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China connection snags CIA chief

President Bill Clinton's former national security adviser Anthony Lake yesterday finally embarked on his bitterly contested and much delayed Senate confirmation hearings to be head of the Central Intelligence Agency - only to become the newest feature act in the great campaign fundraising scandal which at present grips Washington.

From the outset, Mr Lake's path to the CIA directorship has been strewn with boulders, ranging from the personal animosity of Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who heads the Intelligence Committee, to charges he misled Congress on allowing Iranian aid to the Bosnian Muslims in 1994.

But these objections may pale beside questioning of Mr Lake over his handling of - or his failure to handle - the "China connection", and the warnings voiced by the FBI that Peking, directly or indirectly, was trying to channel money to the Clinton/ Gore re-election campaign and various Congressional races in 1996.

That controversy reached feverpitch on Monday when the White House and the FBI clashed publicly over accusations that the bureau had informed the White House of its suspicions, but instructed officials on the National Security Council, chaired by Mr Lake, that the President not be told. "The President should know," Mr Clinton declared - only for the FBI to issue an astonishing public statement contradicting him, and insisting it had placed no restrictions on who should be informed of what China might be up to.

But even if Mr Lake is certain of a grilling during his scheduled six days testimony, the fact that the hearings are even taking place is a notable victory. For two months Mr Shelby blocked them, hoping he would force Mr Clinton to withdraw the nomination. In the end, however, the Alabama Senator had to yield as several Republicans as well as Democrats insisted Mr Lake should have the chance to plead his case.

Indeed, barring big surprises, he should be confirmed. Two of the 11 Republicans on the 20-strong committee have already said they would support him, ensuring a majority, and the full Senate should follow suit.

If he does win the job, Mr Lake would be the agency's fifth director in as many turbulent years, a period which saw the devastating Ames affair, charges that it discriminated against women, and growing doubt on Capitol Hill whether post-Cold War America needs a CIA at all.

The needs of the CIA, on the other hand, could not be clearer: strong, steady and stable leadership to restore battered morale and prestige, and a director who understands the world of intelligence and has unquestioned access to, and influence on, the President.

On the last two counts at least, Mr Lake qualifies without argument. Discreet as a spymaster should be, he was probably Mr Clinton's closest foreign policy adviser during his first term.

The more valid objections are different - that Mr Lake's past involvement with policy-making render him incapable of providing the objective and sometimes unwelcome information and analysis to the White House that is the CIA's prime task, and that he lacks the management experience of running the unwieldy $30bn bureaucracy which is the US intelligence establishment.