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Clinton nominee for defence chief makes hasty exit: Inman's sudden withdrawal because of 'hostile press' deals damaging blow to the President

IN A blow to the Clinton administration, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman withdrew his nomination as Defense Secretary yesterday, citing hostile press notices which distorted 'my record, my character and my reputation'. He said he was the victim of modern McCarthyism, the target of unproven allegations too numerous to refute.

Admiral Inman, a former intelligence chief, was to replace Les Aspin in charge of the Pentagon at the end of the month. By stepping aside at the last minute for reasons that appear superficial, he has badly damaged President Bill Clinton, who has taken great pains to ensure a smooth transition at Defense.

Explaining his last-minute withdrawal - which astonished Washington - Admiral In man said he made the decision after reading a critical column by the New York Times commentator William Safire, whom he accused of being in league with the Senate Republican leader, Robert Dole. He said Mr Dole had agreed to attack the admiral in return for Mr Safire criticising President Clinton over his involvement in the Whitewater land development affair.

At a news conference in Austin, Texas, Admiral Inman revealed a sensitivity to press criticism, though he admitted that most commentators were favourable and he faced no difficulty in being confirmed by the Senate. In a letter to Mr Clinton he said: 'I sensed elements in the media and the political leadership of the country who would rather disparage or destroy reputations than work to . . . govern the country.'

Senator Dole expressed astonishment at Admiral Inman's accusations and denied he opposed the nomination. He said he doubted if Admiral Inman, who had spent 30 years as head, successively, of all the main intelligence organisations, really wanted the job. Given the generally favourable reception Admiral Inman's no mination received in the press and Congress, his withdrawal will prompt speculation that he feared more revelations about his undistinguished business career in the 10 years since he resigned as deputy head of the CIA in 1982.

Admiral Inman originally wrote his letter of resignation on 8 January, but said he did not tell Mr Clinton immediately because the President's mother had just died. He then delayed again because Mr Clinton was on a tour of Europe, only returning at the weekend. There is no obvious replacement, and Mr Aspin says he will stay on as long as necessary.

At his hurriedly arranged press conference, Admiral Inman gave an exceptionally detailed account of his press notices since he was nominated on 16 December. At the time the stress he placed on reaching the right 'level of comfort' with the President before accepting the job was considered patronising. He said that the media were favourable to his appointment at first. Then matters deteriorated as journalists inquired about his business affairs and his failure to pay social security taxes on his housekeeper.

Reflecting on this criticism, Admiral Inman said: 'I don't wish or intend to subject myself to that on a daily basis.' He said he feared he was losing the congressional support necessary for reform of the Pentagon. He said that although he retained the support of Mr Clinton 'I'm not a long-time friend of the President.' Indeed, loyalty to Mr Clinton does not seem to have weighed heavily in Admiral Inman's mind as he decided to withdraw.

Instead, he returned again and again to Mr Safire's hostility and how this dated back to a dispute in the early 1980s. He described the intimacy of his relations with many editors when he was at the CIA and when he headed the NSA, the code-breaking and signals intelligence organisation based at Fort Mead in Maryland. Mr Clinton's decision to appoint the Admiral to head the Pentagon was partly based on his sensitivity to the press. Nobody realised until yesterday that this sensitivity was rooted in such a vulnerable personality.