Gates: Less than the CIA Deserves

November 05, 1991

Now that the Senate Intelligence Committee has voted 11-4 to confirm Robert M. Gates as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, it seems likely the full Senate will concur today. If Mr. Gates knew more about the Iran-contra scandal than he confessed, if he slanted intelligence analysis to please his bosses in the Reagan administration, if he browbeat subordinates and undermined morale, apparently most senators don't want to know. They are learning the uses of "deniability," a field in which Mr. Gates is an expert.

One of the key votes in the Senate will be cast by Georgia's Sam Nunn, an influential member of the intelligence panel. In voting tentatively to confirm at committee level, Mr. Nunn came up with this Delphic utterance: "I have serious reservations, primarily about the signal being sent to the men and women in the intelligence community about how you get to the top in this town."

What "signal" did Senator Nunn have in mind? Is it a career-climber's willingness to kowtow to his superiors? That is an instinct hardly confined to the executive branch. Or is it something more specific -- Mr. Gates' success in cultivating key members of Congress, especially Sen. David Boren, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee?

It is no secret that Senator Boren worked hard to rehabilitate Mr. Gates after he chose to withdraw his first nomination to head the CIA four years ago because of unanswered questions about Iran-contra. The Oklahoma Democrat reportedly made sure Mr. Gates was included in select gatherings and met the best people. One of the reasons, aside from personal chemistry, may have been Mr. Gates' assiduity in briefing Senate and House intelligence panels on CIA activities. Mr. Boren felt he was being leveled with -- and said so. Four years ago, Mr. Gates described these efforts and commented that "Congress may actually have more influence today over the CIA's priorities and its allocation of resources than the executive branch."

Oh? That happened to be the time the late CIA chief William Casey and his sidekick, Oliver North, were misusing the CIA in the secret and illegal Iran-contra operation while Mr. Gates made it his business not to know -- and, consequently, not to have to inform Congress.

We have said before the CIA deserves better than Robert Gates. If that is not to be, we hope he proves our misgivings misplaced and provides his troubled agency with needed direction. Senator Boren maintains this will require "the most sweeping changes in the intelligence community since the CIA was created almost half-century ago."

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