Vietnam veteran tipped as new head of CIA

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A retired air force general has emerged as President Bill Clinton's choice to take on what is arguably the most thankless of all Washington's top jobs - director of the demoralised and rudderless Central Intelligence Agency.

Almost a year after the uncovering of Aldrich "Rick" Ames as the most damaging spy in the CIA's 48-year life, and more than six weeks after the resignation of James Woolsey, Mr Clinton is on the verge of nominating General Michael Carns, 57, who has no direct background in intelligence, as his successor. A White House spokesman said the former Vietnam pilot and later deputy Air Force Chief of Staff was at the top of Mr Clinton's shortlist.

Few will envy General Carns and the task he faces. The years of blundering exposed by the Ames affair have turned the agency into a object of derision.

Some of its best operatives have resigned, while sexual- harassment charges brought by a woman officer have highlighted its male-dominated internal culture and its eagerness to protect its own at all costs.

Even before the latest disasters, the agency's stock was falling. Mr Clinton is far less interested in intelligence matters than his predecessors and quickly dropped the President's morning CIA briefings. John Deutch, Deputy Defense Secretary and early front-runner for the post, is believed to have turned it down after he failed to wrest the guarantee of automatic access to the Oval Office.

The biggest shadow over the CIA is the review by a special commission headed by the former defense secretary Les Aspin, empowered to make sweeping recommendations for change in the structure and operations of US intelligence.

The CIA has proved a master in protecting itself in Washington's periodic bureaucratic turf wars but after the Ames debacle it may be able to do so no longer.

The budget-cutting frenzy on Capitol Hill is unlikely to spare the CIA and its sister agencies. Indeed, a lobby headed by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York urges the abolition of the CIA.

Under that plan, its paramilitary side would be incorporated into the Pentagon, while the State Department would take charge of its research and analysis divisions.