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Joe Biden campaigned aggressively for President Jimmy Carter, but he has frequently made clear that he was never a big fan of the famously liberal president. When Carter nominated Ted Sorensen, a former speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, to be CIA director, the national security establishment in Washington was apoplectic. Sorensen, who remained close to the Kennedy family, had no foreign policy experience and was out of place in the world of covert ops. Carter had said that he wanted an outsider for the CIA post as part of his pledge to reduce the agency’s power and budget.
Sorensen’s nomination came after a campaign in which Carter promised to wage war against the agency’s “excessive secrecy” and to expose and punish CIA officers who broke the law. “We must never again keep secret the evolution of our foreign policy from the Congress and the American people,” Carter declared. “They should never again be misled.” Carter would ultimately fail to achieve many of his promises regarding the CIA, but the mere fact that he made such statements caused grave concern within the agency and among many Republican lawmakers. This conflict would break out into the open during Sorensen’s confirmation process.
Biden, then a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which would preside over the confirmation hearings, assured Sorensen that he would help guide him through the process. As Sorensen recalled, Biden had led him to believe that he had the senator’s “enthusiastic” support, telling Sorensen he was “the best appointment Carter has made.”
When Sorensen came under attack from Republicans, though, Biden shifted his position and went out of his way to dig up an episode from Sorenson’s past that would serve as a red flag against his confirmation. Sorensen had given an affidavit in the case of Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, in which Sorensen acknowledged that many officials in Washington, including himself, would take classified documents home to review and that officials often leaked far more sensitive documents to the press without facing prosecutions. Biden said he learned of the affidavit, which was never filed in court, from a Republican colleague and assessed that the Republicans on the committee would seek to use it to discredit Sorensen. Biden had his staff scour documents and Sorensen’s books to find the unfiled affidavit, and an aide who was involved with the Pentagon Papers case eventually located it. This, combined with other concerns, including allegations that Sorensen was a pacifist who dodged the Korean War draft, put the nomination in peril. “It was like being blindsided by a truck,” Sorensen said, describing the campaign against him as an effort where “many little dirty streams flowed together to make one large one.”
In a phone call with Carter after confirming the document, Biden said, “I think we’re going to be in trouble. I think it is going to be tough.” As it became clear that the nomination was doomed, Carter offered an uninspired defense of Sorensen’s comments on classified documents with a public statement, “saying it would be ‘most unfortunate’ if frank acknowledgement of common practice should ‘deprive the administration and the country of his talents and services,’” according to a press report.
At Sorensen’s confirmation hearing, Biden laid into the nominee. “Quite honestly, I’m not sure whether or not Mr. Sorensen could be indicted or convicted under the espionage statutes,” Biden said, questioning “whether Mr. Sorensen intentionally took advantage of the ambiguities in the law or carelessly ignored the law.” Biden biographer Jules Witcover later wrote: “As a result of these and other complaints against Sorensen, and behind-the-scenes pressure from Carter, the old JFK speechwriter agreed to have his nomination withdrawn.” Sorensen later said Biden should be awarded the “prize for political hypocrisy in a town noted for political hypocrisy.”