Their favorite spy

The outpouring of praise now being bestowed on deputy CIA director Bobby R. Inman is both a tribute to the admiral's genuine accomplishments in the national security area and, one suspects, a message to the Reagan administration.

The message: that Admiral Inman's successor be a person thoroughly skilled in professional intelligence work. Given the fact that much of the actual day-to-day leadership of the CIA has come under the deputy director's aegis in recent months, it is absolutely essential that the White House choose an individual of unquestioned competence and impeccable credentials.

Despite Admiral Inman's statements that he is leaving his CIA position this year primarily for personal reasons, it has been no secret in Washington that he has had significant disagreements with the administration in a number of policy areas. There have also been reports of occasionally strained relations with CIA Director William Casey. Admiral Inman, for example, had deep misgivings about allowing some covert CIA spying operations in the US as favored by President Reagan. Still, the admiral eventually supported the President's desire to authorize such activities.

Whatever the case, it is to be recognized that the way the CIA has been traditionally led over the years makes a certain degree of argument at the highest echelons of the agency almost inevitable, although, of course, that need not necessarily lead to friction. Since its founding back in the late 1940s, the CIA has tended to rotate civilian and military persons in the director and deputy director posts.

Admiral Inman, for example, not only is a four-star military man but, until tapped for the deputy chief post at the CIA, was the director of what is in fact the nation's largest intelligence agency, the super-secret National Security Agency (NSA), which deals in electronic intelligence-gathering.

His chief at the CIA, Mr. Casey, was director of Mr. Reagan's 1980 political campaign, though Mr. Casey's own experience with intelligence work goes back to the 1940s and the OSS.

Part of Admiral Inman's difficulty with the White House staff is perhaps to be found in the very fact that several influential members of Congress had called for the resignation of Mr. Casey last year -- when the CIA chief was then under investigation regarding personal finances -- and replacement by Admiral Inman. Still, that did not mute President Reagan's gracious plaudits for the admiral this week.

Surely the finest tribute to Admiral Inman's accomplishments would be in the selection of a person who carries on that same sense of dedicated professionalism.

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