Friday, December 17, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Inman's Ideology Is Hard To Pin Down -- For The First Time, He'll Play Political Role

Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Of all the candidates in the world, President Clinton settled somehow on Barry Goldwater's favorite intelligence officer for secretary of defense. But then again, he also picked a man admired unabashedly by Democratic Rep. Ronald Dellums of California.

Where exactly Bobby Ray Inman stands, on a scale from Goldwater conservative to Berkeley liberal, is hard to peg.

Though he volunteered yesterday that he had voted against Clinton, the retired four-star admiral has never been known for ideology. Neither, for all his Washington experience, has he held the kind of job that required a partisan touch.

Now a man who spent his whole career in government as a provider and analyst of intelligence will be entrusted with a president's political flank. Whatever assurances he may have won from Clinton - and he made clear that he needed some convincing - Inman will necessarily preside over a continued decline in resources for defense. His job will be to manage it well and to stop senior uniformed leaders from rebelling against it.

Inman's reviews are extraordinary, almost hyperbolic. Nearly everyone who knows him mentions a piercing intellect, honesty, unusual memory for details and prodigious capacity for work.

He had a kind of genius, as well, for ingratiation. As director of the National Security Agency under President Jimmy Carter, Inman was eager for allies in the traditional struggle between his high-technology eavesdropping agency and the human-agent proponents of the CIA. Inman won the friendship of then-National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski by indulging his appetite for "raw intercepts" of the telephone calls of foreign leaders, according to Carter administration officials.

A further display of bureaucratic maneuvering came when Stansfield Turner, Carter's CIA director, pushed a reorganization plan that would have absorbed the NSA. Inman spent two hours briefing then-Attorney General Griffin Bell, a close Georgia friend of the president, on the flaws of the plan - and then gave Bell a helicopter ride to Langley for his appointment with Turner. "That was one of the few times I was glad that my name was Bobby Ray," the East Texas native once said.

There were times when the starched and ramrod-straight admiral was shocked by his own agency's material. Described by many associates as something of a Puritan, Inman once told a colleague that it offended him to monitor the amorous phone conversations between intelligence targets and their romantic partners.

William Casey, under whom Inman served as deputy at President Ronald Reagan's CIA, once called Inman "brilliant, brittle, a golden boy worried about his own image." Certainly Inman cultivated the press and Congress to a degree almost unprecedented in the intelligence world.

He did so at times in subtle opposition to Casey's penchant for stretching the law with covert action. Appearing with Casey before the Senate intelligence committee, according to committee member Joseph Biden, D-Del., Inman announced in body language when the panel was being misled.

"They'd be sitting there, and Casey would be lying like a son of a bitch, and I'd look at Inman," Biden recalled in an interview yesterday. "I'd say, `Is such and such a covert operation happening?' and Casey would be going mumble mumble mumble, and Inman would be reaching down pulling up his socks . . . It meant, `Take this with a grain of salt.' "

If Goldwater had had his way, Inman would have had Casey's job. After Reagan's election in 1980, Goldwater, then chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, lobbied hard for Inman.

"It's got to be Bobby," Goldwater said. In the Arizona conservative's view, Inman was a genius who understood politics and Congress as well he understood spy hardware and the military.

Inman, who turned down the deputy's job until Reagan told him flatly, "I need you," resigned quietly after a little over a year. In public he said only that he had lost his zest for bureaucratic fighting, adding that his relationship with Casey had been good if not close.

In fact, Inman said privately that Casey's "clandestine mindset" was out of control. He had grown deeply suspicious of a covert operation designed to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. When he learned the agency was preparing to funnel aid to disaffected Sandinista Eden Pastora, the notorious Commander Zero, he had a rare confrontation with a superior. He barged into Casey's office uninvited and asked unwelcome questions about the motives and legality of the plan.

Inman was the king of his generation of intelligence officers - smooth, balanced and careful. He often preached the pitfalls of what he called "single-source intelligence" and operations based more on wishful thinking than skeptical analysis.

When he left Washington in 1982, Inman told friends and reporters that he had no interest in returning to a government position - no matter what the post, and no matter who asked. In 1986, when one of the periodic reports circulated that Casey was going to quit or would resign, Inman repeated his pledge.

"I won't accept the nomination," he told one reporter. "I won't go to the confirmation hearing, and I won't serve." When that statement was not published, Inman said he was upset that no one believed him. Yesterday he stood next to Clinton and said, "I did not want the job."

Yet even through 11 years of Washington exile, Inman took care to maintain his congressional ties.

He had a regular series of breakfasts with Rep. Dave McCurdy, D-Okla., a senior member and later chairman of the House intelligence committee, when he passed through town.

"I think he's been wanting to be in a policy position for a number of years," McCurdy said yesterday.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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