For Defense Nominee, Echoes of Old Questions

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006

When President George H.W. Bush nominated him to lead the CIA in 1991, Robert M. Gates was at 47 the youngest intelligence professional to achieve that distinction.

But during his Senate confirmation hearings, Gates -- a brilliant, smooth-operating Soviet specialist -- lost some of his luster. CIA colleagues came forward to testify that he had kowtowed to the wishes of his superiors and had manipulated intelligence to suit White House policy. Questions also arose about his involvement in the Reagan-era Iran-contra scandal.

Gates eventually won confirmation and held the CIA director's job for 14 months; even his critics describe it as a reasonably successful, modernizing tenure. Now another President Bush has picked Gates to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as secretary of defense, citing Gates's deep Washington experience, his knowledge of the Middle East and his recent work as a reformist university president in Texas as ideal preparation for the task of leading U.S. troops out of trouble in Iraq.

With bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for quickly putting the war under new command, Gates's controversial history is by all accounts highly unlikely to derail his confirmation after a single hearing, which is scheduled for Tuesday. Moreover, Gates and others say he learned from the searing, 10-day hearings that scrutinized his record 15 years ago and has since adopted a less officious style.

At the same time, the concerns expressed about Gates then have echoes in the contemporary debate over the alleged tailoring of intelligence analysis to serve political ends, an issue at the heart of criticism of the war in Iraq. The Senate intelligence committee concluded in 2004, for example, that the CIA -- under a different director -- overstated the threat posed by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs and that the Bush administration shaped its depiction of intelligence to bolster the case for the U.S. intervention there.

Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a foe of Gates's confirmation 15 years ago, cited the old charges of skewing intelligence in telling reporters he will seek assurances at the upcoming hearing that Gates will be independent-minded in his new job, which includes supervising a large military intelligence bureaucracy. Alluding to the Bush administration's record on Iraq, Levin said, "We've had enough [of] manipulating intelligence . . . in order to give the policymakers what they wanted to hear."

The Trip to the Top

Gates's rise through the CIA bureaucracy was so swift, it sparked controversy. "He was recognized in the agency as being an exceptionally gifted analyst and an exceptionally gifted operator," said Alan Fiers, who chaired the agency's Central America task force in the mid-1980s. He was widely seen as a guy "on the make," Fiers testified in 1991.

A Wichita native who had spent a summer working as a grain inspector, Gates evidently itched to leave that life. He signed up with a CIA recruiter in 1965 because, he wrote in his memoirs, "I thought I could get a free trip to the capital." With CIA backing, he then jumped feet first into the Cold War as an Air Force intelligence officer at a Minuteman missile wing, where he recalls being "the only person in our unit who could pronounce the names of our targets."

As a CIA analyst back in Washington, he participated in one demonstration against the Vietnam War, in 1970. But the agency's obsession with the Soviet Union quickly became his own, and in 1974, at age 31, he joined the National Security Council staff for the first time as a Soviet specialist.

Gates did not lack self-confidence in the role. On a 1975 trip to Romania, where his passport was confiscated without explanation, he stood at the door of a White House plane and extended his middle finger to security police shortly before takeoff. It was a "regrettable but immensely satisfying display of pique and immaturity," he wrote later. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, nonetheless called the young Gates "the epitome of discretion and good judgment."

In 1980, Gates became the national intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, although he did not visit the country until nine years later. When William J. Casey took the CIA's reins in 1981 after being Ronald Reagan's campaign manager, Gates took an instant liking to him. Both favored a large U.S. military buildup. Although he considered Casey a "zealot" on Central America, Gates concluded that the two had similar views about the Soviet Union, including a conviction that Moscow was orchestrating rebel movements and terrorism in the Third World.

That belief was disputed by others at the agency, but the intelligence estimates prepared under Casey and Gates about the Soviet threat -- now declassified -- were mostly unequivocal, though later they were shown to be largely wrong. Four years before the Soviet Union dissolved, for example, Gates warned in a memo that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was after power and not reform, leaving a "long competition and struggle ahead."

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