Retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., who was selected yesterday to head an independent probe of the Columbia space shuttle disaster, made his mark as an investigator heading the review of the USS Cole terrorist bombing in October 2000.

The career naval officer sounded the alarm that the United States was seriously vulnerable to terrorist acts months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and complained about inadequacies in the U.S. intelligence community.

U.S. officials said over the weekend they saw nothing to suggest foul play or terrorism in the Columbia catastrophe, in which seven astronauts were killed Saturday morning. Gehman will lead a special government commission charged with sifting through the Columbia wreckage that is being gathered from across Texas and Louisiana, and trucked under tight security to Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, La.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said yesterday on ABC's "This Week" that Gehman is "well-versed in understanding exactly how to look about the forensics in these cases and coming up with the causal effects of what could occur."

O'Keefe described the commission as "an independent objective board." He said Gehman would work immediately with a team that began to gather yesterday in Shreveport.

One naval officer described Gehman as a "solid, unflappable guy," who works well in "high-visibility, high-pressure jobs."

Gehman, 60, a native of Norfolk and the son of a Navy man, was head of U.S. Joint Forces Command in Norfolk before he retired in summer 2000. The Joint Forces Command is a military think tank that tests concepts for how all branches of the service can work together more effectively. Those selected to head the command are considered to be among the most innovative thinkers in the military, according to military experts.

Gehman attended Norfolk Catholic High School until one of his father's transfers took him to Washington. He entered the Navy ROTC program at Pennsylvania State University and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in engineering in March 1965.

Gehman's first tour of duty was as main propulsion assistant and damage control assistant aboard the USS English in Mayport, Fla. Gehman had extensive at-sea experience, including tours in Vietnam and as commander of a destroyer.

He earned a Bronze Star in 1968 during the Vietnam War when his capture of an enemy solider under fire led to valuable intelligence information for future operations. He later served as vice chief of naval operations, the number two post in the Navy.

In October 2000 -- shortly after Gehman retired from the Navy -- the USS Cole was attacked while refueling in Aden harbor in Yemen. Terrorists detonated a small boat, laden with explosives, that sidled up to the 505-foot destroyer. It ripped a hole 40 feet high and 40 feet wide, and killed 17 sailors.

It was the first time terrorists had attacked a U.S. Navy ship. The Cole commission headed by Gehman said in its report in January 2001 that the bombers had found a "seam in the fabric" of the Navy's system of self-protection.

Gehman later said his commission found troubling patterns to terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad. He warned that far more intelligence resources were needed to combat terrorism activities, noting, "The intelligence community has shifted its resources from its Cold War missions to its post-Cold War missions, but only at the margins."

A naval officer describes retired Adm. Harold H. Gehman Jr., who will lead the Columbia investigation, as a "solid, unflappable guy."