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Clinton Selects Acting Chief to Be CIA Director

Government: President moves quickly to name George Tenet, who is seen as safe choice. Easy confirmation likely.

March 20, 1997|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton moved quickly Wednesday to put the bitter confirmation battle over failed CIA nominee Anthony Lake behind him, choosing acting CIA Director George J. Tenet, a man widely hailed as a safe choice, to fill the post on a permanent basis.

With Tenet and his family by his side at the White House, Clinton told reporters he had decided to name Tenet right away because "you can't have a ship without a captain."

Clinton said Tenet should be easily confirmed since he is a former chief of staff for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the panel where Lake's nomination foundered. Tenet, whose nomination had been widely expected, "understands the essential role Congress must play in the intelligence community's work," Clinton said, and "is well-respected by Republicans as well as Democrats."

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill agreed, predicting Tenet's nomination would end nearly four months of stalemate between the White House and Congress over the CIA post.

Having spent so much political energy fighting Lake, key Republican leaders were obviously relieved that the president had turned immediately to a known commodity like Tenet.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate intelligence panel and Lake's primary adversary in his high-profile confirmation fight, signaled that Tenet will receive much gentler treatment.

"I have known George Tenet for several years and believe him to be a man of integrity and professionalism," Shelby said. "He has a distinguished record of service in the intelligence community."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) went further, stating that Tenet "looks to be a good choice. . . . I expect rapid Senate action on his nomination."

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, laid down a marker by saying that, after the Lake debacle, Republicans should not mess with Tenet.

Tenet's confirmation "better be quick," said Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and its ranking Democrat.

"There is an urgency now to confirm. The president has gone out of his way to find a noncontroversial candidate, one whose birthplace, in a manner of speaking, is on this committee. So I think anybody who wants to put unreasonable delays on this will find themselves brought up in the court of public opinion."

Tenet pleaded for a bipartisan approach to intelligence issues in his brief remarks after his appointment was announced. He said it was a "bittersweet moment" because he was being promoted as a result of the withdrawal of his "good friend," Lake. He then stressed there "is no room for partisanship in the conduct of our intelligence community."

After a career spent deep in the bureaucracy, the 44-year-old Tenet has climbed to the top of the U.S. intelligence community in large part by avoiding the pitfalls that have felled his predecessors. He brings none of the political baggage to the post that plagued Lake, and appears to lack the ego and aspirations for a bigger job that finally doomed former CIA Director John M. Deutch.

In addition, Tenet has developed close ties both at the White House and in Congress, and has gained respect at the CIA as a solid manager who has done his best to hold the spy agency together during the upheaval over the Lake nomination.

Tenet has one more advantage: He has already been confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate once, when he was named deputy CIA director in 1995.

During that confirmation hearing, Tenet argued for a CIA that did more than sort facts collected abroad.

"Accurate, timely intelligence protects the lives of the men and women in our armed forces. It disrupts the transfer of dangerous weapons. It prevents terrorist atrocities," he said. "This is the type of intelligence that I believe the American people are willing to pay for and that policymakers need."

Tenet has bipartisan credentials, giving him an advantage in dealing with congressional oversight committees that many observers believe have become both increasingly partisan and determined to scrutinize almost everything the CIA does.

Born in New York in 1953 of Greek immigrant parents, Tenet is a graduate of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He began his career on Capitol Hill working as an aide to a Republican, the late Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, yet he rose to prominence as the protege of a Senate Democrat, former Sen. David L. Boren of Oklahoma.

Tenet served as the chief of staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1988 to 1993 while Boren was chairman, and he helped the panel craft tougher rules for congressional notification of intelligence activities in the wake of the Iran-Contra scandal.

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