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Cold comfort level


MY FIRST run-in with Adm. Bobby Inman came after I praised him in a 1980 column. As America's chief eavesdropper, he had overheard a suspicious call by President Carter's brother, Billy, to the Libyan embassy, and properly brought the wiretap to the attorney general for criminal investigation.

But praise from me brought him glares from the White House, and Admiral Inman -- recorders whirring -- called me to denounce "irreparable harm you have done by revealing our sources and methods." It was hard to believe that the Libyans did not know that all embassy phone lines were routinely tapped, but I respectfully asked if he would entertain one question.

Icily, the admiral informed me he never talked to the press, but what was it I wanted to know? I asked him how a grown man could go through life calling himself "Bobby." He slammed down the phone.

Downhill from there. As Barry Goldwater's man at the CIA, he became convinced that Bill Casey and I were conspiring to block his advancement. This was because I reported that Admiral Inman, in a not-for-attribution session at CIA headquarters, had planted a false story with a group of newsmen that Israel was the source of rumors that a Libyan "hit team" was on its way to the U.S. Operating from ambush as an "informed source," Admiral Inman charged that Israel was provoking an attack on Muammar Khadafy.

He was displeased at having his cover blown and anti-Israel bias shown. Years later, leaking many secrets to get favorable treatment in Bob Woodward's book "Veil," Admiral Inman told the author that he "felt this attack personally. He had not planted anything." Exposure of his charge "was obviously a leak to Safire from a pro-Israel source who was smarting over Inman's insistence that Israel not get any satellite photos. . . ."

Untrue. Admiral Inman, despite having what Time magazine gushes is "a memory that is close to total recall," misled Bob Woodward. An earwitness who was in the room reconfirms that Admiral Inman planted that false story on that day in December 1981. (Admiral Inman's animus also later contributed to the excessive sentencing of Jonathan Pollard, but that's another story.)

Here is someone I know from personal experience to be manipulative and deceptive, nominated by Bill Clinton to be secretary of defense.

The reader can balance this personal judgment against Admiral Inman's good acts (notably his Billy Carter report and his later rescission of a nutty Casey surveillance order), as well as the acclamation of a charmed Washington press, and the support of Sen. Sam Nunn, breathless with adoration.

Admiral Inman lost a few of those rooters at his curious "comfort level" news conference, in which the arrogant admiral humbled the president and held himself out as a selfless patriot who was interrupting a successful business career as a big favor to all of us. Let's see about that:

1. As an executive, he's a flop. In his decade away from the public trough, Admiral Inman bought a defense contractor named Tracor and ran it into bankruptcy; as stockholders, suppliers and employees suffered, he walked off with $1 million compensation.

2. As a judge of character, he is a naif. After he quit the CIA, Admiral Inman went on the "proxy board" of International Signal and Control to manufacture cluster bombs for the Pentagon.

The company was run by James Guerin, a longtime Inman intelligence source, now in a Florida prison, convicted of transferring military technology to Iraq and South Africa. Admiral Inman's 1992 letter to the sentencing judge, which can be found in Appendix B of Alan Friedman's "Spider's Web," attests to this con man's "patriotism toward our country."

3. As a taxpayer, he is a cheat. In the year of Zoe Baird, nobody can plead ignorance to the requirement to pay taxes for household help. Why did Admiral Inman try to beat the government out of $6,000? Because, the White House press secretary was corrupted into saying, "there was a desire to see whether the simplification process would go through." That's a transparent lie; if the law is changed, he would still owe the $6,000 for past years.

Confirmation hearings of Mr. Clinton's worst Cabinet nomination begin in less than a month. Senate investigators have much work to do.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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