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Woolsey Resigns as CIA Director : Intelligence: Espionage chief was under fire for his handling of the Ames spy case. He lacked strong support in the White House and Congress.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

CIA director R. James Woolsey, under fire for months for his handling of the Aldrich H. Ames spy case and lacking strong support in the White House and Congress, resigned abruptly on Wednesday.

The nation’s first post-Cold War spy chief never forcefully seized control of a sprawling, $30-billion-a-year intelligence bureaucracy and was not seen by his own employees or by his overseers on Capitol Hill as a strong advocate of intelligence programs.

White House officials said Woolsey’s resignation, communicated to President Clinton in a letter dated Monday, came without warning and was not requested by the President.

Clinton said he accepted Woolsey’s resignation “with regret,” but aides indicated he did not try to talk Woolsey out of leaving when the two men spoke by telephone on Monday.

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“Jim Woolsey has been a staunch advocate of maintaining an intelligence capability that is second to none,” Clinton said in a written statement that was notable for its mild praise and impersonal language. “Jim Woolsey deserves the gratitude of all Americans for his service to our country. He has my deep appreciation.”

Woolsey, 53, cited a desire to spend more time with his family as chief among his reasons for his resignation, effective at the end of January.

“In making the decision to return to the private sector . . . my family figures prominently,” Woolsey said in a statement. “For their patience and understanding in the face of lost evenings, weekends and holidays, it is time for recompense.”

A White House official said a successor has not yet been chosen. Among those whose names surfaced as rumors of Woolsey’s imminent departure spread is Deputy Defense Secretary John M. Deutch, the second-ranking official at the Pentagon.

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Another potential successor, defeated Democratic Rep. Dan Glickman of Kansas, the outgoing chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was named agriculture secretary on Wednesday.

Glickman is known to have told Clinton that the President should get more personally involved in intelligence issues, and he has also criticized Woolsey publicly and privately for his response to the Ames case and other internal agency problems.

Insiders say morale at the Central Intelligence Agency is at its lowest point in nearly 20 years, following the collapse of its main surveillance target--the Soviet Union--a succession of scandals, budget cuts and questions about its very reason for existence.

Although Woolsey never convincingly articulated a vision of the agency’s mission in the uncertain world following the end of the Cold War, he has tried in television appearances and speeches to warn of the potential for conflict arising from regional and ethnic tensions around the world.

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He has cited the threat from the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the growing international trade in narcotics and other contraband as reasons for maintaining a robust intelligence capability.

Woolsey has been roundly criticized for his reaction to the Ames spy incident, the worst case of treachery in the CIA’s 37-year history. Ames admitted selling the Russians vast quantities of critical information--including the names of scores of agents working for the United States.

Woolsey reprimanded 11 current and retired CIA officers for allowing Ames to operate unimpeded for nearly eight years, but he did not fire, demote or prosecute anyone for complicity in Ames’ crimes.

During Woolsey’s tenure, the agency also came under fire in Congress for concealing the cost of a $310-million headquarters for the National Reconnaissance Office, the unit of the Air Force that operates spy satellites for the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

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Just last week, Woolsey approved a $410,000 payment to a senior female spy whose career was destroyed by subordinates she had disciplined for various improprieties, including spousal abuse, public drunkenness and repeated violations of agency security regulations.

The woman, Janine M. Brookner, alleged that the agency engaged in a pervasive pattern of sexual discrimination and harassment; the settlement was reached without Woolsey affirming or denying her charges.

A White House official who deals with intelligence matters said he and others in the Administration were perplexed at Woolsey’s departure. While there were periodic complaints about the quality and timeliness of intelligence reports from the CIA, the official said the President and National Security Adviser Anthony Lake were generally satisfied with the agency’s work.

“Jim was not pushed; this came of his own free will,” the official said. “I don’t know his reasons and have no sense of why he felt compelled to resign at this time.”

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Like every agency director, Woolsey experienced his share of frustrations with Administration budget-writers, who are engaged in putting together the spending plan for the fiscal year beginning next October.

But the cuts penciled in for intelligence are modest and don’t appear to be the precipitating event for Woolsey’s departure, the White House official said.

In an interview with The Times in late November and again on CNN’s “Larry King Live” program earlier this week, Woolsey gave no inkling of his intention to leave government service.

Asked directly if he planned to quit soon, Woolsey said on Nov. 29: “In any of these jobs you always kind of take stock every once in a while, but as of now I have no plans to do anything different.”

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But close observers of the intelligence community have detected unhappiness with Woolsey for some time and suspected that he was a short-timer.

“Frankly, I think there wasn’t clear support out of the White House. And if there’s not, then it’s open season on the intelligence community,” said former CIA director William H. Webster.

Woolsey, the agency’s 16th director, served as undersecretary of the Navy in the Jimmy Carter Administration and has been a periodic adviser to Democratic and Republican presidents on arms control issues.

Times staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.

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