President Clinton said Saturday that the nomination of Michael P.C. Carns as director of Central Intelligence was another victim of a poisonous political process, but the Republicans charged that the abrupt collapse was a result of White House bungling.
As partisan accusations began to fly over the episode, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said the failure by the White House to uncover embarrassing details sooner about Carns, a retired Air Force general, had undermined U.S. credibility in the world.
Faced by that criticism from the chairman of the important committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, White House officials acknowledged that they had learned painful lessons from the events that led Carns to ask Friday evening that the nomination be withdrawn.
But Clinton and his aides also pointed to a confirmation process that they said had become too harsh and too partisan.
“The sad truth is that we live in a time when even the most exemplary individuals like General Carns - who has already given so much to his country - are deterred from serving by the fear that their records will be distorted, their achievements ignored and their families maligned,” the president said in a lengthy written statement.
Carns said when he withdrew his name from consideration Friday that he wanted to spare his family from personal accusations he said were being made by a man he had helped immigrate from the Philippines. He also said details developed by the FBI during a background check, had made clear that he had made a “gross error” in his dealings with the man, Elbino Runas, and that he had apparently violated labor and immigration laws.
Clinton said he hoped that the Senate would now vote to confirm the man whom he hastily enlisted late Friday as a substitute, Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch, as the new intelligence chief.
Deutch was subjected to rigorous FBI checks less than two years ago before being confirmed in the Defense Department post and White House officials said that would allow his nomination to proceed quickly.
But Specter said in a statement that he feared that the delay in filling a job, which has been vacant since December, had already sent damaging signals abroad.
“All factors considered, we have another serious undermining of United States competency and credibility for the whole world to see,” he said. He called the long lag “especially problemsome at a time when the Central Intelligence Agency need strong leadership to re-establish its credibility.” He referred specifically to the arrest of Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer in the most serious espionage case in the agency’s history.
A Senate Intelligence Committee official said that Specter was angry that he had not learned from the White House until this morning about the tangled set of accusations that persuaded Carns to ask that his nomination be withdrawn.
The Republican senator, who is considering a bid for the White House, also seemed intent on calling attention to evidence of inadequacy on the part of Clinton and his aides.
In interviews Saturday, aides to Clinton acknowledged that they might have been too quick to make public the president’s choice of Carns last month. But they insisted that the White House had acted properly in leaving it to the FBI to conduct the inquiries.
“We aren’t gumshoes here,” said White House counsel Abner Mikva, whose office had been told by Carns before he was nominated that the arrangements he made to bring Runas could be embarrassing.
Defending the White House’s decision not to pursue that inquiry on its own, Mikva said the work of uncovering further details about such matters was “what the FBI investigation is all about.”
In a statement released by the White House this morning, General Carns announced his decision more formally, saying that what he regarded as the “innocent errors” he made in helping Runas “will be exploited to question my competency and suitability.”
Runas lived with the Carns family for six years on military bases in the Philippines, Hawaii and Washington.
But General Carns declared once again the principal reason for his withdrawal was the “venomous and abusive accusations” against his family, which he said were without merit. The general said Saturday that the prospect of confronting them “kills any willingness on my part to proceed with the nomination.”