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Aspin Resigns as Defense Chief : Cabinet: Controversies over gays in the military and soldiers’ deaths in Somalia marred his tenure. Clinton expected to nominate ex-CIA official Inman as successor.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Defense Secretary Les Aspin resigned Wednesday, putting an early end to a troubled tenure that began with a crisis over gays in the military, worsened with the deaths of U.S. soldiers in Somalia and closed amid a squabble over the Pentagon budget.

President Clinton is expected to nominate Bobby Ray Inman, a national security figure with a long career in intelligence, to succeed Aspin, senior Administration officials said Wednesday night. The appointment could come as early as today.

Inman’s bipartisan service as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Ronald Reagan Administration and head of the National Security Agency in the Jimmy Carter Administration could help the White House in its relations with Congress and the military.

Aspin became the first member of Clinton’s Cabinet to leave office and the first Pentagon chief to resign amid controversy since then-President Gerald R. Ford fired James R. Schlesinger in 1975.

White House dissatisfaction with Aspin’s performance, which had been festering for months, was apparent and Administration sources said his resignation had been under discussion among a small group of top officials for several weeks. In announcing the resignation, Clinton said Aspin had agreed to stay on until at least Jan. 20 to ensure a smooth transition.

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Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Aspin said he is “proud of the work that President Clinton and I have done over the past year to reshape our American military to deal with the new dangers of a vastly changed world.

“I have been working continually for over 20 years to help build a strong American military. It’s time for me to take a break and to undertake a new kind of work.”

Clinton, for his part, lavishly praised Aspin, saying the resignation was accepted “with real sadness.”

“He has called them as he saw them, bringing a lifetime of dedication and experience and a razor-sharp mind” to his job, Clinton said.

Speculation about the new defense chief ranged widely during the day, with Inman, CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Perry mentioned as candidates. Despite the broad popularity of former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell, he is legally ineligible for the job because he has not been out of the military for 10 years.

Despite the mutterings of unhappiness over Aspin’s performance that had circulated through Washington for weeks, the fact of the resignation caught many senior officials by surprise.

“We had no indication this was coming. It was just all of a sudden,” said a senior aide to Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shalikashvili had been Aspin’s candidate for the military’s top job, and his appointment may prove to be the most lasting imprint of the secretary’s 11 1/2-month tenure.

Aspin, 55, had a heart pacemaker implanted last winter, but officials said the resignation was not prompted by health concerns. “If it was his health, they would have announced it,” a senior White House official said.

Similarly, officials downplayed the significance of the conflict between Aspin and Leon E. Panetta, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, over the size of the Pentagon budget--a confrontation that is scheduled to be argued Friday in front of Clinton.

Aspin has been pushing to increase spending by about $50 billion over several years to take into account inflationary pressures and the cost of a pay raise that Administration budget officials want the Pentagon to absorb. He has waged a fairly public campaign on that subject but has received little support elsewhere in the Administration.

Officials noted that several other Cabinet officers have waged similar campaigns and remain in their jobs. Moreover, officials said that Panetta and other top budget officials first learned of Aspin’s resignation only a few minutes before it was announced.

Instead of any one issue, officials said, mutual unhappiness between Aspin and the White House has been growing over a host of irritations large and small, many of them focused on Aspin’s management style.

Sources at the Pentagon said Aspin has participated in a series of conversations with White House officials, leading to a meeting there Tuesday, all to discuss how and when he might leave. Also on Tuesday, he discussed with several top Pentagon aides a wide range of issues, such as Somalia and the defense budget, “that had been weighing very heavily on his mind,” one source said.

Aspin signed his letter of resignation at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday in his third-floor office at the Pentagon and then left for the White House to announce his departure.

“I went through a series of possibilities with him as to why he was leaving,” said one source who spoke with Aspin before he left for the Oval Office. “I asked him about Somalia and the budget and the problems in Bosnia, even his personal health.

“He sort of just threw up his hands, as if to say all of that. But I couldn’t pin him down. He wouldn’t allow himself to be pinned down on any one reason.”

A second source said the decision for Aspin to leave was reached “mutually with the White House, coming after a series of discussions.”

“It seemed as though a number of things had gone awry,” a third official said.

Aspin, who served 11 terms in Congress, ending as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, never quite seemed able to take control of the vast Pentagon apparatus. Graham Allison, one of his handpicked assistant secretaries, was sworn into office barely 15 minutes before Aspin’s resignation was announced, and several more senior posts remain unfilled. Moreover, Aspin’s shortcomings had become increasingly controversial as criticism of Clinton’s foreign policy operation mounted.

“He’s been criticized heavily for his inability to manage,” a former official who has discussed Aspin’s tenure with Clinton said. “That’s a very fair criticism. He conducted business like a congressional committee. He was more like a discussant . . . . He was not good about making decisions. His leadership image was limited.”

Aspin is “no Dick Cheney. He never really got into the job,” a senior civilian Pentagon official said.

During the drawn-out conflict over easing the ban on gays in the military, White House officials voiced frustration in dealing with Aspin, saying that--although he was a tireless negotiator with the military brass and members of Congress--they could never be quite sure whether his reports on the sessions reflected reality or his own hopes of how things would turn out.

“None of this was personal,” a former official who retains close ties to the Administration said. “I think what’s happened was that something has to change in order to give the operation a chance to do better.”

“It’s the shakeout a year into office,” the former official said. “It’s been a very, very tough decision. A lot of people thought Clinton would never do it.”

Throughout the fall, Aspin was a target of criticism from his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, but several lined up to praise him Wednesday.

“I have known and worked closely with Les Aspin for many years and have long respected his dedicated efforts on behalf of our national security,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said. “I believe that Secretary Aspin’s work over the last year is moving the Department of Defense in the right direction.”

At the Pentagon, the secretary’s resignation met a mixed reaction.

Some officials pointed to a series of missteps in recent months, such as the rejection of a request to provide armored support for units in Somalia, wrangling over the issue of gays in the military and the budget debate.

But others, in fact the majority of Defense Department officials willing to discuss the subject, said they had believed that things were looking up and going more smoothly in recent weeks.

On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Aspin expressed a deep satisfaction with the way the job was going. “It is more interesting and more a challenge than I can possibly imagine,” he said.

And as recently as Wednesday morning, at the close of a press conference to discuss continued funding of the C-17 cargo aircraft, Aspin seemed surprised when a reporter wished him a merry Christmas. “I’ll probably be back (for more press conferences) before Christmas,” he said, smiling.

“He’s in good health now and his doctor even recently gave some upbeat assessments about how he was doing,” a Navy aide said.

The aide said Aspin attended one of a series of Pentagon Christmas parties Tuesday, appearing upbeat and jovial. “He was smiling and you felt like things were really going great,” the aide said.

Times staff writers Robin Wright, James Risen, William J. Eaton and Melissa Healy contributed to this story.

* NIGHTMARE YEAR: Aspin lived a nightmare that included problems in Bosnia, Haiti and elsewhere. A33

Profile: Les Aspin

* Born: July 21, 1938

* Hometown: Milwaukee, Wis.

* Education: Graduated summa cum laude from Yale in 1960, received his master’s degree from Oxford University in 1962 and his doctorate from MIT in 1965.

* Career highlights: In 1963, staff assistant to Walter W. Heller, head of President John F. Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers; 1966 to 1968, fulfilled his ROTC requirements by working as a Pentagon economist; 1968, returned to Wisconsin and managed Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential election campaign there; after losing campaign for Democratic nomination for state Treasurer in 1968, he taught economics at Marquette University for one year; 1970, elected to House and received national attention for his exposure of waste and mismanagement in government, especially in the Pentagon; 1984, appointed chairman of the House Armed Services Committee; 1992, President Clinton selects him as defense secretary.

* Personal: Divorced, no children.

Sources: Times staff, Who’s Who in America, Current Biography Yearbook


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