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CIA Nominee Handled With Kid Gloves by Senate GOP

Confirmation: After contentious battle over Lake, the nomination of George Tenet seems to be going smoothly at start of his hearings.

May 07, 1997|JAMES RISEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With both the Senate and the Clinton administration nursing deep political wounds because of the contentious battle over Anthony Lake's abortive bid to become the nation's chief spymaster, the president's substitute nominee was treated far more gently by Senate Republicans on the first day of his confirmation hearings Tuesday.

George J. Tenet, the 44-year-old former Senate and White House staff member who has been acting CIA director since December, stepped before the same Senate Intelligence Committee that gave Lake such a hard time in March--and was greeted with words of praise and promises of swift confirmation from both Republicans and Democrats.

Having skewered Lake, the former national security advisor, for his involvement in Clinton's most controversial foreign policy initiatives, committee Republicans clearly had no stomach for an attack on another nominee--especially one who once served as staff director of the intelligence panel.

Instead of being grilled about his past, Tenet found himself answering questions about his views on the CIA's future--a sure sign that lawmakers are ready to put him at the helm of the $28-billion U.S. intelligence community. The committee has scheduled a closed hearing for today, but seems ready to move to confirm Tenet quickly.

"I don't see the controversy surrounding his nomination that we had with Lake," said committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). "It looks like he is doing well."

Tenet would be Clinton's third CIA director in a little more than four years but the fifth person nominated by Clinton to fill the post. R. James Woolsey was Clinton's first CIA director. After he resigned in late 1994, Clinton nominated retired Air Force Gen. Michael Carns. But Carns abruptly withdrew his name following allegations that he may have violated immigration laws to hire a Filipino servant.

Clinton then named John M. Deutch, who resigned last December after being passed over for the post of secretary of Defense in Clinton's second term. Tenet, who was named Deutch's deputy in 1995, took over as acting director while Lake was awaiting confirmation.

Lake was nominated in December but his confirmation hearings were repeatedly delayed while Senate Republicans mounted a fierce campaign to derail his nomination. Frustrated by the delays and wounded by a steady drizzle of revelations, especially about contacts between the NSC and foreign contributors to the Democratic Party, Lake withdrew his nomination in March.

He did not go quietly, however, bitterly and publicly proclaiming that he was tired of being treated by Senate Republicans like "a dancing bear in a political circus."

After the implosion of Lake's nomination, Tenet has worked hard behind the scenes to cultivate relationships with key members of the Senate panel. On Tuesday, he repeatedly underscored his determination to keep Congress fully informed of CIA activities.

"We will obey the law," Tenet replied to a question from Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), the panel's vice chairman. "If that's the sound bite you want to hear, you've got it."

Tenet said that it is time for the CIA to forget its Cold War past and concentrate more than ever on new "transnational" targets like terrorism, drugs and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Tenet also moved quickly to shore up his support inside the CIA, strenuously defending the agency's embattled clandestine espionage arm, the Directorate of Operations. It has been under steady fire for a series of scandals dating back to the 1994 Aldrich H. Ames spy case, and there have been widespread reports of plummeting morale and resignations of many of America's best spies.

But Tenet insisted that the "DO" remains an elite corps, one that should be rewarded for taking calculated risks in espionage operations--even when they fail.

"I'm not going to be politically correct here," he said. "I believe the men and women of the Directorate of Operations perform a great service for this country each and every day."

Tenet faced only mild questioning on contacts between the NSC, where he served as director of intelligence policy under Lake from 1993 to 1995, and foreign contributors. He said that he never had any such contacts and was never asked to help screen foreign visitors to the president. He added that he will not tolerate contacts between political party officials and CIA staff members, which allegedly happened at least twice last year.

"I believe it is absolutely inappropriate for any political organization to believe that they could have access to anybody inside my building, period," Tenet insisted.

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