Confirmation Hearings Begin for Robert Gates

Former CIA deputy director Robert Gates is President Bush's choice to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. His confirmation hearings in the Senate began today. Madeleine Brand talks to Guy Raz, who is reporting from the hearing.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca, sitting in for Alex Chadwick.

This week out of Washington, we'll hear what lawmakers want for Iraq.

Coming up on DAY TO DAY, what a father wants for the country where his son died fighting.

BRAND: First, to Washington, where Robert Gates was questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gates is President Bush's nominee to be the next defense secretary. He said the Pentagon's current Iraq strategy is not working.

Dr. ROBERT GATES (Nominee, United States Secretary of Defense; Former CIA Deputy Director): Our course over the next year or two will determine whether the American and Iraqi people and the next president of the United States will face a slowly but steadily improving situation in Iraq and in the region, or will face the very real risk and possible reality of a regional conflagration.

BRAND: NPR's Guy Raz is at the hearing.

Hi, Guy.

GUY RAZ: Hi, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, does this look like an easy confirmation for Gates?

RAZ: I think so. I mean, the Senate Armed Services Committee can be called an anybody but Rumsfeld crowd. And I think Robert Gates will walk out of this hearing room smiling - the chairman, the outgoing chairman of this committee, John Warner, the senator from Virginia, essentially suggesting to colleagues that they try to wrap it up by the end of the day.

And at one point, Senator John McCain, the Republican from Arizona, called Robert Gates' secretary, offering his congratulations and his condolences, which certainly got a chuckle out of the crowd there, because, of course, Robert Gates is taking on what is probably the most impossible job in Washington - if not in the United States today.

BRAND: Right. And that would be trying to figure out a new strategy for Iraq, and the focus of this hearing clearly on Iraq, and let's hear more of what Gates had to say.

Dr. GATES: So I guess the bottom line is that I believe that he wants me to take a fresh look, and that all options are on the table.

RAZ: Now, that is essentially the crux of what Gates was saying today - all options are on the table. He says he's open to every possibility. And in the next few days and weeks, he will be presented with some of those options. The Iraq Study Group is going to be presenting its findings. This is the study group chaired by the former Secretary of State James Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton - that bipartisan group.

They're going to be presenting their options and their suggestions for what should be done to regain the upper hand in Iraq - essentially, Gates today admitting that the United States is not winning in Iraq, which was an answer to a question posed in by Carl Levin, the senator from Michigan - Levin, essentially, saying look, I appreciate your candor, and I look forward to working with you. Levin, by the way, voted against Robert Gates in 1991 when Gates was up for the head of the CIA. Today, it seems fairly clear that Bob Gates is going to be confirmed by a majority, if not the entire Senate.

BRAND: And he was also questioned about whether or not he would be independent of the man who nominated him, President Bush. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts posed the question. And Gates said he wasn't going to be, quote, “a bump on a log.”

Dr. GATES: I intend to listen closely to people. I intend to draw my own conclusions, and I'll make my recommendations. But I can assure you that I don't owe anybody anything.

RAZ: And, essentially, the reason why he's saying that is because the underlying feeling among members of this committee is that Don Rumsfeld wasn't necessarily being given the right information by his generals, and perhaps, not really approaching the Iraq issue with a fresh eye.

And Robert Gates, at one point, even eluded to the tension, the ongoing tension between the State Department and the Defense Department - essentially saying look, you can't fight a war successfully if you have an interagency war in the United States.

So what he's basically trying to convey to this committee is that he is going to listen to the generals on the ground, the commanders. And he's going to give the president unvarnished advice about what to do in Iraq, which, essentially, today - he was admitting - is just simply not going well.

BRAND: NPR's Guy Raz, joining us from the Gates hearings in Washington.

Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: Thank you, Madeleine.

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Gates Likely to Get Senate Nod, With Bruising

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

hide captionDefense 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

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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