WASHINGTON -- The CIA may have illegally provided intelligence and military aid to Iraq in the mid-1980s when Robert M. Gates was second-in-command, Sen. Bill Bradley and aides said as confirmation hearings on President Bush's nominee to head the agency continued yesterday.
The prospect of new disclosures about CIA impropriety, which one official said went beyond published accounts of the Iran-contra affair, emerged on the second and more intense day of the hearings.
Democratic members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence attacked both the integrity and professional competence of Mr. Gates.
At the same time, Republican members rallied to his support, in what observers said was an unusual show of partisanship.
Despite the divisions, the 47-year-old career intelligence analyst, President Bush's deputy national security adviser, seemed destined for confirmation. Aides said his willingness to concede mistakes and his promise to reorganize the CIA appeared to have won him the support of most of the 15 panel members.
It was clear yesterday, however, that this would not happen without a fight.
The attack on Mr. Gates' professional conduct was led by Senator Bradley, D-N.J., who hammered at some of his intelligence analyses of the 1980s that seemed to exaggerate Soviet military capabilities and the Communists' aggressive intent.
Mr. Bradley also focused on Mr. Gates' knowledge of covert assistance to Iraq during its war with Iran and his allegedly hazy understanding of U.S. law permitting covert actions in foreign nations "solely for obtaining necessary intelligence," unless authorized by the president.
During a brief but intense period of questioning, Mr. Bradley asked Mr. Gates if he knew whether the CIA had undertaken any covert actions without presidential authorization, aside from the Iran-contra dealings in 1986. Mr. Gates replied that he did not.
As deputy director of intelligence, had Mr. Gates been responsible for carrying out the administration's policy of supporting Iraq militarily against Iran in the spring of 1986? Mr. Bradley asked.
"I certainly was aware of the passage or sharing of intelligence with Iraq," he replied.
Was it "solely for gathering intelligence" under the law?
"I think that, in the context of the broader liaison relationship, as that has traditionally been interpreted, that the materials that were provided fell within the context of the liaison relationship."
Did Mr. Gates know the details of the law?
"My understanding, senator, is that the law is fairly vague as it pertains to liaison relationships. The material provided to Iraq was allowed within the context of the law, and that -- "
At this point, committee Chairman David L. Boren, D-Okla., interrupted, warning that the questions were leading into classified areas.
Questioned by reporters afterward, Mr. Bradley said he was trying to find out whether the administration was able to show that "all and any activities with regard to Iraq were fully authorized."
A congressional aide involved in the hearing said that the evidence, still sketchy, suggested not one instance of impropriety but a general style of operating that may have contravened restrictions on CIA covert action during the time Mr. Gates was deputy director in 1986.
The hearings, which adjourned for Yom Kippur, continue tomorrow.