I have always wondered how and why Bill Clinton selected the neo-conservative warmonger James Woolsey to be his first Director of Central Intelligence. Now Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 provides my answer.

The CIA quickly became the only department in the federal government whose senior officers were seeing the president-elect face-to-face every day. [Robert] Gates became optimistic that President Clinton and the CIA would get along exceptionally well.

He was wrong. The problems began with the selection of a new director. The choice was postponed until late in the transition process. Conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill urged Clinton to appoint someone with a right-leaning reputation to balance the liberals in his cabinet. The Clinton team telephoned James Woolsey, a fifty-one-year-old Oklahoman, and told him to fly immediately to Little Rock. Woolsey was a lean, dome-headed man with soft gray eyes and a sharp, insistent voice. He had met Clinton only once, at a campaign fund-raiser held at the home of Washington socialite Pamela Harriman. But Clinton and Woolsey had common roots. Like the president-elect, Woolsey had risen from the rural southwest to win a Rhodes scholarship and graduate from Yale Law School. As a young army reserve lieutenant Woolsey had campaigned against the Vietnam War. Later, he had drifted to the political right, aligning himself with hard-line anticommunist Democrats such as Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

Woolsey spent several hours with Clinton at the Governor’s Mansion. They talked at length about University of Arkansas and University of Oklahoma football, good places to fish in the Ozarks, and, at less length, their visions for the future of the CIA. At one point Clinton said that he really did not think that the CIA director should be a policy adviser to the president. Woolsey agreed that the director “ought to just call the intelligence straight.”

Their meeting ended with no mention of a job offer, but the next day Warren Christopher called Woolsey at his hotel and summoned him to a press conference.

“Does the president want me to be the director of the CIA?”, Woolsey asked.

“Sure. Just come over to the press conference, and we’ll get it sorted out.”

Woolsey asked Christopher to be certain about the job offer. Christopher stuck his head in Clinton’s office, came back on the phone, and said, “Yeah, that’s what he wants.”

In the living room of the mansion Woolsey found the Clintons, the Gores, Secretary of Defense nominee Les Aspin, Secretary of State nominee Warren Christopher, Tony Lake, Samuel L. “Sandy” Berger, and several political aides trying to anticipate questions they would hear from the press when Clinton introduced his national security team. The president-elect’s media specialists worried that reporters would accuse Clinton of appointing a bunch of Carter administration retreads. Woolsey could understand why, since “we were, in fact, a bunch of Carter administration retreads.” Trying to be helpful, Woolsey mentioned that he had served in the Bush administration, leading a team that negotiated a reduction of conventional armed forces in Europe.

Clinton’s press aide looked at Woolsey, “Admiral, I didn’t know you served in the Bush administration.” Dumbfounded, Woolsey pointed out that he had never been an admiral, only an army captain.

Then Clinton refused to meet with Woolsey for the first year of his presidency. It’s hard to believe that Clinton could have taken any less care in selecting his DCI. I guess he wasn’t ready on Day One.

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