Gates long a part of Bush inner circle

Defense nominee cautioned elder Bush not to press toward Baghdad in 1992

Rumsfeld Resigns

November 09, 2006|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- In turning to former CIA Director Robert M. Gates to take the reins at the Pentagon, President Bush taps a low-key loyalist who is in many ways the opposite of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

While Rumsfeld often seemed bent on running roughshod over the Pentagon brass, Gates is described by longtime associates as collegial and a consensus-builder.

If Rumsfeld had little regard for the elder Bush and for many of his pragmatic security advisers, including Brent Scowcroft, Gates was part of that Bush inner circle. He remains close not only to Scowcroft but to other Rumsfeld rivals, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rumsfeld placed little trust in intelligence agencies and pushed the military to encroach on their turf. Now, in a remarkable turning of the tables, a 27-year veteran of the CIA and the National Security Council is poised to take charge of the military.

Democrats praised Gates' nomination, hoping for a less combative Pentagon chief. But Gates has proven controversial in the past; he was forced to withdraw from his first nomination as CIA director before winning a split-vote confirmation four years later.

Across the national security community yesterday, the contrasts between Gates and Rumsfeld were a topic of conversation.

Rumsfeld "is a guy who is kind of burdened with his own certitude at times," said John Gannon, a former high-ranking CIA official who worked with both Rumsfeld and Gates. "That is not Bob Gates. He came out of an analytic culture where listening to the ideas of others and questioning your own assumptions is part of the tradecraft."

In announcing the changes yesterday, Bush praised Gates' experience but also made clear that he expects the nominee to find fresh approaches in Iraq that seemed to elude Rumsfeld's more insular team.

"He's a steady, solid leader who can help make the necessary adjustments in our approach to meet our current challenges," Bush said.

Gates is a member of a White House panel led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton that has been charged with developing an array of alternatives to the foundering Bush Iraq policies. Gates recently traveled to Iraq as part of that team, according to the White House, and met with Iraqi leaders and U.S. military commanders.

If confirmed, Gates will be put in charge of finding a way out of a war that he might never have started in the first place.

While Rumsfeld was a leading advocate for invading Iraq in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks -- part of an ideological team that regarded deposing Saddam Hussein as unfinished business -- Gates was among those who cautioned the first President Bush not to press toward Baghdad after expelling the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1992.

Gates, 63, started out at the CIA fresh out of college as a Soviet analyst; he is the only agency officer to rise through the analytic ranks to take the top job. He served as CIA director under President George H.W. Bush for little more than a year before Bill Clinton was elected president.

Gates, who has been president of Texas A&M University since 2002, is not without detractors. He was first nominated to be CIA director by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 but withdrew under intense congressional opposition. Gates was considered too closely tied to the Iran-contra scandal, which had been engineered by former CIA Director William J. Casey while Gates was his deputy.

Rather than taking the helm at the CIA, Gates joined the National Security Council staff at the White House, where he made lasting connections with Scowcroft and Rice.

After the Iran-contra scandal had faded, Gates was nominated to be CIA director again, this time by President George H.W. Bush. His 1991 confirmation again turned into a battle. Gates was accused of politicizing intelligence -- a charge that has been repeatedly aimed at the White House of George W. Bush. Agency analysts testified that he was heavy-handed in seeking to influence assessments of the Soviet Union. He was later accused of failing to anticipate that communist regime's collapse.

Gates was confirmed, but his margin of approval -- 64-31 -- represented the largest expression of Senate opposition to a nominee for intelligence director.

One of Gates' first initiatives as director was to confront perceptions that intelligence had been politicized within the agency. He appointed a task force on "analytic objectivity" and implemented all of its recommendations.

While CIA director, Gates became embroiled in a controversy over a probe of questionable financial dealings between a U.S. branch of an Italian government-owned bank and the Iraqi government in the years before the 1991 Persian Gulf war. A Senate Intelligence Committee faulted CIA and Justice Department officials but found no criminal wrongdoing.

There were indications yesterday that Gates, who has spurned previous invitations to join the current Bush administration, might escape opposition to his nomination to lead the Pentagon.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the nomination suggested that Bush is "searching for a realistic and pragmatic approach in Iraq and the war on terror, rather than continuing on a course driven by ideology."

Rep. Jane Harman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, noted that while he was CIA director, Gates gave a speech in which he stressed that "national security professionals were duty-bound to speak truth to power."

Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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