Secretary-Nominee Gates Has Critics and Fans

Once recognized as the preeminent intelligence expert on the Soviet Union, in 1991 Robert Gates saw many friends and subordinates testify against his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Many of them argued that Gates "cooked the books" when assessing the Soviet threat. But Gates is also highly regarded by others as a capable technocrat who gets the job done and doesn't play politics.

Gates Likely to Get Senate Nod, With Bruising

Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates (left) meets with Sen. Harry Reid

Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates (left) meets with Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) ahead of his Senate confirmation hearings. The former CIA director is expected to be approved as Donald Rumsfeld's replacement. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Written Responses to Senate

Gates provided written responses to a 65-page questionnaire from the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of his confirmation hearings. In it, he touches upon such subjects as failures in Pentagon planning after it invaded Iraq, engagement with Iran and the future of Afghanistan. Read the questionnaire. (PDF)

Who Is Robert Gates?

Gates is an old Washington hand with decades of experience in the intelligence community, at the CIA and National Security Council. He served in the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush, and is close to Bush family confidante James Baker. Read more about Gates' biography.

Past Senate Hearings

Full audio of Gates' 1987 and 1991 confirmation hearings before the Senate is available at 'the Robert Gates File,' at the National Security Archive Web site.

Former CIA Director Robert Gates is almost certain to win confirmation quickly as the next defense secretary, if for no other reason than that he isn't Donald Rumsfeld.

A pragmatic consensus-builder, Gates comes off in many ways as the opposite of the cantankerous Pentagon chief, who staunchly defended the Iraq war despite plunging public support.

That's not to say the confirmation process will be painless. When Gates goes before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday for a one-day hearing, his past will be probed. Questions about his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal scuttled his first nomination to head the CIA, in 1987. In 1991, he won confirmation, but not before getting roughed up in one of the most contentious Senate hearings in memory.

But this time around, his future is the most pressing concern: specifically, what Gates plans to do about the deteriorating situation in Iraq.

Here's a preview of issues expected to come up.

Issue: Iraq Policy

Committee members will press Gates on what changes he would make to U.S. strategy in Iraq. The latest indications of his views come from his written responses to an Armed Services panel questionnaire made public last week. In it, Gates faulted the Pentagon for failing to plan to secure Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. "With the advantages of hindsight," he said, "I might have done some things differently."

Still, Gates told the panel that he supported the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and that he believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or the ability to produce them. He called Saddam's regime "a dangerous and disruptive force in the region." Gates hinted that a speedy withdrawal now is not the best option: "I believe that leaving Iraq in chaos would have dangerous consequences, both in the region and globally for many years to come."

Until his nomination, Gates was a member of the Iraq Study Group, led by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and by former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton. Their final recommendations are expected this Wednesday. Given his ties to the group, it's expected that Gates will support its proposals.

Yet he seems to have pulled back a bit from one proposal likely to emerge from the panel: direct talks with Iraq's neighbors Iran and Syria. Two years ago, he co-led a Council on Foreign Relations committee that recommended direct, sustained engagement with Tehran. In his statement to the Senate panel, Gates says such engagement need not be bilateral, but could occur as part of a regional conference.

"In general, I believe no option that could potentially benefit U.S. policy should be off the table," he said. "Even in the worst days of the Cold War, the U.S. maintained a dialogue with the Soviet Union and China."

Issue: Slanting Intelligence for Ideological Reasons

In light of the flawed prewar intelligence that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq, senators are likely to revisit past charges that Gates slanted analyses for ideological reasons.

Former colleagues have accused Gates of withholding intelligence analyses on the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Nicaragua that did not support the views of key figures in the Reagan administration. An expert on the Soviet Union, Gates played a central role in CIA analysis during the Cold War years.

During his 1991 hearings, a number of analysts testified that Gates had intervened with their intelligence assessments. Gates said that he merely pushed analysts to improve the reporting that backed up their assessments. He denied tailoring intelligence to what policymakers wanted to hear. ''Sycophants can only rise to a certain level,'' Gates said in 1987. ''Senior officials understand that the most dangerous thing in the world is a yes man."

Issue: Iran-Contra

Questions about his integrity have dogged Gates since the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.

Gates was never accused of being a central player in the operation, in which the U.S. sold weapons to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the contra rebels in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, concerns about how much Gates knew about the scheme — and whether he helped CIA Director William Casey mislead Congress — forced him to withdraw his first nomination to head the spy agency, in 1987.

Gates claimed to know little about the Iran-Contra undertaking. At his 1991 hearing, he said he'd been misled: "I should have been more skeptical about what I was told. I should have asked more questions, and I should have been less satisfied with the answers I received, especially from Director Casey."

But at the same hearings, several officials testified they'd informed him of parts of the plan. Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor who investigated the scandal, called Gates "less than candid." In his final report, Walsh wrote that Gates learned of several key parts of the contra plan at a time when he could have put a stop to them but did not do so. But Walsh eventually cleared Gates of criminal wrongdoing.

Issue: Reining In the Pentagon's Intelligence Activities

Committee members want to know where Gates will come down in the long-simmering feud between the Pentagon and the CIA over who will control the nation's intelligence activities, in particular, human intelligence.

Gates is on record as opposing the Defense Department's expanding reach in intelligence operations. In May, Gates wrote in a Washington Post op-ed: "More than a few CIA veterans — including me — are unhappy about the dominance of the Defense Department in the intelligence arena and the decline in the CIA's central role."

When asked about these comments in the Senate panel questionnaire, Gates responded: "Clearly, if confirmed, this will be an area that I would look into."

Two years ago, intelligence reforms created a director of national intelligence, or DNI — a post now held by John Negroponte. That prompted the Pentagon to quietly ramp up its own spy activities. Among the changes: the creation of battlefield-intelligence units that work directly with Special Operations forces on counterterrorism missions. The Special Operations command reports directly to the defense secretary, bypassing Negroponte's authority.

CIA types see such moves as an erosion of the agency's traditional lead role in counterterrorism work. They also worry about the growing militarization of the nation's intelligence functions. And they're concerned that Pentagon activities could escape the strict congressional oversight required when intelligence agencies carry out such operations.

The Pentagon has denied doing anything illegal, or conducting operations without the knowledge of the CIA and Congress. A big question now is, might old CIA loyalties lead Gates to rein in Pentagon intelligence activities?

Gates, who initially opposed the creation of the DNI job, has already said he now sees the position as a key counterbalance to the Pentagon's intelligence activities.

Issue: Leadership Style

If confirmed, Gates will need to rebuild frayed ties between the civilian and military branches of the Pentagon. Senators will want to know whether he plans to stick with some of the institutional reforms undertaken by Rumsfeld. Gates' track record does not suggest a man prone to radical restructurings.

In a 2004 interview with NPR, Gates declared: "In public institutions, revolutionary change is almost always counter-productive. Figuring out what needs to be done, and then doing it, is challenge enough. Trying to start from scratch… is dangerous. And that kind of advice comes from people who have never run anything very large."

With additional reporting by Mary Louise Kelly.

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