Past Confirmation Questions Shadow Gates' Hearing

The confirmation hearing for Robert Gates takes place Tuesday. He is nominated to be the next U.S. Secretary of Defense. The hearings are expected to focus on Iraq. But questions remain from Gates' tenure at the CIA.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: He's going to do an excellent job for us.

INSKEEP: That's President Bush's assessment today of his nominee for defense secretary. Before he can start that job, though, senators decide if they agree. Robert Gates testifies before a Senate committee today, and if confirmed he would take over management of the war in Iraq. The new nominee must be hoping that his confirmation hearings go better than in the past.

Nineteen years ago, another Gates nomination failed because of questions about his ties to the Iran-Contra affair. Later, he became CIA director but only over the opposition of many Democrats. This time around, Gates is expected to have an easier time, though lawmakers say there could be an echo or two of the past.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Robert Gates' 1991 confirmation hearings with the Senate Intelligence Committee were an ordeal. They dragged on for 10 days with a parade of witnesses. Today's hearing, though, is likely to be over by tonight with only Gates in the hot seat. John Warner, the Republican chairing the hearing, declared the day Gates was nominated that the president had chosen wisely.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): I'm certain that Gates will come in with some own - his own ideas, new ideas, new initiatives, and I think the Congress, certainly speaking for myself, will give him a lot of respect.

WELNA: Gates later met privately with Warner and had this to say afterwards.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (Defense Secretary Nominee): I look forward to the confirmation hearings, and if I am confirmed I look forward to working with Senator Warner. And clearly one of the highest priorities, if not the highest priority, will be looking at the situation in Iraq.

WELNA: For the Senate's top Democrat, incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid, the highest priority right now it would seem is to get Secretary Rumsfeld out. After a meeting with Gates, Reid told reporters that unless something untoward unexpectedly comes up, Gates should be confirmed as defense secretary.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): It's in our interest to have this change at the head of the Defense Department as soon as possible.

WELNA: When Gates sought Senate confirmation 15 years ago, things were also supposed to go smoothly. They didn't. At the time, Marvin Ott of the National War College was a staff member of the intelligence panel who lined up that hearing's witnesses.

Professor MARVIN OTT (National Security Policy, National War College): This was seen as an opportunity not to defeat Gates as a nominee but to force, basically, the CIA to come clean on Iran-Contra and just to lay down on for public record what exactly had happened.

WELNA: There were questions about Gates' knowledge of Iran-Contra, but the hearings got much hotter when some of Gates' CIA colleagues accused him of politicizing intelligence reports on the former Soviet Union. Most surprising was testimony from Harold Ford who, at the CIA, had been one of Gates' protégées.

Mr. HAROLD FORD (Former CIA Official): Many will share my view that Bob Gates has often depended too much on his own individual analytic judgments and has ignored or scorned the views of others whose assessments did not accord with his own.

WELNA: And CIA Soviet expert Melvin Goodman told the panel Gates had pushed analysts to come up with conclusions sought by then-CIA director William Casey.

Mr. MELVIN GOODMAN (Former CIA Analyst): At one point in these deliberations Bob Gates says, this is the paper that Casey wants, and this is the paper that Casey is going to get.

WELNA: Former CIA Soviet Analyst Jennifer Glaudemans also pointed a finger at Gates. Ms. JENNIFER GLAUDEMANS (Former CIA Analyst): I take no satisfaction in sharing with you the basis of my conviction that Mr. Gates politicized intelligence analysis and is responsible for an overall degradation of the analytical process.

WELNA: Gates was left with no choice but to go back before the Senate panel and deny he politicized intelligence.

Mr. GATES: We were wrong at times, but our judgments were honest and unaffected by a desire to please or to slant. I was demanding and blunt, probably sometimes too much so. I'm open to argumentation, and there was a lot of that. And I never distorted intelligence to support policy or to please a policymaker.

WELNA: Thirty-one Democrats voted against confirming Gates. A dozen are still senators, including incoming Armed Services chairman Carl Levin. He says he wants now to be sure Gates speaks truth to power. Gates' role in the Iran-Contra Affair is no longer, for Levin, a big deal.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): I'm more interested in what's happened in the last 15 years than I am to revisit that; other than to ask the question, which I think is a very fair question, whether he has any further thoughts on his lack of memory to question after question after question.

WELNA: Still, not one Senate Democrat has signaled any intention to oppose Gates. He's expected to be confirmed by the end of the week.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: And you can hear live coverage of the Gates confirmation hearing at our Web site, NPR.org.

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