Like Robert Bork, John Tower and others before him, would-be CIA Director Anthony Lake stalked away from the Senate confirmation process with bitter complaints about the purported injustice he suffered. And as with those other victims of the process, Lake mingled valid grievances with self-serving diversions.
It is true that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., opposed Lake's nomination from the start and then started searching for a reason. Some of the early issues thrown at Lake, such as his role in the Clinton administration's covert effort to arm the Bosnian Muslims, were red herrings. And Shelby's insistence on access to Lake's raw FBI files was a raw abuse of power.
However, the timing of Lake's withdrawal from the confirmation process undercuts his argument that he was the victim of a "political circus." Lake was willing to endure the process as long as hostile questioners were focused on irrelevancies and distortions. Lake backed out only after Shelby's fishing expedition started hitting on issues that might have reeled him in.
Many Democrats as well as Republicans have been troubled by new evidence that Lake did not adequately insulate the National Security Council from partisan influence during his tenure as White House national security adviser. Committee members had begun to question how Roger Tamraz, a Democratic contributor accused of embezzlement in Lebanon, was able to gain audiences with President Clinton despite complaints from NSC staff members.
Lake says he was unaware of the internal controversy over Tamraz. Even if true, that is not a reassuring response from a prospective CIA director. If Lake was oblivious to controversies within the NSC, what hope would he have had of reforming an agency so secretive, so resistant to change? In a broader sense, there is no evidence Lake ever intervened to assure that the NSC would remain at arm's length from any White House effort to mingle national security issues and campaign politics. That, too, did not bode well for his ability to keep the CIA free from partisan influence.
Lake's confirmation problems are over, but the CIA's problems remain. In this decade, the agency has gone through almost one director per year. Even those who were committed to reform have had neither the time nor the political support to complete the job. Acting CIA Director George Tenet, Clinton's second choice for the permanent job, has strong bipartisan support. However, Tenet is a safe choice, not an inspired one. Beyond that, his service at the NSC leaves him with questions of his own to answer about the staff's involvement with characters such as Tamraz.
The CIA is overdue for a fundamental reassessment of it mission. In fact, It may be overdue for the scrapheap. The agency has a sordid history of undemocratic secrecy and illegal behavior. And from Iran to the Soviet Union, it has failed even its most basic intelligence functions. At the very least, the CIA needs the leadership of an energetic reformer who enjoys the full confidence of the president and Congress. As it turned out, Lake was not that person. Tenet probably isn't either. And important people in the White House, Congress and the CIA apparently like it that way.