WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It surely embarrasses President Bush that Senate hearings on Robert M. Gates to be director of Central Intelligence have been delayed until at least mid-September. But the president acquiesced in the delay after it became apparent that Mr. Gates might get shot down early by testimony that he, the former deputy director of the CIA, lied to the Congress and the American people about his knowledge of a scheme to defy the Congress by selling arms to Iran and illegally diverting the profits to support military operations of the Nicaraguan rebels.
The delay in the hearings will afford senators time to do something long overdue: take special safeguards to ensure that the CIA does not become just a tool of a president, to be used and manipulated for domestic political gain. And to ensure that the CIA is never again the playground of rogue elephants who pursue their own foreign policy in contempt of strictures laid down by the Congress, showing disdain for a president such as Ronald Reagan, who didn't always know what was being done in his name.
We've heard enough about the Iran-Contra scandal to know that the late William Casey was Mr. Reagan's political mentor and protector long after he ceased being a campaign manager and took over the job of chief honcho of the intelligence community. No reasonable person can reject the evidence that Casey masterminded a scheme to sell arms to Iran to get funds for the illegal support of Nicaragua's rebels. Testimony by Alan D. Fiers has made it clear that the CIA withheld information and lied to the Congress about who in the agency was involved in the Iran-Contra plot.
The Senate has a right to determine whether Mr. Gates was part of the lying, or just a dupe of Casey above him and cloak-and-dagger employees below him, such as the CIA deputy for operations, Clair E. George, before it votes to confirm or reject Gates.
The Senate may properly wait to see whether it gets testimony of a credible nature about efforts by Casey, perhaps with the knowledge of Mr. Gates, to stall the release of American hostages in Iran until Messrs. Reagan and Bush could win the 1980 presidential election.
All this comes about at a time when thoughtful members of the Congress are asking about the need for and the role of a CIA in a post-Cold War world. The questions about Mr. Gates come at a time when American leaders are reassessing the role of ''intelligence'' in the conduct of foreign policy and of military operations around the world.
''Intelligence'' about what was going on in Vietnam led President Johnson to prolong and escalate a tragic war, even though Johnson was suspicious of the intelligence community. He once said to me, ''I trust this intelligence about as much as I'd trust a Fort Worth whore.''
The Pentagon has just made public a sort of retrospective of the Persian Gulf War, and one of the notable points is that there were serious failures in the intelligence field, not all of them attributable to the CIA by any means.
No president can be expected to nominate a director of Central Intelligence for whom he does not have great trust and confidence. But Mr. Bush has gone overboard in trying to bludgeon the Senate into rushing into a confirmation of Mr. Gates, who withdrew rather than face rejection four years ago. The Senate has a duty to determine whether Mr. Bush is propelled by good judgment or by the sort of political cronyism that gave us Bill Casey and caused Mr. Reagan and many other Americans so much grief.
Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.