The Spy Who Stayed in the Dark

May 17, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. For some reason President Bush wants to have a new CIA director who hovered around the edges of the Iran-contra scandal. As deputy director of the CIA, Robert Gates heard many allegations about the illegal activities of Col. Oliver North, yet pursued them so ineffectually that he could claim that he never caught on to North's activities, even when it was his assignment to collect the facts for Director William Casey to testify before Congress.

The confirmation committee should read Theodore Draper's stunning new book, ''A Very Thin Line.'' Mr. Gates is dealt with in a key sequence of that book, based on his own depositions and those of a CIA counterterrorism officer, Charles E. Allen. The book covers events of October 1986 that came up neither in the congressional investigation of Iran-contra nor in the trials of North and John Poindexter.

On October 1, Mr. Allen went to Mr. Gates with evidence that North and others were overcharging the Iranians for missiles and using the money for other purposes: in fact, Mr. Allen suspected, to resupply the contras. He re-creates Mr. Gates' reaction: ''He became very serious and said, 'Well, that would be a very serious thing. Operationally, you can't commingle two operations. You can't commingle this operation with our duties in Central America.' ''

Six days later Mr. Gates took Mr. Allen to Casey with the allegation that a diversion was taking place. Casey was calm but said investigations should be made. Yet when Mr. Gates and Casey had lunch with North two days later, he was not asked about it, even when North referred in passing to Swiss bank accounts.

Neither man showed any interest in this topic; but Mr. Gates says he later remarked to Casey: ''You know,he made some strange reference or whatever to Swiss bank accounts and the contras. Is there anything there that we should be worried about?'' That is a strange question for a man who is supposed to have been investigating the very subject. But Casey looked blank at this point and waved off the subject, which seems to have ended the matter for Mr. Gates.

After this, Mr. Gates watched North try to insert false information into the testimony he was preparing for Casey to give to Congress. He claims that he never sorted out what North was up to -- though that was, at several junctures, his job. An intelligence man who cannot figure out what his own government is doing right under his nose seems an odd person to rely on for finding out what is going on in distant and closed alien systems.

Why would President Bush want to risk any further trouble with the scandal he himself hovered near for so long, professing innocence of it despite his own past CIA interest, contacts and skills? We do not need a Gatesgate in our future. The Senate should make sure, by thorough questioning now, that we do not have one.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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