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Anthony Lake Withdraws his Nomination as CIA Director

March 18, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The Anthony Lake story, our coverage begins with this background report by Charlayne Hunter-Gault.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Anthony Lake was in the hot seat for three days of grueling hearings last week. And both he and the committee were girding for more hearings this week, with no firm indication when, if ever, the Senate would confirm him as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Then last night, after meeting with President Clinton, Lake abruptly took his name out of consideration for the post. In a two and a half page letter to the President, Lake blamed the hearing process. He termed it a political circus, nasty and brutish, without being short. “Washington,” he wrote, “has gone haywire.” At the White House presidential press secretary Mike McCurry had this reaction.

MICHAEL McCURRY, White House Press Secretary: Our hope is that maybe some members of the Senate had stopped and taken a look at this today and said maybe we should think about how we approach our advice & consent role. Maybe some of these things are–have gone a little too far.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Lake’s nomination was controversial from the start. Critics zeroed in on three areas: Lake’s failure to alert Congress to the administration’s tacit approval of Iranian arms shipments to Bosnia in 1994, his role in Somalia policy when U.S. troops were killed there, and his delay in selling some energy stocks as demanded by the White House counsel. The hearings were twice delayed, in part because of Senators’ demands to see ordinarily secret FBI files on Lake. And when the Senate Intelligence Committee convened last week the Senators grilled Lake on yet another issue: his knowledge of a June 1996 FBI briefing to two members of his own NSC staff. The FBI warned that the Chinese government might try to influence the presidential elections, but both Lake and the President said they knew nothing about the meeting.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY, Chairman, Intelligence Committee: You should have known first and the President should have known. The President said he should have known this. Where was the failure?

ANTHONY LAKE, Former National Security Adviser: And as I said unequivocally they did not inform me. I, however, Mr. Chairman, cannot sit in judgment now on the performance of those two very fine career staff officers because I have not seen that information.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: To the Republicans that raised questions about Lake’s ability to manage the CIA.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I’m concerned that you were unable to establish an environment, an environment at the National Security Council that would allow this information to reach you. How can we, Dr. Lake, be assured if you were to take the helm over at Langley that you will do–what you will do as DCI what appears that you were unable to do over at the White House?

ANTHONY LAKE: I will hold myself responsible, and in holding myself responsible when things go wrong, I will look into it. If individuals made mistakes, I will hold them accountable. If the system was wrong, if it’s broke, we’ll fix it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But to the Democrats the hearings weren’t about Lake’s qualifications. They saw them as an opportunity for partisan wrangling with no end in sight.

SEN. BOB KERREY, (D) Nebraska: At some point the ground gets plowed to an extent that you’ve got a sufficient amount of information to make a decision about whether or not you’re going to vote to confirm.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Then yesterday morning the “Wall Street Journal” revealed another controversy: a White House meeting between the president and Roger Tamraz, a Lebanese American businessman with oversees connections who had made substantial contributions to the 1996 campaign. DNC Chairman Donald Fowler reportedly pressed for the meetings, despite objections from Lake’s NSC staff. Committee Vice Chairman Kerrey, a Democrat, told Lake yesterday that the allegations were serious.

SEN. BOB KERREY: Yes. I did communicate both to Mr. Lake and to the chief of staff at the White House that this is a potentially disqualifying action. I didn’t say that I had reached a conclusion that it would disqualify, but I did make a statement that I thought it was serious enough.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Finally late this afternoon the President, recuperating in the White House residence from knee surgery earlier this week, weighed in.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Just yesterday I talked to one Republican Senator. I called him about another matter, but I talked to him about Tony Lake. He was a strong supporter of Tony Lake, and he talked about what an able man he was and how much he regretted how politicized this process had become. I think Tony felt too first of all that it was–that he did have the votes to get out of the committee if he could ever get a vote. I think he believed that they might have the ability to delay his hearings for another month or two or three. Already this is very late for any kind of nomination to be stuck in hearings by any kind of historical standard. And I think he was afraid that there might never be a hearing. And secondly, he was afraid that the longer this went on with delay, the more it would damage the agency. If it had been up to me, I’d be here a year from now still fighting for it, because I think he’s a good man.

REPORTER: We’re told there were some personal accusations, Mr. President. Did anyone on the Hill cross the line, in your view?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, let me say, I don’t believe that I can contribute to the public interest by getting into what I think has already been an example of what’s wrong with Washington, not what’s right with it. What I want to say is that we need to put this hearing process in the proper context. Hearings need to be scheduled properly. Matters need to be resolved. When questions are asked, everybody involved needs to be able to believe and see and sense that they’re being asked in good faith and not simply for the purpose of trying to undermine someone or delays a process forever. That’s what I think needs to be done. But I don’t want to contribute to the difficulties of this particular moment, and neither does Tony Lake. And personal recriminations are not important here. The public’s interest is all that matters.