Cold Comfort Level

William Safire - The New York Times - December 23, 1993

Washington - My first run-in with Admiral Bobby Ray 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 C.I.A. he became convinced that Bill Casey and I were conspiring to block his advancement. This was because I reported that Inman in a not-for-attribution session at C.I.A. 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," Inman charged that Israel was trying to provoke an attack on Qaddafi.

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," 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. Inman, despite having what Time Magazine gushes is "a memory that is close to total recall," misled Woodward. An ear-witness who was in the room reconfirms that Inman planted that false story on that day in December 1981. (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 Inman's good acts (notable 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 Senator Nunn, breathless with adoration.

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, 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 C.I.A., 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. 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 Inman try to beat the Government to pay taxes for household help. Why did 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 Clinton's worst cabinet nomination begin in a month. Senate investigators have much work to do.

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