Lake tries to explain why staff kept silent on Chinese influence Alleged bid to meddle in U.S. election strikes top note at hearings

March 12, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's nominee to be director of central intelligence found himself in the awkward position yesterday of explaining why he was kept in the dark by his own staff about alleged Chinese efforts to influence last year's U.S. elections.

The nominee, Anthony Lake, was Clinton's national security adviser in June, when the FBI briefed two of Lake's subordinates who specialize in intelligence on reports of Chinese plans to donate to U.S. election campaigns.

Yet even though Lake would begin and end each work day with intelligence reports and expected his staff members to tell him about matters of the "greatest importance," Lake said he had not been informed.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Lake why he had not been told of "such a dynamite piece of news." The nominee was unable to give a complete explanation. Lake said that since news of the incident broke, he had not delved into the matter because he did not want to influence the two staffers as they responded to questions posed by the White House counsel and others.

White House spokesmen have said that the FBI instructed the two officials at the White House National Security Council, Rand Beers and Edward Appel, not to pass the information on to their superiors. The FBI insisted that no such instructions were given.

Lake acknowledged that he should have been given the information. But he declined to fault the two men, saying he could not "sit in judgment on the performance of very fine staffers."

The exchange offered a rare moment of electricity on the opening day of six days of confirmation hearings. Despite advance friction between Shelby and the White House, particularly over the Alabama Republican's still-unresolved demand to see raw FBI background investigation files on Lake, the hearings opened on a collegial note.

In a prepared statement, Lake voiced regret for having failed to inform Congress of the Clinton administration's decision not to interfere in Iran's shipment of weapons to Bosnian Muslims during the Balkan war.

"I have no apologies for the policy," Lake said. "But I do appreciate that it would have been better to have informed key members of Congress on a discreet basis."

He proposed to hold monthly meetings with committee members and said he would not only supply all information legally required but, "when in doubt, my rule will be to inform."

Lake also said, without giving examples, that "overzealous secrecy" had caused some of the spy agency's recent problems.

He also criticized the CIA for having provided overly optimistic information during the U.S. military intervention in Somalia on the likelihood that the warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid could be captured.

Lake offered few specific plans for shaking up the intelligence agencies, which are widely reported to be gripped by a lack of a clear mission and low morale.

Indeed, he said that while further reforms are needed, in financial systems and personnel management, "it would be a mistake to start making big changes" right away.

Yesterday's hearing had been postponed twice by Shelby. Before Lake delivered his statement, the session was dominated by glowing bipartisan praise for him and appeals -- presumably directed at Shelby -- to avoid an all-out assault on Lake.

Warren B. Rudman, a retired Republican senator from New Hampshire, noted that despite the bruising questioning of Robert M. Gates during his confirmation hearing as director of central intelligence in 1991, the panel's essential fairness prevailed, and Gates was confirmed as CIA director.

"If the committee were viewed as engaging in a confirmation process that could be viewed as a malicious wounding, that would not serve Lake, the agency, this committee or the country," Sen. Charles S. Robb, a Virginia Democrat, warned.

Among misgivings voiced by senators, Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, criticized Lake for having met with members of the CIA operations directorate while he was awaiting confirmation. Sen. Dan Coats, Republican of Indiana, referred to Lake's "persistent financial conflicts of interest." Lake agreed to pay $5,000 to avoid ethics charges connected with his stock holdings.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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