Lake faces a hostile spotlight Questioning of CIA nominee looks like a grudge match

March 11, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Despite his power as President Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake maintained such a low profile and drew so little attention that for the past four years his face seldom appeared on television or on the front page.

But when he enters a Senate hearing room today, Clinton's nominee to be director of central intelligence will walk into a buzz-saw of questions and criticism over the administration's foreign policy and his role in shaping it.

At issue are his ideology, his finances and his staff's involvement in Democratic fund raising.

Not since Robert M. Gates was interrogated and eventually confirmed as director of central intelligence in 1991 has any appointee for a top national security job been subjected to such prolonged and intense examination. Even before it opens, the hearing has about it the air of a grudge match.

Casting himself in the role of grand inquisitor, Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican who is the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has demanded to look at raw FBI files on Lake.

Shelby has backed off from an earlier threat to postpone the hearings until he got them, but he is still negotiating with the White House. After twice delaying the hearings, Shelby has scheduled an unusual stretch of six days for senators to question Lake, which Democrats consider excessive.

"It is essential that we address all of the issues associated with Mr. Lake's fitness to lead the intelligence community," Shelby has said.

A former Democrat, Shelby turned Republican after the 1994 elections that gave Republicans control of Congress. Even as a Democrat, he had had sharp disagreements with the Clinton White House. In 1993, he said of the proposed budget of his party's president: "The tax man cometh."

Recent news reports have said the White House retaliated by shifting federal jobs out of Alabama and even cutting Shelby out of a ceremony at the White House for the University of Alabama's championship football team.

Revenge denied

The implication, denied by Shelby's office, was that the senator's confrontational stance on the Lake nomination is now intended to exact some measure of revenge on the White House.

"The way that issue has been portrayed is totally untrue," says Laura Cox, a spokeswoman for Shelby. "Jobs were not denied to Alabama. Shelby and the president have a cordial relationship. This is about the nominee, not about the president."

Lake drew some more public support yesterday with endorsements from three well-regarded retired senators: Sam Nunn of Georgia and David L. Boren of Oklahoma, both Democrats, and Warren B. Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican.

Two Senate aides predicted yesterday that unless something startling surfaced to tarnish Lake in the coming days, he would probably be confirmed.

"I don't see a bolt from the blue," said an Intelligence Committee staff member. "I don't see a surprise coming: surprise witnesses or issues coming forth."

But the process can be unpredictable, the aide added. "These things take on a life of their own."

In a way, Lake has the misfortune to come before the Senate after it speedily confirmed both the popular Madeleine K. Albright as the nation's first female secretary of state and a well-liked former member of the Senate, William S. Cohen, as defense secretary.

No. 1 target

Of the three, Lake has been the one widely expected to be the Republicans' chief target. High on the list of issues awaiting him is the role of the National Security Council staff in the campaign fund-raising furor. Some staffers were interviewed by committee aides yesterday.

In documents already made public, Robert Suettinger, an NSC aide, had cautioned the White House to be wary of Johnny Chung, a fund-raiser who brought Chinese businessmen to the Oval Office to hear the president's Saturday radio broadcasts.

Sandra Kristoff, an Asia expert on the NSC staff, is reported to have met three times with Pauline Kanchanalak, a Thai-American businesswoman to whom the Democratic National Committee returned a possibly improper $253,000 campaign contribution.

Senators are also expected to question whether Lake reacted forcefully enough to information about Chinese proliferation of dangerous weapons, including sales of missile components to Pakistan.

The fact that weapons proliferation has been the subject of news leaks suggests that some intelligence analysts believe that their warnings were disregarded by top officials.

Some senators are eager to question Lake about his key role in the administration's decision not to intervene in Iranian arms shipments to Bosnian Muslims at a time when the Bosnians were heavily outgunned by the Serbs.

A mistake

Lake decided not to inform Congress. He has said that that decision was a mistake.

If confirmed, Lake will take over a spy community beset by poor morale, spy scandals and questions about the quality of its intelligence reporting.

It is also struggling to adjust to new threats while still repairing damage from the Cold War.

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