WASHINGTON -- Robert M. Gates was regularly briefed in 1986 on Central Intelligence Agency efforts to assist the Nicaraguan contras by the CIA official who admitted last week that he joined in a cover-up of the Iran-contra scandal, according to a former agency official familiar with Mr. Gates' schedule.
The briefings, which numbered from three to seven over a six-month period, were said to focus on a legal and congressionally approved CIA program to assist the rebels, not on the separate, secret arms pipeline to the contras that was then being run from the White House by Oliver L. North.
The meetings nevertheless are the first indication that Mr. Gates, whose bid to head the CIA is imperiled by questions about his knowledge of the Iran-contra affair, dealt directly with the CIA official, Alan D. Fiers Jr. Mr. Fiers headed an agency task force that oversaw authorized aid to the contras, but he also knew in detail about Mr. North's secret efforts.
The meetings also add to a growing body of circumstantial evidence suggesting that Mr. Gates may have been more knowledgeable about the CIA's contra programs than he has portrayed himself to be.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has delayed confirmation hearings into Mr. Gates' nomination to be CIA director until mid-September, pending further investigation into his role in the Iran-contra case.
The disclosure of meetings between Mr. Gates and Mr. Fiers complicates Mr. Gates' position with the committee. To sustain his contention that he had only glancing knowledge of Mr. North's activities, Mr. Gates may now have to show that his conversations with Mr. Fiers about CIA efforts to support the contras did not touch on Mr. North's unofficial operation.
Asked about Mr. Gates' meetings with Mr. Fiers, a White House spokeswoman issued the following statement last night: "The president selected Bob Gates to be his nominee. He knows Bob Gates, has full confidence in him and knows that he is a man of integrity."
A Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said later that Mr. Gates and Mr. Fiers discussed the CIA's plans to resume military aid to the contras later that year, after Congress passed legislation allotting the agency $100 million for arms and humanitarian goods for the rebels.
Mr. Gates was assigned to coordinate the resumption of military aid with senior officials of the State and Defense departments, that official said, and was "totally focused" on that role in his discussions with Mr. Fiers.
"The meetings were more future-oriented," the official said. "They had nothing to do whatsoever with the contra diversion."
According to the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Mr. Gates sought the briefings after becoming CIA deputy director in April 1986. They took place when Congress was preparing to lift a two-year ban on U.S. military assistance to the contras and Mr. Fiers was gearing up the CIA machinery to resume aid to the rebel forces.