New York -- UNTIL LAST week, the national security club closed ranks behind Bob Gates' quest to be the top spymaster, some actively and most by public silence.
Hardly anyone wanted to oppose a man so personally bonded to George Bush, a president known to settle personal scores. Neither was anyone eager to lock horns with a man still likely to be the next director of Central Intelligence and the chief keeper of information coveted by club members.
Now, however, the Senate Intelligence Committee (a key part of the club) has no choice but to get tough about the Gates nomination. Its hand has been forced by an alliance between Sen. Bill Bradley and CIA analysts who are evening scores with their former boss.
The analysts started feeding the New Jersey Democrat evidence that Gates slanted intelligence reports to serve his political masters, a cardinal sin in an agency created to tell presidents not what they want to hear but what they must know -- like it or not.
But isn't this accusation a little pious and naive? Hasn't the CIA always cooked its supposedly objective books? Were agency distortions any different in the 1980s under William Casey and Gates? And what finally does this latest flap tell us about the suitability of Robert Gates to become the nation's master spy?
Not surprisingly, CIA leaders and analysts have never been policy virgins. They all have their beliefs about what policy should be, and they all respond to bureaucratic and political pressures. Remember how the agency misled President Kennedy over the Bay of Pigs invasion?
Still, official Washington largely regarded the CIA as an institution that could be trusted most of the time when it came to intelligence estimates or evaluations of situations -- until the Casey era.
Bill Casey was more than President Reagan's spymaster; he was an acknowledged policy maker. And the old political infighter knew how to play the policy game. He knew the strength of policy proposals backed by CIA judgments. He understood the public vulnerability of a policy out of sync with intelligence reports.
Intelligence, information, facts provide power, and Bill Casey used that power to back his own views -- way beyond past agency practice and to the point of corrupting the process of making intelligence judgments. There is compelling evidence now to suggest Bob Gates at times fell or jumped into this vortex. Some examples:
In 1984 Gates wrote a memo calling for the U.S. to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. This clearly exceeded his CIA duties and is an indisputable and inappropriate piece of policy advocacy.
So was the intelligence estimate he rammed through the bureaucracy in 1985 saying that Moscow was gaining a foothold in Iran, and that the Ayatollah Khomeini's regime was about to collapse. Almost all the CIA's information pointed in the other direction. But Gates seemed hell bent to produce a report that would support secret White House/Casey plans to sell arms to Iran.
Just as worrisome was Gates' personal crusade (shared by Casey) to convince the world that the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev was as bad as ever and was not undergoing revolutionary democratic change. This showed courage in going against the views of Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker, but it demonstrated an enormous blind spot about the world emerging in the 1980s.
Such blinders and the newly presented record of occasional but critical intelligence distortions will force senators to look again at Gates. They can no longer ignore their own deep suspicions that he knew much more about the illegal Iran-Contra scheme than he admits remembering.
They can no longer fail to see that at the very moment when the CIA needs to be thoroughly ventilated and revamped, Gates would return to it as an expert on the old Cold War Soviet Union, a man of the past, suspect, damaged.
People are what they were. Gates' performance as a manager of intelligence did not sparkle with nobility and fairness. But he was and is a first-rate policy organizer and bureaucratic ramrod. He would serve the nation very well in his present post as the deputy national security adviser to Bush -- but not as CIA director.
Leslie H. Gelb writes on foreign affairs for the New York Times.