BOSTON — Director of United States Central Intelligence is one of the most powerful and mysterious jobs in the world. Its attractions are obvious: access to high secrets, the ear of the president, and a big office with an expansive northern Virginia view.
But "powerful" and "mysterious" don't add up to "easy." It's also arguably the toughest top post in Washington.
The CIA is an agency that people love to hate. A misstep on the part of the director can have serious consequences for the nation's security. And spies are harder to manage than software engineers.
Thus, as Anthony Lake faces tough questioning this week on his qualifications to be CIA director, he might at times wonder why he even wants the job. Handling pointed queries about his past conduct is one thing. Reforming an organization that's reeling from spy scandals and searching for its place in the post-cold-war world is quite another.
"The CIA is an institution that needs a lot of change. Tony Lake is going to have his hands full," says Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The good news for Lake, President Clinton's former national security adviser, is that as of this writing it looks as if he will eventually win approval from the Senate Intelligence Committee.
New revelations on controversial topics such as alleged Chinese attempts to funnel campaign funds to the White House could yet derail his nomination. Some conservative GOP members of the intelligence panel say that unless they're allowed to see raw FBI files concerning Lake they'll do their best to block his nomination.
But support from moderate Republicans, plus Democratic votes, should be enough to move Lake's nomination out of the intelligence panel and gain approval of the full Senate, absent further developments.
Yet whether Mr. Lake is the right man to run the nation's entire intelligence apparatus (the director is in charge of not only the CIA, but 28 separate agencies) remains an open question, according to some analysts.
Their point: nothing in Lake's background has prepared him for this daunting management task. As security adviser he ran the relatively small National Security Council staff. Before that, he was an academic and lower-level government official.
"It's going to be a stretch for him," says a national security insider who asked that his name not be used. "He has not run anything before."
And learning on the job might be tough. Right now US intelligence agencies are not exactly running like oiled machinery. Just about everybody has heard about the CIA's problems: two of its spies arrested in the past couple of years for selling secrets, blundered attempts at economic spying on allies, backing Guatemalan military officers who were known criminals, and an agency largely adrift, as it searches for a defining mission as energizing as the cold battle against the Soviet Union.
With those challenges in mind, three former directors of the agency have some thoughts about what lies ahead for Lake.
"The No. 1 challenge, in terms of managing intelligence, is to make sure all the major components are working together and effectively," says William H. Webster, CIA director from 1987 to 1991.
A new emphasis on fighting global organized crime and terrorism has made the relationship between law enforcement and intelligence agencies more complicated, for instance. A director must referee turf battles in this area, and facilitate communication, says Mr. Webster.
The secret successes of the intelligence community can be extremely gratifying, he adds.
During the Gulf war, Iraqi agents who worked for CIA case officers provided blueprints of Saddam Hussein's bunker and were able to get enough information to CIA officers to foil several Iraqi terrorist attacks.
"Your successes go largely unheralded," says Webster.
Robert Gates, CIA director from 1991 to 1993, makes a similar point. He cites an experience he had with President Reagan.
"After the 1986 elections in the Philippines, the CIA had very good information on the massive cheating by the Marcos government that enabled [President Ferdinand] Marcos to win," Mr. Gates says. "Everybody knew it was a fraud, but President Reagan had a very great affection for Marcos."
As Gates tells it, Mr. Reagan did not believe what his National Security Council told him about the massive cheating, so the NSC adviser called Gates and asked him to send a list of all the evidence the CIA had collected about the Marcos government cheating. The adviser told Gates to make sure every page was on CIA letterhead, because Reagan would believe it if it came from the CIA.
"Reagan did believe it, and the US government played a major role in ousting Marcos and getting Corazon Aquino in."
For his part, Stansfield Turner, CIA director from 1977 to 1981, found the intellectual aspects of the job most rewarding.
"It requires somebody who likes to analyze issues, joust with analysts, and come up with useful conclusions for people," says Mr. Turner. "It's like putting together a picture puzzle with only 70 percent of the pieces."
All three former CIA chiefs believe Senate Intelligence Committee questioning may not focus enough on whether Lake can switch from managing ideas at the NSC to running a complex community in charge of everything from people to spy satellites.