Embattled Les Aspin steps down


WASHINGTON -- Retired Adm. Bobby Inman is reportedly President Clinton's choice to succeed Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who was apparently forced out yesterday after a brief but tumultuous tenure as Pentagon chief.

White House sources said last night that the announcement of a replacement for Mr. Aspin could come as early as today.

Mr. Inman, a 62-year-old Texas native who retired from the Navy in 1981, was director of the National Security Agency during President Jimmy Carter's administration and assistant director of the Central Intelligence Agency during President Ronald Reagan's administration. After his retirement, he ran a computer consortium in Austin.

Mr. Clinton, who stood somberly at Mr. Aspin's side during a hastily arranged, late-afternoon ceremony in the Oval Office, refused to answer when asked by reporters if he had sought Mr. Aspin's resignation.

The defense secretary's abrupt departure bore the earmarks of a high-level firing,

Mr. Aspin, whose resignation is to become effective on or about Jan. 20, cited unspecified personal reasons for his departure. He is the first member of the Clinton Cabinet to leave.

"It's time for me to take a break and undertake a new kind of work," Mr. Aspin said during his brief appearance with Mr. Clinton in the Oval Office. His halting statement referred to his "very challenging and interesting year" spent helping the U.S. military adjust to the post-Cold War world.

Mr. Clinton said he accepted the resignation "with sadness" and expressed the hope that after he takes a break, Mr. Aspin would consider other assignments in his administration.

As the administration's top defense official, Mr. Aspin lasted less than 11 months in a job he trained a lifetime for. The 55-year-old former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee struggled through one crisis after another and ultimately became a political liability for the president, whose own relationship with the military has been rocky.

The low point may have come in October when 18 U.S. soldiers died in a firefight in Somalia, only weeks after Mr. Aspin decided not to send in armored reinforcements.

But there were a series of other policy reversals and embarrassments, including his inability to protect Mr. Clinton from political damage on the issue of gays in the military and a recent public feud with Budget Director Leon E. Panetta over a $50 billion shortfall in the defense budget.

His departure stunned close aides and former colleagues in Congress, who believed Mr. Aspin's hard work at controlling the damage would enable him to weather all the controversies of his first year in office.

"It was like a thunderbolt," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat and senior member of the House Armed Services committee.

Mr. Aspin's standing never recovered from his ill-fated decision not to send armored reinforcements to Somalia in September. Army officers, in particular, were declaring him "damaged goods," and congressional Republicans were demanding his resignation.

Mr. Aspin insisted that he was unfazed by the turmoil and vowed to press ahead with the assignment President Clinton had given him -- reshaping the U.S. military into a leaner, technologically advanced combat power for the next century.

While his handling of Somalia drew angry partisan attacks on Capitol Hill -- and accusations that Mr. Aspin had blood on his hands -- administration officials hinted at their general disappointment that the 22-year veteran of Congress seemed incapable of steering clear of political trouble.

Among the missteps:

* Three days into a mission to drop humanitarian aid over Bosnia, Mr. Aspin said the plan's symbolic goal had been achieved and would be suspended. Caught off guard, President Clinton ordered the drops to continue.

* Mr. Aspin upset the Joint Chiefs of Staff by announcing that a panel of retired four-star generals would advise him on military readiness. He apologized to the chiefs the next day, conceding that he should have consulted them before the public announcement.

* Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher was shocked to read news reports in September that Mr. Aspin planned a brief visit to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, when peace talks among the warring factions were reaching a critical stage. The trip was canceled.

There were also personal embarrassments, including a five-day trip that Mr. Aspin, a bachelor, took to Venice with a female friend. Military aides accompanied Mr. Aspin on the exclusive junket, and taxpayers had to cough up $36,000.

Last month, Mr. Aspin's vacation plans again drew criticism, when he crossed a picket line at strike-bound American Airlines to board a flight to Puerto Rico. While Mr. Clinton basked in the glow of favorable publicity over his effort to end the strike,

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