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A pronounced distaste for the unpleasant

Helsinki must look like Shangri La to Bill Clinton. Dealing with a Boris Yeltsin made cross by NATO expansion must seem like child's play after the poisoned exchanges of the Anthony Lake fiasco.

Painful as it is, the president's bad knee had to be a welcome diversion. He even preferred the flood area surrounding the Ohio River to the capital. He could certainly identify with the sodden survivors. With him, as with them, the old song applied: "Keeps rainin' all the time."

Tony Lake went out with a whimper and a bang that was a misfire. He wasn't a martyr to a "Washington gone haywire," as he said in his letter of withdrawal, which sounded as if it were written by his self-pitying boss. The former national security adviser was, in the end, a casualty of his own penchant for avoiding the unpleasant. Of course, it was demeaning to be hectored by Richard Shelby, one of the most limited members of the Senate, to be chivied about raw FBI files, which did him no damage.

Lake is unmistakably a decent and honorable man. He is principled, too _ how many others in the long agony of Vietnam gave up White House jobs to protest escalation? He quit over Richard Nixon's invasion of Cambodia. Republican hawks will never forgive him.

Principle is what the CIA has needed all along. One of the saddest aspects of this case is that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which had to pass on Lake's nomination for CIA director, chose to ask all its questions about him and none about the agency. No one asked about its mission. Actually, it has none since the Cold War ended. No one asked why it gets so many important things wrong, like the disintegrating economy of the Soviet Union, and more recently, poison gas depots in the Gulf War region. Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y., has had the only constructive thoughts about the agency in the last decade. He thinks it should be shut down.

Republicans, however, revere the demoralized and discredited "company," as they do all components of the military-industrial complex. Their devotion to the spies is such that Lake, confronted with partisan hostility, went looking for love in all the wrong places. He sought out the old boy network and tried to ingratiate himself with them, thus ensuring that if he had gotten the job, he would have been beholden to those most adamantly opposed to reform.

The immediate cause of Lake's downfall was a reportin Monday's Wall Street Journal, which sounded like an outline for an Allen Drury novel about Washington. A Lebanese operator named Roger Tamraz had a dream of an oil pipeline. He paid his entrance fee at the White House, $177,000 in campaign contributions, and had access to presidential coffees on four occasions. But a meeting with a National Security Council specialist on the pipeline, which was supposed to go from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, did not go well, and the Democratic National Committee, in the person of chairman Don Fowler, intervened with the NSC. Fowler reportedly also contacted the CIA to lend a hand with a big giver, although Fowler has denied those reports.

No word of this was conveyed to Lake by his staff. Even the most incurious ask why. The NSC on several occasions tried to save the Oval Office from its folly on fund-raising, warning that Johnny Chung, a favorite of both Clintons, was a "hustler." No one has yet given a plausible explanation of why the president didn't know that the Chinese were skulking about trying to buy U.S. foreign policy. Lake and the president never knew, although several Lake subordinates were told by the FBI.

Maybe Lake let it be known that he wished to be spared the sordid details of the commander in chief's passing of the hat. The single most bizarre detail in this huge anthology of weirdnesses comes from Attorney General Janet Reno's failed attempt to tell the national security adviser about the Chinese deviltry. She couldn't get through, she says, and gave up.

Technological advances like e-mail or more traditional support systems that take messages, called secretaries, are not available at the NSC?

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has known Lake for nearly 30 years and admires him. He thinks the intelligence committee hearings were rude and nasty. He also thinks that Lake would have been confirmed if he had hung in. But, he adds, "He should have known, no question about it."

Another Democrat, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, was the first to call the information in the Wall Street Journal "potentially disqualifying."

When the dust settles and the arrow in his back hurts less, Lake may be glad he didn't get to be chief spook. The CIA needs a boss who can knock heads together, like Richard Holbrook, our chief negotiator in Bosnia. Lake doesn't like secrets, and secrets is what the CIA does. Its best-kept secret is why it is still in existence.

Universal Press Syndicate