WASHINGTON — WHEN Michael Carns takes over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he will be taking on one of the hardest jobs at one of the worst times with one of most change-resistant bureaucracies in Washington.
The former Air Force vice chief of staff will have a paradoxical task: adapting the CIA to a new era, even as he squares accounts with the old by restoring the agency's morale and reputation in the wake of the Aldrich Ames spy affair.
One White House official describes Mr. Carns, a Harvard Business School graduate who rose during a 35-year Air Force career to attain four-star rank, as ideally suited to the challenge.
``Management is his strength, and he can bring those management talents to bear,'' says the official, who describes Carns as a ``team-builder'' and a ``morale-builder.''
But a Republican congressional source voices reservations. ``You don't have an intelligence professional here,'' says the source of Carns, who in various command positions in the United States, Europe, and the Far East consumed rather than produced intelligence.
Caretaker role seen
The source predicts that Carns's role will be as ``caretaker'' of an agency that ``will tend to deflect change until after the 1996 election'' on the assumption that, with President Clinton's reelection prospects uncertain, Carns may have little time to make sweeping changes at the spy agency.
``Rebuilding [the CIA] in two years in this political environment is not a doable do,'' the source says.
The White House was expected to announce Carns's appointment this week, possibly as early as yesterday. If confirmed by the Senate, he would be the first former military officer to run the agency since retired Navy Adm. Stansfield Turner was appointed by President Carter.
Carns will replace R. James Woolsey, who abruptly announced his resignation in December after inconclusive efforts to reform the agency and amidst intense criticism of his handling of the Ames affairs. He left the CIA early last month.
Aldrich Ames, a senior CIA analyst, was charged and convicted of spying for Moscow for nine years, the most serious breach of security in the CIA's 50-year history.
The case shook the US intelligence community to its core and Mr. Woolsey provoked a chorus of complaints from lawmakers after he issued only mild reprimands to 11 current and former senior officials held accountable for not detecting Ames' treachery.
The Senate intelligence committee, in a report on the CIA's handling of the Ames case issued last November, warned that the agency's low standard of accountability made a recurrence ``all the more likely.''
In addition to dealing with the continuing fallout from the Ames case, Carns also faces the task of redefining the agency's mission in the post-cold-war era.
The CIA was created in response to the challenge to US interests posed by the Soviet Union after World War II.
Critics say that the persistence of a ``cold war mentality'' in the agency is making it more difficult for the CIA to adapt to a world in which threats to US security are of a different nature and more difficult to identify.
``There is a tremendous amount of work to be done to bring the intelligence community forward,'' the White House official says.
The future of the CIA is also being considered by a congressional commission, headed by former Defense Secretary Les Aspin. The commission will report its findings next year.
The Aspin commission's recommendations ``will be worked on aggressively by the next DCI [Director of Central Intelligence],'' the White House source says.
Carns, who now works as a management consultant in California, is a native of Junction City, Kan. A 1959 graduate of the Air Force academy, he flew 200 combat missions over Vietnam. He rotated through several posts in Europe, including the NATO military command in Brussels. After serving in the Pacific, he was transferred to the Pentagon where he worked for Gen. Colin Powell during the Gulf war. He served as Air Force vice chief of staff for three years, retiring in 1994.
That Carns is not an insider could make it harder for him to win the confidence and cooperation of the intelligence establishment.
But one retired Air Force officer, who worked closely with Carns, says his informal style and easy rapport with subordinates will help him break down bureaucratic barriers. ``He's one of the most personable senior officers I have ever met,'' the retired officer says. ``He's got the temperament to pull it off.