WASHINGTON -- If intelligence were the sole qualification to become the director of the CIA, Robert M. Gates would be a shoo-in.
Praise cascades from men who worked beside Mr. Gates at the agency.
"He's got an incredibly good mind," said Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, the CIA's deputy director in 1981 and 1982. "He's a sponge."
John McMahon, deputy director from 1982 to 1986, said, "I can't think of a candidate better attuned to the intelligence needs" of the nation.
Ed Juchniewicz, deputy director for covert operations from 1982 to 1986, said, "He's the best guy for the job at this time. Bob understands the CIA."
But Mr. Gates' character is something of an enigma, even to old colleagues, and certainly to the public.
Beginning tomorrow, the professional keeper of secrets must undergo the Washington ritual of public disclosure. Mr. Gates will sit under bright lights in a crowded hearing room and answer the questions of 15 senators who can make him chief of the U.S. intelligence community.
At 47, the Kansan has spent more than half of his life in the intelligence world. He made his name as a senior Soviet analyst, not a secret agent, and has never been involved in a covert operation overseas.
His assessments of the Soviet Union were consistently pessimistic throughout the ups and downs of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms.
"Intelligence looks at the world through a unique and gloomy prism," Mr. Gates said in a 1988 speech to retired CIA officers. "Indeed, it has been said that when an intelligence officer smells flowers, he looks around for a coffin.
"It is not our job in intelligence to be professional curmudgeons. But it is our job to look behind the facade -- the headlines -- and to try to discern reality."
Most of the headlines about Mr. Gates have concerned what went on at the CIA when he was its second-in-command in 1986: the Iran-contra affair, in which weapons were illegally purchased for the Nicaraguan contras with profits from a secret sale of weapons to Iran. The unsolved mysteries of that fiasco still haunt Mr. Gates and preoccupy a team of federal prosecutors.
Investigators of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence have found no smoking gun, but Mr. Gates remains a subject of the Iran-contra criminal investigation, under scrutiny but unlikely to be indicted.
Fallout from the Iran-contra scandal ended Mr. Gates' first bid to become CIA director.
In February 1987, amid the furor over the secret White House schemes, President Ronald Reagan nominated Mr. Gates to head the CIA. Mr. Gates withdrew in the face of the questions about his role in the scandal. He returned to the CIA as deputy director, then joined President Bush's national security team in 1989.
His unresolved status in that controversy leaves at least one member of the intelligence committee wary. "I am concerned, make no bones about it," Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, said last week.
As a result, a nervous anticipation surrounds Mr. Gates' nomination. The intelligence committee members want his promise that under him the CIA would not burn them with lies and cover stories, that he would be an honest broker of intelligence and that he knows where he wants to steer the machine of U.S. espionage.
The director of central intelligence runs the CIA and is the titular head of all 12 U.S. intelligence agencies, which together have a budget of about $30 billion a year. The director is, first and foremost, the president's chief intelligence officer, and President Bush, who was CIA director 15 years ago, loves secret intelligence.
Mr. Bush is also fond of Mr. Gates, his deputy national security adviser since 1989, and has all but demanded his immediate confirmation.
Mr. Gates has served many masters of many ideologies in the U.S. intelligence community since 1966, and by most accounts he has served them well.
A criticism sure to be leveled at Mr. Gates concerns one of the most important documents produced while Mr. Gates was the premier Soviet analyst, the Soviet estimate. The CIA consistently overestimated the strength of the Soviet economy.
"We extrapolated totally false images of the strength, vibrancy and well-being of the Soviet state, never knowing how deep and broad the rot was," said Mark Lowenthal, a senior Soviet analyst at the State Department under Mr. Reagan. "Our major preoccupation for 40 years was wrong."