Defense post could be test of CIA skills

Senators expected to press nominee Gates on Iraq war

December 04, 2006|By Siobhan Gorman | Siobhan Gorman,sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- During a 27-year career in government, Robert M. Gates earned a reputation for knowing exactly when and how to use the levers of power in Washington.

Those skills will be tested as never before if Gates, as expected, is confirmed soon as the next secretary of defense.

"He's got a honeymoon period, and he's going to have to make the most of it," said Amy Zegart, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who specializes in national security.

Gates, 63, is known as a consensus-builder and decisive leader, former colleagues say.

President Bush has summoned Gates, a former head of the Central Intelligence Agency, back to Washington to help chart a new military course in Iraq, a war that critics say the United States has already lost.

Democratic ferment to oust Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gates' strong bipartisan reputation virtually ensure swift Senate confirmation. This environment contrasts sharply with Gates' nomination as CIA director in 1987 and 1991, which featured bitter fights over the politicization of intelligence.

"I don't see obstacles" to Gates' confirmation, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island told reporters. He predicted that Gates is "going to make a conscious effort to reach across the aisle."

At tomorrow's confirmation hearing, senators are expected to press Gates to say whether the United States should set a deadline to withdraw from Iraq and whether Washington should seek assistance from Iraq's neighbors.

In written answers to questions from senators, Gates criticized the Pentagon's post-invasion planning and said he would keep an open mind about the way forward in Iraq.

"I might have done some things differently," he wrote, adding that he wants to improve the Pentagon's postwar planning capability.

He also said the U.S. should engage Iran and other countries.

On detainee treatment, he subtly echoed critics of Bush's aggressive interrogation policies. U.S treatment of detainees "may have a direct impact" on how captured U.S. soldiers are treated in the future, he said.

Gates joined the CIA as an entry-level analyst in 1966, and he did a two-year stint in the Air Force, starting in 1967. His skills were noticed early, winning him several assignments to coveted White House policy posts.

He served as a national security aide under Democratic and Republican presidents. In the administration of President George Bush, he was the top deputy to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, known for his pragmatic approach to foreign policy. Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state, worked for Gates as an adviser on Russia and Eastern Europe.

Gates became deputy CIA director in 1986, but his 1987 promotion to director was derailed by questions about his knowledge of the Iran-contra scandal.

Four years later, after months of debate over whether he was forthright when he told Congress he had limited knowledge of the Iran-contra deal, as well as charges that he politicized intelligence to overemphasize the Soviet threat, the Senate confirmed him as CIA director in 1991.

A deft bureaucratic infighter, Gates earned the trust of CIA co-workers, administration officials and members of Congress from both parties.

"We always as Democrats had an equal seat at the table, and he really tried to form a bipartisan consensus on very sensitive issues," said former Oklahoma Sen. David L. Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma and a friend of Gates'.

Gates was CIA director for only 14 months because he started at the end of George Bush's term. As a result, his tenure as director is largely remembered as incomplete. Some, like UCLA's Zegart, worry that he'll face similar constraints during the final two years of Bush's term.

"He has a very narrow window," said John Gannon, a former senior CIA official. "It's going to depend on what the administration's comprehensive approach is to this. If they really do go for diplomacy, where they will engage with the Iranians, the Syrians, the Turks, I think there is a potential that you could stabilize the situation."

For the past four years, Gates has served as president of Texas A&M University, where he has built a reputation as an aggressive reformer. He is credited with persuading a tradition-steeped campus to embrace a more diverse student body and has elevated the intellectual reputation of the school, said Douglas Slack, speaker of the faculty senate.

Slack said Gates has tackled issues large and small - from budget cuts to parking assignments - with a pragmatic approach that won over critics.

However, he still has detractors in Washington. One is Harold P. Ford, a former senior CIA analyst who, along with several others, testified that Gates colored reports with his anti-Soviet bias, concluding incorrectly that Soviets were involved in a 1985 papal assassination attempt or building up connections between the Soviet Union and Iran.

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