The Second Time Around for Bob Gates

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Robert Gates

Robert Gates, who begins his confirmation hearing Tuesday as President Bush's choice to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, is expected to have little trouble winning Senate approval. Even Democrats who have had issues with Gates in the past are anxious to begin course corrections in the Pentagon's troubled Iraq war strategy. And means the hearings will most likely be a far cry from the last ones Gates faced — when George Herbert Walker Bush picked Gates to be CIA director in 1991.

Gatess came to that hearing with baggage, having withdrawn his nomination to be CIA director four years earlier because of questions raised about his role in the Iran-contra affair. By 1991, the Berlin Wall had fallen, but Gates's nomination to be the nation's top spy reopened an intense debate that had been festering within U.S. intelligence since the dawn of the Cold War: How big a threat was the Soviet Union?

Ironically, his second nomination to be CIA director was almost sunk by the same accusation the current Bush administration has faced on Iraq — that intelligence was slanted to suit hard-line policies toward an enemy. During highly charged confirmation hearings in the fall of 1991, which were unprecedented for an agency that usually keeps its bureaucratic battles shrouded in secrecy, past and current CIA employees accused Gates of cooking the books on the Soviet threat. As then-Director William Casey's intelligence analysis chief and later deputy director in the 1980s, Gates had shaped intelligence reports to suit Casey's and Ronald Reagan's anti-Soviet agenda, agency critics charged.

The Defense Intelligence Agency under Reagan routinely inflated Soviet threat assessments to bolster the Pentagon's case for a military buildup. But a debate had been long running within the CIA's Office of Soviet Analysis (SOVA) over whether the Russian military was ahead of the U.S. Many CIA analysts were convinced Moscow was actually lagging behind. Melvin Goodman, a former division chief in SOVA, testified at Gates's hearing that "Casey seized on every opportunity to exaggerate the Soviet threat... Gates's role in this activity was to corrupt the process and the ethics of intelligence on all of these issues... He pandered to Casey's agenda." Goodman accused Gates of trying to change SOVA reports stating that the Soviet empire was in decline. Two other CIA analysts who were still in the agency at the time also sent in sworn affidavits to the Senate Intelligence Committee accusing Gates of politicizing intelligence.

Goodman also charged that Gates personally rewrote a 1985 CIA report on the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II so it would prove Casey's belief that Moscow was behind the shooting, even though agency analysts had no conclusive evidence establishing Soviet complicity in the plot. A later internal CIA review panel report concluded that there had in fact been "serious shortcomings" in how the reports were produced and charged that "alternate explanations" that disproved a Soviet conspiracy "were not adequately examined."

Gates had his defenders at the hearing, such as Lawrence Gershwin (the CIA's national intelligence officer for strategic programs) and Douglas MacEachin (head of the agency's arms control intelligence staff), who insisted that Gates never biased intelligence. Graham Fuller, a Gates colleague at the CIA, contended that many of the analysts in SOVA were themselves guilty of liberal bias, painting the Soviet Union as too benign, to compensate for Casey's conservative views. Gates's defenders, who also included then-Sen. Warren Rudman, claimed Gates was a victim of character assassination by the left. Armed with his own set of documents, an angry Gates marched into the committee room with a detailed 20-point rebuttal of the politicization charges. He accused critics from the agency of being malcontents who mistook professional editing of their reports for political pressure.

Gates also could be a ruthless manager, and he admitted during the hearing that in a popularity contest, "I sure as hell wouldn't win one at CIA." Gates's vigorous rebuttal saved his nomination, although 31 Democrats voted against him on the floor — an unprecedented number for a CIA nominee. But the Gates furor soon died down, and during his three years as CIA director he was widely praised inside and out of the agency for being an effective and fair manager. "I never saw him or anyone around him trying to cook the intelligence on Iraq," says Judith Yaphe, who served under Gates as the agency's senior analyst on Iraq and now teaches at the National Defense University. "Gates was just the opposite. You were told this is what we need and look ahead. I never was told what to write."

Goodman, who is now a senior fellow with the Center for International Policy, a foreign affairs think tank in Washington, says he was " shocked" when he learned of Gates's nomination to be defense chief. "He's a terrible micromanager and I just can't see him existing in that Pentagon structure." But Gates, 63, has won friends among both Republican and Democratic foreign policy gurus. "Bob Gates is a pragmatist and problem solver," says Richard Holbrooke, U.N. ambassador during the Clinton Administration.

Senate Democrats appear willing to let bygones be bygones. One of the senators who voted against Gates in 1991 was Carl Levin, who takes over as Armed Services Committee chairman next year. "Fifteen years have passed since that vote," Levin says. "I'm going to want to consider what his record has been since then — his thinking and writing since then. And I'm going to give it a fair and fresh look."

Only 10 senators who voted against Gates in 1991 remain in the Senate. And Democratic senators who weren't in the chamber back in 1991 don't seem inclined to dredge up an old dispute. "I've gotten to know him over the last several years," says Jack Reed, an influential Armed Services Committee member. "And he strikes me as someone who's a pragmatist. He strikes me also as somebody who will listen, particularly to the uniformed services. In that respect, he'll be a very pleasant change from Secretary Rumsfeld." —with reporting by Massimo Calabresi