WASHINGTON – When Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee for defense secretary, sits before the Senate at his confirmation hearing next week, he is sure to confront some ghosts from his confirmation 15 years ago, before he became the director of the CIA.
Those hearings were some of the most controversial in the spy agency's history, say participants and historians familiar with the events.
The Senate Armed Services Committee will begin holding hearings Tuesday and lawmakers say they hope to recommend him quickly to the full Senate for a vote by Christmas. Gates would replace retiring Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's sole defense secretary during the president's nearly six years in office.
Gates appears to carry strong support in the Senate, with North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan offering qualified support for the nominee on Thursday.
"Mr. Gates has a distinguished record, having previously served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. His confirmation could mean a crucial turning point for our current situation in Iraq," Dorgan said. "Although I will want to see what the Senate hearing discloses, unless something unusual arises I am inclined to support the Gates nomination."
Gates critics say they hope the panel's senators will grill him on his tenure as deputy CIA director during the 1980s. While most people expect he will be asked about his role in the Iran-Contra affair, for which he was cleared of any wrongdoing, questions about whether he politicized intelligence to fit the Reagan administration's global outlook are sure to be aired.
"I suspect that politicization will be the bigger issue because of the issue of pre-war intelligence in the Iraq war and the sensitivity of that right now," said John Prados, a senior fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which just released a load of declassified documents from the Gates era at the CIA.
Gates' first nomination in 1986 to lead the CIA was derailed because of his closeness to the ongoing Iran-Contra affair. The scandal involved a covert White House operation that diverted proceeds from secret weapons sales to Iran to the Contras, Nicaraguan rebels who were fighting to take down the socialist government there.
Gates withdrew his nomination amid questions over whether he was aware of the secret transactions. An independent counsel eventually cleared him of any involvement. But critics say while Gates was cleared of direct involvement in Iran-Contra, he was part of an ideological drumbeat that wrongly insisted that without U.S involvement, Central America would fall to the influence of Communist Cuba and the Soviets.
A trail of former CIA analysts also testified in his 1991 confirmation hearing, which led to his successful appointment to be CIA director, that their former boss had intervened upon and shaped a series of National Intelligence Estimates to portray the threat of the then-Soviet Union as greater and more menacing than it really was.
While many analysts during the mid-1980s could see the collapse of the communist regime coming, the public line crafted by Gates told the opposite story, say critics like Mel Goodman, a former analyst who testified during those hearings 15 years ago.
"Essentially, they are real concerns and they are well documented," he said in an interview. He said Gates was responsible for steering bad reports regarding a Soviet-backed plot to kill the pope, Iranian terrorism and the Soviet missile defense program. He said Gates was guided by what his bosses — President Reagan and former CIA Director William J. Casey — wanted to hear and a strong ideological agenda.
The ensuing result, said Prados, "is very definitely a connection with the CIA missing the fall of the Soviet Union."
Not everyone agrees. Like the many former analysts who came to his defense in 1991, Gates' supporters say he has not shaped evidence to fit his ideological will. He did push analysts to be more thorough and back up their claims more forcefully, they say. In those cases, their analyses did not stand up to such scrutiny, other times they did.
"That doesn’t mean he was forcing people to say what he wanted them to say," said John McLaughlin, who served as acting CIA director in 2004 and before that, deputy director. He served as director of European intelligence in the 1980s and early 1990s during much of Gates' tenure. He said Gates returned to the CIA after a stint at the National Security Council and let it be known he was not happy with the caliber of intelligence that had been going at the NSC.
"He sort of ripped into people when he got back and perhaps intimidated people," he said. "I think he was right to insist on a higher standard."
Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst and administration critic who was the anonymous author behind "Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror," said Gates was indeed "very demanding that agency people show him the evidence, he was very fact-oriented. He made a lot of enemies but I don't think he distorted intelligence."
McLaughlin said that while others felt Gates was "restrictive," that was not his experience with the former CIA head. "He said at one point, if you disagree with me on something, come and talk to me. I took him up on that."
He added that Gates disagreed on a number of his reviews. In arguing for his point, McLaughlin recalled, "Sometimes I would win, other times I would lose my point."
Still, others said whether they won their arguments or not, the final estimates did not reflect what analysts believed and that is what mattered.
"It was well known among analysts at the time that we would have a hard time getting Gates to sign off on analyses that did not fit his ideological preconceptions," Jennifer Glaudemans, a former CIA analyst who also testified against Gates in 1991, argued in a recent op-ed for The Los Angeles Times. She referred to a 1985 National Intelligence Estimate that said the Soviets were close to opening up a dialogue with the Iranians — the opposite of what her analysis had contributed to the report.
She blamed Gates. "Despite overwhelming evidence, our analysis was suppressed," she wrote. "At the coordinating meeting, we were told that Gates wanted the language to stay in as it was."
Robert Steele, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer and clandestine case officer with the CIA during the 1980s and 1990s, called Gates "a professional panderer to presidents" who "manipulated the truth" for politics.
Despite these and other accusations, Gates, who currently is president of Texas A&M University, became a strong advocate for keeping politics out of intelligence and had placed the issue at the center of his agenda when he became director in 1991, say supporters. He helped declassify boxes of Cold War documents, particularly those relating to the Iran Contra scandal, and pushed to help analysts resist ideologically-driven analysis.
"I think Gates was thereby acknowledging that his problem existed and he was going to try and get a handle on it," said Prados, who recently authored "Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA." "In a way, he was acknowledging that he had been burned over the controversy of his (confirmation) hearings."
Tom Carroll, a former officer in the CIA clandestine service, called the charges of politicization "nonsense" and said they have been thoroughly rebutted.
"In my opinion, there is just nothing substantive there," he said. "Robert Gates is very professional, with a long record, a bright guy and an independent guy."