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Inman itching to get down to business: Pentagon officials welcome the new US Secretary of Defense as one of their own

THE carefully planned replacement of Les Aspin by Admiral Bobby Ray Inman as US Secretary of Defense is proving a political success for President Bill Clinton. Unlike many previous Clinton appointees Admiral Inman, once deputy head of the CIA, will face little opposition in Congress and is being welcomed by the Pentagon, where Mr Aspin was deeply unpopular.

It is becoming clear that Mr Clinton has been planning for at least a month to get rid of his Defense Secretary but Mr Aspin only realised he was going to lose his job on Tuesday. Mr Clinton's priority was evidently to appoint somebody who could get on with the military.

In appointing Admiral Inman, whose entire career in Washington has been spent in intelligence, Mr Clinton chose a man famous for his ability to cultivate Congress and the media. He also pleased the armed forces by appointing only the second former military officer in history to be Defense Secretary.

Admiral Inman has served in every branch of intelligence - naval, military, National Security Agency and CIA - under both Democrats and Republicans. In the outpourings of praise for his capabilities yesterday the only sour note was the recollection that William Casey, under whom Admiral Inman served at the CIA, had once called him 'brilliant, brittle, a golden boy worried about his own image'.

It was after differences with Mr Casey in 1982 that Admiral Inman resigned from government and entered private business. After Mr Clinton announced his appointment on Thursday, Admiral Inman underlined that over the last 10 years 'I've learned a lot about how business works'. He said he hoped to bring the best business practices to the Pentagon.

His promise to introduce business efficiency is bizarre, since Admiral Inman's own business career has been less than successful. Not only did he have a close relationship with James Guerin, the US arms dealer now serving 15 years in jail, but he was on the proxy board of Mr Guerin's International Signal and Control. The sale of ISC, its value grossly inflated by fraud, to Ferranti International for dollars 670m in 1987 struck a crippling blow to the British defence company.

Admiral Inman should have found it easy to turn his immense network of political and military contacts to his business advantage. Yet Tracor Inc, a defence contractor with which he was associated, filed for bankruptcy in 1991. In 1989, when Admiral Inman resigned from Westmark Systems, which had taken Tracor private, he said, according to the Wall Street Journal yesterday, that 'everybody understood' when he took the job that he knew nothing about finance.

Nevertheless, Admiral Inman was chairman of the audit committee of a mail-order computer company called Dell Computer which became mired in a scandal over currency speculation and was investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. He resigned from Dell on being nominated as Secretary of Defense.

It is a measure of his success as a bureaucrat in Washington that Admiral Inman's business career is unlikely to derail his confirmation by the Senate. Although his intelligence and organisational talent is universally praised, nobody, possibly not even Mr Clinton, knows what he is going to do at the Pentagon. Admiral Inman himself says he hopes to ensure that the American people get 'a dollar value for a dollar spent in defence'.