Defense nominee facing a world of hurt

November 19, 2006|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON --Since 1993, when Robert M. Gates left Washington after completing 14 months as head of the CIA saying it was "time to get a life," he has recalled the capital's clashing egos and the news media's magnifying glass less than fondly.

Gates has kept his distance, first living in Seattle, then serving as president of Texas A&M University. He has recalled the public battering he took in two Senate confirmation hearings as "unpredictable, frustrating, exhausting, insulting, humiliating" -- in short, "a lot like a root canal."

Well, welcome back to the dentist's chair, Mr. Gates.

Nominated by President Bush to replace Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary, Gates, if he is confirmed as expected, will face challenges that dwarf even those he saw in the tumultuous last years of the Cold War. With troops stretched thin and with no Pentagon experience, Gates will search for answers to the bloody civil strife in Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism.

"Things are so difficult and so complicated, it may be beyond anyone's ability to be successful," said Brent Scowcroft, a mentor and admirer of Gates. "I think he's crazy to take the job," said Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President George Bush, "and I'm very glad he's doing it."

A Kansas native, Gates put himself through college as a grain inspector and school bus driver. He was an Eagle Scout who still serves in national scouting posts.

Robert D. Blackwill, a veteran diplomat who was a National Security Council colleague, calls him "an utterly honorable person."

Such praise notwithstanding, Gates' government service survived two episodes in which his professional ethics were challenged. First, his truthfulness came under question in the Iran-contra affair, derailing his 1987 nomination to head the CIA.

A special prosecutor, Lawrence E. Walsh, found Gates' statements "less than candid" and wrote in his final report that he did not bring criminal charges only because "a jury could find the evidence left a reasonable doubt that Gates either obstructed official inquiries or that his two demonstrably incorrect statements were deliberate lies."

In the second episode, Gates was accused by several former CIA subordinates in 1991 of politicizing intelligence by tailoring reports on the Soviet Union to fit his and his bosses' hard-line views.

He was confirmed, but 31 senators voted against him, the highest tally against any nominee for the job.

"Congress owes it to the American people to ask: Has this man learned a lesson?" said Jennifer L. Glaudemans, who as a CIA analyst testified against Gates in 1991.

Gates' backers say the accusations came from disgruntled analysts.

"I think it's an extraordinary example of his patriotism," Blackwill said, "that he's willing to give up a job he loves and get back in the Washington cauldron."

In his early career, Gates' confidence in his own skills and views attracted the attention of William Casey, who was director of Central Intelligence under President Ronald Reagan. In 1983, Casey promoted Gates over more experienced analysts to the post of deputy director for intelligence.

Richard J. Kerr, a veteran analyst who later served as Gates' deputy, said the politicization charges that followed were unfair.

"Analysis had become lax and sloppy, and Bob set out to change that," Kerr said. "And some analysts looked at the Soviets and saw a glass half full. Bob always saw it as half empty."

Glaudemans, however, insists that Gates rejected reports on subjects that included the Soviet role in terrorism and Soviet influence on Iran that did not fit his preconceptions.

"Gates was a brutal manager to people who stood up to him and Casey," said Glaudemans, who left the CIA and is now a lawyer.

When Casey died, Reagan nominated Gates. But when some Democratic senators doubted Gates' insistence that he knew nothing about secret arms sales to Iran and diversion of the proceeds to help the contra rebels, he withdrew his nomination.

The elder Bush named Gates as Scowcroft's deputy in 1989 and for a second time as director of Central Intelligence in 1991.

Condoleezza Rice, the current secretary of state who had worked closely with Gates on the NSC staff, went on television during the hearings to defend him. "This is a man of tremendous integrity," said Rice, who had returned to the Stanford faculty.

A few months after taking the CIA helm, Gates gathered the employees to speak about the dangers of politicizing intelligence.

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