WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT BUSH, known through most of his career as super-cautious politician, is taking a political gamble in his nomination of Robert M. Gates to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Gates was deputy director during the Iran-contra affair and the appointment invites a reopening of questions on it. It also suggests on the surface that Bush has nothing to fear from further inquiries on his role that have plagued him ever since the fiasco was first disclosed in 1986.
But congressional inquiries can become fishing expeditions. And the recent spate of allegations that the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 may have cut a deal with Iran to delay release of American hostages until after the election has already inspired some in Congress to call for an investigation.
There is no reason to believe that Gates, who was at the CIA during that campaign without any known connection with the Reagan-Bush campaign, could have had anything to do with any such plot, had it happened. But as deputy director of the CIA at the time of the Reagan-directed arms sales to Iran and underwriting of the contras with proceeds, he did have something to answer for.
In testimony before Congress on his role in that affair, Gates ran into stormy weather. He basically said then that he didn't know much and didn't ask questions because he didn't want to know about something that should not have been going on, and he was roundly criticized for saying so.
Gates contended that his boss at the time, William Casey, played his cards close to his vest and never really let him in on what was happening. But it came out later that Gates had a hand in shaping misleading testimony by Casey to Congress about when the CIA knew of the plans for an arms-for-hostages swap.
In 1987, when President Ronald Reagan nominated Gates to succeed the deceased Casey, questions of his earlier testimony were explored, and so much opposition was voiced to the nomination that Reagan finally withdrew it. Gates stayed on as deputy director of the CIA until President-elect George Bush named him deputy national security adviser at the White House, a post that did not require Senate confirmation.
Bush apparently has received indications from Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that Gates should be confirmed without undue problems. Boren himself has expressed support, but others on the committee who were unhappy with Gates' earlier testimony, including Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, still serve on it and have said they want more answers.
A Senate Intelligence Committee spokesman says the confirmation hearings are not likely to start until next month, and in the current quiet political atmosphere in Washington, Gates' role in the Iran-contra affair is likely to get another going-over in the news media. Some Democrats, straining to find some way to bring the high-riding president down to earth, may be tempted to raise again questions of what Bush knew and when he knew it.
One of the toughest Republican interrogators during the Iran-contra hearings was Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, who is still on the intelligence committee. He says Gates' classified testimony should be declassified and "there is no question in my mind that Bob Gates was not involved in the Iranian arms sale, and that if he learned anything about it, it was very late."
As for President Bush, he did a very effective job of dodging on the Iran-contra affair during his successful presidential campaign 1988, while insisting he was answering all questions put to him. In the latest allegations about a deal to delay the release of hostages in 1988, he has flatly denied charges that he was in Paris about two weeks before the election trying to cut the deal with the Iranians. But the speculation that the Reagan-Bush campaign did try, whether Bush was in Paris or not, continues.
If Gates sails through his confirmation hearings after further questioning on Iran-contra, Bush will have another basis for claiming the whole matter is now behind the country, and him. If that happens, the Gates nomination will prove to be a smart political move beyond putting the CIA in the hands of an established intelligence professional.
But congressional investigations sometimes take on lives of their own, with unexpected consequences. The Democrats, still struggling to find a way to cut Bush down to size before the 1992 election, obviously hope so.