As Senate hearings reopen this week on the nomination of Robert M. Gates as Director of Central Intelligence, troubling questions continue:
* How credible is the nominee when he claims he cannot remember conversations about the Iran-contra affair that are specifically recalled by close associates at the Central Intelligence Agency?
* How good is his judgment in light of his admitted failure to perceive weakness in the Soviet Union, his supposed area of expertise, and the way his anti-Communist zeal resulted in positions that were more advocacy than analysis?
* What about the integrity of the advice he gives the government when one considers the allegations of CIA insiders that during his tenure as deputy CIA director he slanted reports and analyses to conform to the political views of President Reagan and the late CIA chief, William J. Casey?
* What management skills will he bring to the huge $25-billion-a-year agency if there is any truth to charges that he damaged morale and created turmoil in the intelligence sector?
That Mr. Gates carries a lot of baggage in these four important categories -- credibility, judgment, integrity and management -- is hardly news to the White House or to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. When he was first nominated as DCI in 1987, his convenient bouts of amnesia about Iran-contra led to his withdrawal. Questions were also raised about the reliability and objectivity of the views he would advance at the highest level.
Yet George Bush, the ex-CIA director-turned president, has chosen Mr. Gates to head his old agency. The question is why? And the answer may lie in the description of Mr. Gates as the "quintessential staff person" by Intelligence Committee chairman David Boren, a Gates backer. For the past three years, Mr. Gates has been on the White House staff as assistant national security adviser. Obviously, the president is comfortable with him.
Perhaps Mr. Bush wants a "quintessential staff person" at the CIA so he can be sure his views for reshaping the post-Cold War agency to emphasize intelligence-gathering rather than operations will be obediently enforced.
Or perhaps, more unkindly, the president likes to stick it to Senate Democrats by offering top-level nominees who are hard to swallow. [Note continuing upset over the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.]
We have no doubt that Mr. Gates is a thoroughly trained professional who knows the ways of Washington and can be counted upon to protect himself, his agency and the White House.
What the Senate must decide is whether he is the right man to protect this country. We think not. With the collapse of Soviet power, the CIA can no longer trot out the Soviet bogyman on any occasion to justify dubious covert operations or imprudent uses of U.S. resources and prestige. It needs leadership in which intellectual depth, vision and honesty are beyond question.