Thursday, November 09, 2006

Robert Gates was a controversial figure in the Iran-contra affair. Will his Reagan-era activities hamper his confirmation as Rumsfeld’s successor?
Will Gates Nomination Revive Old Scandals?
Robert Gates was a controversial figure in the Iran-contra affair. Will his Reagan-era activities hamper his confirmation as Rumsfeld’s successor?
By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball

Nov. 8, 2006 - By choosing Robert Gates as his new Defense secretary, President George W. Bush is once again turning to a trusted warhorse from his father’s administration. But the Gates nomination also could remind the new Democratic Congress about controversies from the George H.W. Bush era as well.

Gates was investigated during the late 1980s and 1990s by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh over whether Gates had told the truth about the Iran-contra affair, which occurred during his tenure as deputy to Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey. Questions about Gates's knowledge of secret arms sales to Iran—and the diversion of proceeds to support the Nicaraguan contras—caused Gates to withdraw his nomination to succeed Casey as CIA director in 1987.

Gates was again nominated by President George H.W. Bush to be CIA chief in 1991, setting off an intense and spirited confirmation hearing in which charges and countercharges about Iran-contra flared anew. Gates also was publicly accused by former CIA subordinates of slanting intelligence about the Soviet threat—a criticism that evokes an eerie parallel to accusations hurled against the current Bush administration over its handling of pre-war intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to Al Qaeda.

After months of partisan wrangling and debate, Gates was confirmed as CIA director in November 1991 and served in that capacity until the end of the first President Bush’s term in January 1993. He later served as director of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and, after that, as president of Texas A&M University where the Bush library is housed. After Congress in 2004 passed "intelligence reform" legislation creating the post of a national intelligence director to co-ordinate the activities of feuding intelligence agencies, the White House approached Gates to see if he wanted to become the first new intelligence czar. But on that occasion, Gates turned George W. Bush down.

Bush today praised Gates as a “steady, solid leader who can help make the necessary adjustments in our approach to the current challenges.” And indeed some former associates describe Gates as a savvy and seasoned bureaucratic veteran who is almost certain to establish a more co-operative relationship with the uniformed services and other agencies.
But some of Gates's old critics—who not coincidentally have also been critics of the current Bush administration’s Iraq policy—maintain he is not necessarily the best candidate for the job of correcting a war policy that is seriously off course.

When he heard today about Gates's nomination, “I nearly choked on my sandwich,” said Mel Goodman, a former Soviet analyst at the CIA who testified against Gates’s nomination to be CIA director in 1991. “This is not a guy who’s ever been accused of speaking truth to power. If you’re looking for somebody who’s going to change Iraq policy, he’s hardly the guy to do it. The only policy he’s going to consider is what is acceptable to the White House.”

During his 1991 testimony, Goodman testified that Gates, as deputy CIA director, consistently politicized intelligence-community reports about Iran, Nicaragua and Afghanistan in order to cater to the hard-line anti-Soviet policies of the Reagan White House. Gates’s role as deputy CIA director “was to corrupt the process and the ethics of intelligence on all of these issues.” When Goodman protested his actions, Gates “went off like a Roman candle,” Goodman said today. “It was the same kind of manufacturing of intelligence” in the run-up to the Iraq war, Goodman said.

Congressional records and transcripts extensively document the debate over Gates's credentials and record in the Bush and Reagan administrations. In one case, Democrats accused Gates of helping to push an allegedly contentious report about the Soviet Union's influence in Iran.

One of the most controversial intelligence issues concerning Gates, as CIA No. 2, involved an investigation into contentious allegations that the Soviet Union played a role in the 1981 shooting, by a Turkish extremist, of Pope John Paul II. According to Senate transcripts, the CIA prepared a memo outlining the case for Soviet complicity in the attack on the pope and in a cover letter forwarding the document to Reagan. Gates allegedly stated that the intelligence review upon which the memo was based was comprehensive. However, a CIA internal review later denounced the memo as being skewed, and Gates himself later admitted the document had been based on thin evidence. "The charges [against Gates] of politicization, intimidation and demoralization of analysts, particularly in the Soviet field, are compelling. After all, even Mr. Gates has expressed worries about politicization," commented the late Sen. Brock Adams, a Washington Democrat, during the Senate floor debate that eventually led to Gates's confirmation as George H.W. Bush's CIA director.

A report produced by Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel appointed to conduct a criminal investigation of the Iran-contra affair, criticized Gates for possible lack of candor related to what he knew about the Reagan-era scandal. According to the report, Gates consistently testified that he first learned in October 1986 that money from the sales of arms to Iran may have been diverted to anticommunist contra forces in Central America. Other evidence, however, suggested that Gates got a report on the affair from a senior CIA official several months earlier. Walsh eventually decided that there was not enough evidence to warrant the filing of any criminal case against Gates. "In the end, although Gates's actions suggested an officer who was more interested in shielding his institution from criticism and in shifting the blame to the NSC [National Security Council] than in finding out the truth, there was insufficient evidence to charge Gates with a criminal endeavor to obstruct congressional investigations," Walsh wrote in his report.

Confirmation hearings on Gates's nomination to become Defense secretary will be held by the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will be chaired by Michigan Sen. Carl Levin if Democrats do take control of the Senate. One of the Democrats' best-informed members on military and foreign-policy issues, Levin is also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and has been in the forefront of efforts by both committees to investigate allegations that policymakers in the current Bush administration "cherry picked" intelligence reporting and pressured analysts to highlight information supporting White House policies toward Iraq.

If he holds on to his slim election-night lead and is sworn in as the final member of a new Democratic majority in the Senate, Virginia's Jim Webb may also ultimately have an interesting take to offer on the Gates nomination. Webb, a highly decorated war hero, was secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration and, before that, had attended the U.S. Naval Academy with Oliver North, the Marine colonel who was at the center of the Iran-contra scandal. Webb publicly criticized North years ago when the former colonel ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia Senate seat that Webb himself is now on the verge of capturing.

A Capitol Hill official familiar with the views of Senate Democrats said, however, that while Democrats like Levin are expected to grill Gates thoroughly about his past record—including the Iran-contra affair and allegations of politicization—Democrats at this stage are not necessarily gunning to shoot down the Gates nomination. The official said that while Democrats were aware of allegations, which they themselves publicized, that Gates had skewed intelligence or misstated his knowledge of the Iran-contra affair, the view among some Democrats is that once Gates finally became CIA chief under the first President Bush, he turned out to be "one of the better [CIA directors] we've ever had." The official added: "Generally his reputation as CIA director is very positive."

Bill Harlow, a spokesman for former CIA director George Tenet who worked with Gates at the National Security Council during the previous Bush administration, described Gates as "extremely smart, dedicated, hardworking and experienced." He added: "I'm sure he will be a unifying figure at the Pentagon."