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Of Secrecy and Paranoia: What Is Inman’s Real Story?

<i> Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics" (Times Books)</i>

Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, baffled tout Washington this week by withdrawing as President Bill Clinton’s nominee to be secretary of defense and calling a press conference to claim he had been victimized in the worst way by ele ments of the national press.

Why, it was asked, did he pull the plug despite the massively favorable coverage given to his nomination? Why did he let his press conference become an hour of rambling, Queeg-like complaint?

But Inman is no dope. Asserting that his life in office would be made intolerable by enemies who had put a destructive “spin” on their writing about him, he used his appearances to spin the story his way.

Granted, he did not turn in a publicly impressive performance. For instance, what were the scurrilous charges made in the press about Inman? It was revealed that he had neglected to pay Social Security taxes for his housekeeper. Press coverage of the military contractor Tracor, where Inman had been chief executive officer, emphasized that the company had gone under while paying him a generous compensation package. Inman was charged with being a habitual leaker to and manipulator of the press during his government years. He was accused of having a bias against Israel.

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Some of this is not elevating stuff, yet none of it lies outside current boundaries of acceptable inquiry for presidential nominees. No questions were raised publicly about his sexual proclivities. Nobody pirated a list of his home-video rentals or performed an elaborately hostile deconstruction of articles he had written two decades before.

Given the generally hazardous nature of the Washington confirmation process, it is no surprise that Inman’s claim of extraordinary injury stunned his audience.

He caused more squirming by the way he justified his outrage. For starters, he called the criticisms of him “McCarthyism,” to which it was not even close. What made Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy’s charges “McCarthyism” was not just that they were false but that they concerned the most personal aspects of his enemies’ lives or accused them of disloyalty to their country.

Inman did not get this kind of treatment. The charge did not fit. Yet he made it, to an audience that knew he had to be fully aware of what McCarthyism was and was not.

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Inman also said much of the criticism stemmed from vendettas and conspiracies against him. He said a New York Times reporter, preparing a critical story about Inman and Tracor, had admitted that he was writing “exactly the story that his editors wanted.” Inman also said he had heard that Times columnist William Safire was plotting against him with Sen. Bob Dole: Dole agreed to turn up Republican heat on Inman in return for Safire’s turning up the heat on the Whitewater scandal involving the Clinton Administration.

This last accusation brings to mind the old line Dorothy Parker is said to have delivered when told Calvin Coolidge was dead: “How can they tell?” Safire could hardly promise anyone to turn up the heat on Whitewater, since he was already operating at a full and happy boil.

Inman later said he might not have gotten it quite right about an actual plot between Safire and Dole. He also apologized for having falsely accused Safire of a 35-year-old act of plagiarism. Left standing was Inman’s charge that the columnist was punishing him for having refused, when deputy director of Central Intelligence, to serve as a Safire source.

When Inman was first nominated, Washington defense wonks were not so enthusiastic as the mainstream press. They said Inman’s background was in intelligence; his forte was presenting models of the world and shooting down other people’s arguments. This was different from public-policy development, where Inman was not so strong. Was he right for an Administration so in need of strategic vision?

But now we have made another discovery. In much of Inman’s previous government career, he did his work in secret. His extensive contacts in Congress and the press were covert. His bureaucratic wars were usually not high-visibility exercises.

Inman was in control of unequaled information--and, say his critics, disinformation--that put him in a dominant position in these exchanges. After all, the National Security Agency, which he headed at one time, has the ability to listen in on all overseas phone calls. He could protect people and give the impression of including them in the inner circles of power. Some were happy to pay for these privileges with sympathetic writing and legislative action. Some did not know they were paying.

When Inman was forced to conduct an operation in public, as he was in his press conference and the media interviews that followed, he could not do so persuasively. He allowed himself to look like a classic example of the paranoid style.

Take the matter of anti-Israel bias. In 1981, when the Israelis bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor into dust, many people thought they had done the world a favor--but not deputy intelligence chief Inman, whose reaction was annoyance when he found out the Israelis had gotten their targeting data from U.S. spy photographs, by agreement between the two countries.

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Inman made sure Israel could no longer have such information without making special requests for it. In light of what the world saw about Iraqi aims in the Gulf War, you might think Inman would feel compelled to re-examine his views. But no: In his press conference, he cited this without apology as one more unworthy reason why the vengeful Safire was mad at him.

Actually, “without apology” is too weak. During his press session, Inman named five journalists who had treated him badly: Safire, Tony Lewis, Ellen Goodman, the cartoonist Herblock and Rita Braver. All five are Jewish. He referred to Braver as “Braverman.” This pattern did nothing to dispel any public impressions of Inman’s anti-Israel bias. In fact, it is the sort of speech for which the phrase “lack of sensitivity” seems eminently suitable.

Still, despite sometimes seeming slightly unhinged, Inman showed some of the skill he is known for. Defending himself against charges of leaking to the press, for example, Inman claimed all he did was confirm stories so journalists would not ignorantly print life-threatening national-security information. He had established such an arrangement, he said, with the New York Times.

Had the New York Times hurt Inman? Well, here was Inman hurting the Times right back--implying the newspaper had allowed him a quasi-censorship of its stories. The New York Times, at length, scrambled to deny that such a meeting of the minds had ever occurred.

Moreover, Inman was not quite paranoid in asserting that people were after him. The articles in print did not support his claim, but tougher stories were in the works, and in his public remarks he seemed to be anticipating some of them.

So this battle is not over. Inman may not be destined for the Defense Department, but he is a man whose reputation has been harmed and who has immense resources of intellect and information with which to continue the fight.

The next round of his response will not require the personal exposure required by media interviews. It can be done in private, even in secret, where Inman has skillfully exercised his influence in the past. We are going to hear more from this victim.


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