WASHINGTON -- President Bush's nominee for director of central intelligence said yesterday that he had made "misjudgments" and should have done more to find out about the Iran-contra scandal when he was deputy director of intelligence in 1986.
Robert M. Gates made the admissions in a carefully crafted, hand-written statement on the first day of his confirmation hearing before an unusually partisan Senate Select Intelligence Committee.
The admission, not of guilt but at worst of naivete, provided the highly regarded but controversial career intelligence analyst with an extra refuge from the probing questions of mainly Democratic senators who are skeptical of his claim that he knew nothing about the illegal funding of Nicaraguan contra rebels from the profits of arms sales to Iran until it was too late to do anything about it.
Questioned in detail on when and how he had come to learn of the Iran-contra diversion and the apparent involvement of top CIA officials, Mr. Gates maintained steadily that he had been kept in the dark by William J. Casey, then the CIA director.
He repeatedly denied knowledge of, or professed ignorance of, alleged events surrounding the illegal undercover operation.
Asked whether he had ever discussed Iran-contra with Richard Kerr, who was then CIA deputy intelligence director and who is now the agency's acting director, Mr. Gates replied: "I don't have a memory of it."
Mr. Kerr has told the committee that he recalls such a conversation, in August 1986 -- several weeks before Mr. Gates says he first heard of the affair. Mr. Kerr is scheduled to testify about it Thursday.
If Mr. Gates first heard of the Iran-contra dealings Oct. 1, 1986, as he said, why had he not pursued the matter, asked David L. Boren, D-Okla., the committee chairman.
"Again, Mr. Chairman, this is one of those areas where I might have acted more aggressively," Mr. Gates replied. He said he had been preoccupied at that time with other developments and, "frankly, I didn't pay much attention" to the Iran-contra events.
Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, noted that Mr. Gates could not remember well enough to answer 33 of the questions about Iran-contra that were put to him by the committee in a written questionnaire, and that he simply had not known answers to more than 40 other questions.
"You are a very intelligent man," Mr. Metzenbaum said. "Your failure to recall the answers to 33 questions posed to you by this committee, frankly, is not credible."
The 47-year-old Mr. Gates made similar statements when he testified in a confirmation hearing after President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the same position in 1987. The Iran-contra scandal was still unfolding at that time, and rather than face what was then a far more heated controversy, he withdrew from the nomination.
Regarded as one of the U.S. intelligence community's leading Sovietologists, Mr. Gates is President Bush's deputy national security adviser. The president nominated him in July to become the 15th director of central intelligence, to succeed the retired William H. Webster.
Some critics, notably Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., have accused Mr. Gates of having tailored his CIA reports to suit the conservative administration during the 1980s.
The committee, Mr. Bradley said, would try to establish whether Mr. Gates' "badly flawed" or exaggerated assessments of Soviet military and economic strength, Moscow's intentions in the Middle East and Iraq's military buildup were "isolated mistakes or part of a pattern."
Yesterday, Mr. Gates chose to acknowledge his mistakes. "Who would have thought just five years ago we would stand where we are today?" he asked. "Certainly not the intelligence analyst sitting before you today. Talk about humbling experiences."
Mr. Gates, in his opening statement, focused on a need to restructure the U.S. intelligence community to adjust to the monumental changes sweeping the world with the demise of communism.
Mr. Boren said he expected the hearing to continue into next week.
Mr. Gates is scheduled to complete his testimony today.