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Clinton goes back to first choice for CIA chief

The White House yesterday laboured to extricate itself from the dbcle of another botched high-level nomination, following the sudden withdrawal of Michael Carns as director-to-be of the CIA amid a row over a former Filipino employee, and his hasty replacement by John Deutch, the deputy Defense Secretary.

Yesterday, 48 hours after the event, a stunned Washington was still trying to work out exactly what had gone wrong. Part of the story was clear: Mr Carns, a retired Air Force general, seems to have violated immigration and labour laws in his dealings with Elbino Runas, whom he had brought back with his family to the US after a tour of duty in the Philippines in 1987.

Five years later, the family and Mr Runas angrily parted company. Shortly after Gen Carns was nominated, unspecified anonymous allegations were made to the Senate Intelligence Committee. These allegations were "fairly nasty," said Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff, yesterday. "This was going to be a nasty nominating process, and the general did not want to drag his family through it."

Even at the best of times, partisanship on Capitol Hill can turn a contested nomination into a poisonous, tabloid esque extravaganza. In Gen Carns's case, the risk was even greater. The Intelligence Committee happens to be chaired by Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a 1996 Republican presidential candidate who could be expected to wring every drop of party advantage from proceedings.

Indeed, the bickering was on full display at the weekend, with President Bill Clinton lamenting how "even exemplary individuals like General Carns" are put off by the fear that "their records will be distorted, their achievements ignored, and their families maligned". Mr Specter hit back by accusing the President of again "seriously undermining US competence and credibility for all the world to see".

Another factor has been the very keenness of the White House to dispel Mr Clinton's reputation for dithering and delay. As in the past, the result has been shoddy background checks and rushed choices. Nor may the general be the last. Henry Foster's confirmation as the next US Surgeon-General is anything but certain, after revelations he had performed abortions and involuntary sterilisations of retarded women during a 36-year medical career. Mr Foster had volunteered this information, but it was apparently brushed aside by White House aides.

One consolation now is that Mr Deutch seems immune from such trouble. Confirmed in his present job only a year ago, he has recently undergone the most intensive FBI investigation. He is also highly popular with both parties on Capitol Hill. Second, and most important, Mr Clinton may have got by the worst imaginable means the best possible man to head the CIA. Battered by the Aldrich Ames affair and still trying to define its role in the post-Cold War world, the US intelligence community is crying out for strong, creative leadership. With Mr Deutch, it should get it. The 56-year-old former provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has won wide plaudits for his aggressive, high-tech management style. But there is no concealing the awkward fact that Mr Deutch had been first choice for the CIA but turned it down. This time Mr Clinton prevailed - appealing to his sense of duty and promising to elevate the job to Cabinet rank.