WASHINGTON — Former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake withdrew his name from consideration to become CIA director Monday night, bringing to a close one of the most contentious confirmation battles since President Clinton first took office in 1993.
After a series of intense White House meetings throughout the day to discuss the status of his nomination in the Republican-controlled Senate, Lake submitted a three-page letter to Clinton asking that his nomination be withdrawn, sources said.
Clinton accepted, though the president tried to persuade Lake to persist in the grueling confirmation fight.
In a letter marked by unusually blunt language for a high-ranking public official, Lake decried his confirmation process as "a political circus" and complained that "Washington has gone haywire."
The letter added: "I hope that sooner, rather than later, people of all political views beyond our city limits will demand that Washington give priority to policy over partisanship, to governing over 'Gotcha.' "
White House officials said that Clinton has not yet selected a replacement nominee for the CIA post.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the official announcement of Lake's decision would come from Lake himself, presumably today.
"The president met with Tony this afternoon," McCurry said. "Tony will report in public what he feels he has to do."
Privately, a White House official said the president "vigorously tried to tell Tony to stick it out." Indeed, Clinton reportedly told Lake, who served as director of the White House National Security Council during the president's first term, that he would be willing to keep the post open for a year and keep pushing Congress to confirm him. But Lake resisted that plea.
White House officials stressed Monday that Lake's withdrawal was not due to any looming bombshell uncovered by the Senate or the media, but rather by his own weariness with the torturous process. "He just saw delay and delay and delay," said one administration official.
Still, several lingering controversial matters surrounding Lake's tenure at Clinton's NSC had been at the heart of GOP concerns about his nomination.
Those issues raised by Republicans both before and during his confirmation hearings included Lake's role in Clinton's 1994 decision to give a green light to covert Iranian arms shipments into Bosnia and questions about the NSC's role in the growing Democratic Party fund-raising scandal--for instance, two agency staff members learned of allegations of Chinese efforts to influence U.S. politics in 1996 but did not pass the information along.
Questions also were raised about Lake's personal integrity by a Justice Department ethics investigation into his stock trading. A nasty debate between the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence--the panel holding the confirmation hearings--and the White House over the committee's demands for access to Lake's raw FBI file also remained unresolved.
Lake's decision was deeply disturbing for the president, who has continually insisted that his nominee was an excellent and worthy candidate for the job.
"He's more pained by this than his knee surgery," the White House official said, referring to the repair of a torn tendon that Clinton underwent Friday. "He's sick about it."
The official also expressed concern that Lake's experience would discourage other qualified individuals from public service. "A whole lot of people who might want to serve are going to have second thoughts. That's sad."
'I Have Finally Lost Patience'
Lake's sudden decision to end his bid to become Clinton's third CIA director in four years came in the midst of two weeks of often fractious confirmation hearings by the Senate committee, where Lake's four-year tenure as Clinton's closest foreign policy advisor came under intense scrutiny.
In his letter to Clinton, Lake said that he was withdrawing because of new signals the White House had received over the weekend of the likelihood of further delays before the Republicans on the committee would bring his nomination to a vote. That finally convinced him, Lake angrily wrote, that his nomination had become "a political football in a game with constantly moving goal posts."
Lake added that after months of delays, "I have finally lost patience."
Lake's nomination was announced by Clinton in December, but the Senate intelligence panel delayed the confirmation hearings twice. The delays, Lake complained, "are hurting the CIA and NSC staff in ways I can no longer tolerate."
Lake's decision stunned Senate leaders, who were planning to hold further hearings on Lake's nomination today. Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), the intelligence committee's chairman and Lake's main adversary, said in an interview that he was not told of Lake's decision until late Monday night.
Shelby insisted that, despite Lake's expectation of further delays from the Senate, the committee was planning to vote on Lake's nomination by Thursday.