WASHINGTON -- President Bush chose Robert M. Gates yesterday to be his new director of central intelligence, despite controversy that remains over Mr. Gates' first bid for the job when questions from the Iran-contra scandal forced him to withdraw.
"No qualms at all," Mr. Bush said when a reporter asked whether he had any second thoughts about proposing his deputy national security adviser for the post William H. Webster vacated last week.
Announcing the nomination yesterday morning, the president told reporters he had consulted with the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will make the initial recommendation on Mr. Gates' appointment, and learned that "all is well."
Congressional comments later in the day supported the president's optimism, suggesting that the Senate -- following a bit of probing -- was likely to confirm Mr. Gates as CIA director.
"I'd say the initial reaction [in the Senate] is generally favorable," observed Sen. David L. Boren, D-Okla., the Intelligence Committee chairman, who vowed to conduct a "thorough" review of Mr. Gates' role in the Iran-contra scandal but voiced confidence that his nomination would go through.
The most negative comments of the day came from Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, who said he was "surprised and disappointed that President Bush has made such a controversial choice."
"I think there's enough that we ought to inquire about it," he said. "I want to know more of the facts."
But even Mr. Metzenbaum was not ready to say he would vote against the appointment, on which committee hearings are expected to begin next month.
Yesterday's announcement marks the second time Mr. Bush has promoted the 47-year-old career intelligence officer despite questions about what, if any, part he played in the Iran-contra affair. The first came when he made Mr. Gates his deputy national security adviser.
Mr. Gates was deputy director for intelligence at the CIA from 1982 to 1986 and deputy director of the agency when Director William J. Casey became incapacitated with a brain tumor in 1987.
At that time, charges were being leveled that President Ronal Reagan had agreed with Iranian leaders to an arms-for-hostages exchange and that profits from the arms deals had illegally been used to resupply U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels.
With Mr. Casey's sudden departure, Mr. Gates was left to answer those questions before the Senate Intelligence Committee. He found the task so frustrating that in February 1987 he withdrew his name from consideration as Mr. Casey's official successor, pre-empting what had seemed almost certain rejection.
"We found nothing, looking at that time, that was really disqualifying," said Mr. Boren, who served on the Senate panel that investigated the Iran-contra scandal. "Gates was used by Casey, and I think he was deliberately cut out of the loop.
"I don't think anybody at that particular moment in time who'd been in the agency would've escaped controversy," Mr. Boren added.
After Mr. Bush's election in 1988, Mr. Gates was named to the No. 2 post on the National Security Council staff, working closely inside the White House and helping to translate intelligence, defense and diplomatic information into policy on issues such as the Persian Gulf war.
Gates and the Iran-contra affair
Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee want to revisit several questions about Robert M. Gates' role in the Reagan administration's secret arms deal with Iran and diversion of the profits to the Nicaraguan contras:
* Did Mr. Gates -- the CIA's deputy director for intelligence at the time -- play a direct role in the affair, or was he kept largely in the dark by then-CIA Director William J. Casey?
* Did he deliberately help Mr. Casey and other senior officials mislead Congress and the American public about the illegal operation?
* When did he actually know about the diversion of proceeds from Iranian arms sales, and to what extent did he participate in efforts to cover up the activities?
When his first nomination as CIA director went to the Senate in 1987, Mr. Gates drew criticism from lawmakers who said he should have been more aggressive in informing Congress about the possible diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras. One senator remarked that Mr. Gates "didn't want to rock the boat."
At a hearing in February 1987, Mr. Gates told the Intelligence Committee that CIA officials tried to avoid learning about how the contras were being financed at a time when Congress had banned direct U.S. aid to them. Agency operatives were ordered not to have any contact with Americans seeking to help the rebels, he said.
"Agency people . . . from the director on down actively shunned information," he testified. "We didn't want to know how the contras were being funded, in part because we were concerned it would get us involved in crossing the line imposed by the law. And so we actively discouraged people from telling us things. We did not pursue lines of questioning."