How Lake became first casualty of fund-raising flap Clinton calls for end to partisan politics

March 19, 1997|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF Sun national staff writers Mark Matthews and Susan Baer contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Like a John LeCarre spy story, the unraveling of Anthony Lake is a complicated tale.

And yet, an increasingly familiar theme emerged at the end. Lake's nomination to head the CIA was done in, ultimately, by the Democratic fund-raising affair.

"I think it was the only real issue in the whole discussion," says Warren B. Rudman, the retired Republican senator who serves as vice chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Oversight Board and is close to Lake.

To be sure, other factors played a part in the abrupt decision to withdraw the Lake nomination.

President Clinton, and Lake himself, blamed partisan politics, a "gotcha" atmosphere in a capital city "gone haywire," as Lake put it. Other Democrats charged that Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, a party-switching Republican who recently took over the chairmanship of the Select Committee on Intelligence, had been out to get Lake from the start.

According to this scenario, Clinton's bookish foreign policy adviser was "Borked" by conservative Republicans. The term stems from the successful effort in 1987 by liberal Democrats to stop President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court.

Picking up on the theme, Clinton called yesterday for a cease-fire in the partisan warfare. "It is past time for all of us to stop remembering who shot first and why," he told reporters. "The cycle of political destruction must end."

Clinton said he expects to nominate someone else to the post "quite soon." The name most prominently mentioned was that of Deputy CIA Director George Tenet, who has been in charge of the agency for the past four months. An announcement could come as early as today.

Lake's nomination almost certainly would have fared better if Clinton had not been under intense fire over alleged campaign fund-raising abuses.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Lake supporter, went so far as to call the former nominee "the first casualty of the campaign finance scandals."

The abrupt withdrawal of the CIA nomination attests to the potency of the fund-raising controversy that has darkened the opening months of Clinton's second term.

Already, questions about his fund-raising role are starting to erode the popularity of a president who, in a novelistic twist, finds himself in a wheelchair at the precise moment critics have begun calling him a lame duck. Vice President Al Gore's $H judgment, and his political potency, have also been cast into doubt as a result of his money-raising activities.

Clinton, who aides admit was distracted and on the defensive because of the fund-raising controversy, never launched a full-court press on behalf of his nominee.

Lake himself had nothing to do with collecting campaign money. But allegations of influence-buying by China and by Democratic donors with foreign connections touched the National Security Council, which he headed, and helped doom the nomination.

At the Capitol, committee chairman Shelby said, in answer to a reporter's question that Lake may have been tainted by the campaign finance scandal, "but he was never directly involved in it."

Indeed, it was the very distance that Lake kept from domestic politics that gave Shelby and others fresh ammunition to prolong the confirmation battle over the past month. "It is ironic," commented Lake in his letter to Clinton on Monday formally asking that the nomination be withdrawn.

During Senate confirmation hearings last week, Lake was forced to admit that he had been unaware that FBI agents warned two members of his NSC staff a year ago that China might try to influence the U.S. elections. As a result, Clinton didn't learn of the warning until after the election.

Shelby hammered Lake over the incident, saying it raised doubts about his managerial skills.

Lake, in his letter to Clinton, blamed the "endless delay" in the Senate confirmation process, which he described as a game of political football "with constantly moving goal posts." Over the past six weeks, that delay had been created primarily by allegations stemming from the campaign finance controversy.

A further delay, Lake wrote, was likely because of the publication that morning of a newspaper article about Lebanese businessman Roger Tamraz, a big Democratic donor who won invitations to four meetings with Clinton in 1996 despite the objections of a member of Lake's NSC staff.

The revelation was certain to bring new criticism of Lake -- who once again was said to be unaware of the incident -- and the way he ran the NSC. "I think that was probably the final straw," said Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah.

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