WASHINGTON (AP) -- Robert Gates, President Bush's nominee to head the CIA, ran into renewed criticism today over his failure to pursue suspicions about the Iran-contra affair when he first became aware of it in 1986.
Citing past testimony from Gates that the nominee's first reaction was to ignore the information, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, said, "Mr. Gates, that blows my mind."
Metzenbaum, questioning Gates in the second day of his confirmation hearings, called him the "see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil" nominee who was seeking to preserve his career by not making waves.
Gates said he regretted saying in 1987 that he had not pursued more information of the affair when he learned of it on Oct. 1, 1986.
Metzenbaum asked why Gates should be confirmed. "What is the magical transformation that has taken place in Robert Gates?" he asked. Gates responded that "the record is clear that learned [lessons] immediately."
Today's hearing opened with a charge from Metzenbaum that Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee are bent on confirming Gates without regard to his record on Iran-contra.
"It's now turned into a political confirmation hearing, where none of the Republicans seem to be interested in hearing the questions or the answers," he said.
Metzenbaum referred to his questioning of Gates late yesterday, which was interrupted repeatedly by Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., who argued on Gates' behalf.
When Metzenbaum made a similar charge as the hearing opened today, Rudman bristled. "I resent being told I am sitting here as a political pawn of anybody," he said.
But Metzenbaum said he remained unconvinced of Gates' fitness for the job. "It's just impossible to believe that this man was so close to what was going on [in Iran-contra] and he didn't know. It's just not credible."
Gates breezed through his first day of hearings yesterday, shielded in part by an admission that he had used poor judgment in some of his handling of the affair.
Metzenbaum, however, termed the mea culpa "a confirmation conversion" meant to disarm his opponents.
Gates, now Bush's deputy national security adviser, began his testimony yesterday with an admission "about the misjudgments that I made and the lessons I learned," from the covert program to sell arms to Iran and aid Nicaragua's contra rebels.
He conceded that as the CIA's No. 2 official in 1986, he should have taken more seriously the first indications he heard that money was being diverted to the contras; pressed harder to get the full truth from then-CIA Director William Casey; and sought to inform Congress about the affair.
The admissions seemed to be just what many senators on the intelligence panel wanted to hear. And they were a marked contrast to Gates' testimony in 1987, when he stubbornly denied wrongdoing and eventually was forced to withdraw as President Reagan's nominee for CIA director.