to India. The Senate's Republican leadership has already signaled that Tenet, a national security professional who served four years as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, would be especially well-received.

Speculation about Gorelick sparked interest because in addition to being known as an able administrator, she would, if nominated and approved, become the CIA's first woman director. Along with executive director Nora Slatkin, this would also put women in the agency's two top jobs.

One fear, expressed Tuesday by Sen. Bob Kerry of Nebraska, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, is that the ordeal Lake had to go through might scare off others.

"I do think there are a lot of qualified people who if asked to serve as DCI (director of central intelligence) would say "No,' " Kerry said.

Whoever is chosen and eventually confirmed by the Senate, he or she will be taking on one of the toughest assignments the federal government can offer. Former CIA Director James Woolsey once compared the job to being "a skunk at a garden party."

"You're always telling people things that they don't want to hear _ sometimes that their policies aren't working," he said.

Woolsey knows the job's other difficulties as well. He was forced to resign a little over two years ago when it came out that one of the CIA's counterintelligence officers, Aldrich Ames, had been working for the Russians.

But in addition to the occasional traitor within its ranks, low morale and sometimes being the bearer of bad news, the agency faces the more formidable challenge of shaping a new role for itself and the government's 12 other intelligence-gathering organizations in the post-Cold War era. And with all the CIA's internal turmoil over the past six years, that challenge isn't even close to being met.

In part, this is because the CIA bureaucracy has, as does any bureaucracy, resisted change. And without a firm leader at the helm, along with the belief that today's leader, whatever his policies, won't be there tomorrow, the resistors have prevailed.

Because of this and the agency's continuing failure to define its role, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., claimed last weekend that the CIA was close to "institutional collapse." Even before these latest troubles, Moynihan had suggested the time had come to reconsider whether the United States really needs a CIA to coordinate its intelligence-gathering activities. The job could be done just as well, he said, by the State Department.

Most national security experts disagree. And through its budgeting, the Clinton administration has given all indications it intends to strengthen the CIA and other intelligence-gathering organizations, not tear them down.

However this turns out, Anthony Lake's public career in national security seems finished, for the time being. He'll have time to devote to his other passion _ the Boston Red Sox.

A few months back, Lake told reporters in his office that anyone who considered himself a Red Sox backer had to be a supreme optimist. This past week, even Lake's boundless optimism gave out.