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Senate Begins Confirmation Hearings for Gates as Defense Secretary

December 4, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Washington’s big week on Iraq. There’s the coming of the Baker-Hamilton study group report on Wednesday, and tomorrow’s confirmation hearing for defense secretary-nominee Robert Gates, accompanied by the ripples from a memo written by the man he would succeed, Donald Rumsfeld, and the ongoing violence and casualty reports from Iraq itself.

We begin with a look at Robert Gates, who’s been here before. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: He has my confidence and my trust. And he will be an outstanding secretary of defense.

KWAME HOLMAN: When President Bush nominated Robert Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld, he touted Gates in much the same way his father did in 1991, when Gates was his choice to run the CIA.

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Former President of the United States: … that this man has my full trust. He’s honest. He’s a man of total integrity.

KWAME HOLMAN: Robert Gates went on to direct central intelligence for the next two years, but not before and during a bruising confirmation fight in the Senate Intelligence Committee, where his trust and integrity both were questioned.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense-Designate: I don’t think it is unreasonable that somebody is not going to remember the details of a conversation that took place five or six years ago or even five or six weeks ago.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: … this is enormously important.

KWAME HOLMAN: As Gates prepares to return to the glare of the confirmation hearing spotlight tomorrow, two former committee members who vetted Gates 15 years ago recalled the hearing that left him looking like a competent but often abrasive manager.

FORMER SEN. WARREN RUDMAN (R), New Hampshire: They were some of the nastiest hearings that I participated in.

FORMER SEN. DENNIS DECONCINI (D), Arizona: It was a bad scene, and Gates was caught right in the middle.

1991 confirmation hearings

KWAME HOLMAN: In the fall of 1991, Republican Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and Democrat Dennis DeConcini of Arizona watched as Gates defended himself against two major charges: that he had lied to Congress in 1987 about his role in the Iran-Contra affair; and that he politicized intelligence to suit the policy agenda of the Reagan administration.

ROBERT GATES: I've watched, and listened, and read with some dismay, as well as some pain and anger, during recent days the discussion here of slanting intelligence.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the number-two man at the CIA in the mid-1980s Gates and his boss, Director William Casey, were among many senior Reagan administration officials caught up in the firestorm surrounding the Iran-Contra scandal.

While many were indicted and some even served jail time, Gates never was charged. He claimed to have no knowledge that funds from missile sales to Iran were being funneled secretly to the Nicaraguan Contras.

ROBERT GATES: I didn't know large elements of this.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Gates' recollections were tested on several occasions at the '91 hearings. Thomas Polgar, a highly decorated former CIA official who worked as an investigator for the Senate's Iran-Contra committee in 1987, insisted Gates covered up what he and his superiors knew.

THOMAS POLGAR, Former CIA Official: He was not only aware of Iran-Contra developments, but, in fact, had involvement with all these over several years, dating back to his duties as deputy director for intelligence.

KWAME HOLMAN: Former Senator DeConcini said Polgar had it right: Gates was not telling the whole truth.

DENNIS DECONCINI: I think he just wasn't totally transparent and fully disclosing everything that he knew. I've been through a lot of hearings, and when you're a witness and you're trying to protect something, you're going to really have a hard time.

KWAME HOLMAN: At the hearing, DeConcini pressed his case to Alan Fiers, the former chief of the CIA's Central American task force. Fiers previously had told authorities that he and other CIA officials knew about the covert operation to fund Nicaraguan rebels before the White House admitted it.

DENNIS DECONCINI: I'd like to have you refine, if you can, what is a little, from one to 10? Did he know one? Did he know anything?

ALAN FIERS, Former CIA Official: Well, he, clearly...

DENNIS DECONCINI: I gather he knew something in your judgment.

ALAN FIERS: In my judgment and to the best of my recollection, he knew something. He had a baseline of knowledge.

KWAME HOLMAN: But former Senator Rudman, who served as vice chairman of the Iran-Contra committee in 1987, took Gates at his word.

WARREN RUDMAN: I think he was candid, although, to be perfectly honest about it, it is quite conceivable that, like anyone else in this world, that there were things that occurred there that Bob Gates genuinely did not remember. I mean, I would give him that. I don't think Bob Gates deliberately misrepresented his recollection to that committee.

Gates' management challenged

KWAME HOLMAN: But as the hearings wore on for three weeks, other chapters in Gates' 26-year CIA career were questioned. One was the accusation by former analysts that he rewrote a 1985 memo to fit his own theory that the Soviets were involved in the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II, despite evidence to the contrary.

Former Soviet specialist Melvin Goodman worked under Gates.

MELVIN GOODMAN, Former CIA Official: There was pressure throughout to produce an assessment implicating the Soviets, pressure on me to do so, but the evidence wasn't there. The important thing here is that, when Gates received the assessment, he was not satisfied with it. In fact, the senior Soviet analyst told me that she tried her hardest to give Gates what he wanted, but it still wasn't enough.

KWAME HOLMAN: That senior analyst was 32-year-old Jennifer Glaudemans. She said she and her colleagues felt their jobs would be in jeopardy if they did not comply with Gates' views.

JENNIFER GLAUDEMANS, Former CIA Official: I take no satisfaction in sharing with you the basis of my conviction that Mr. Gates politicized intelligence analysis and is responsible for an overall degradation of the analytical process.

KWAME HOLMAN: Rudman was outraged by the analysts' attacks on Gates.

WARREN RUDMAN: To inaccurately quote individuals and documents and to cite anonymous hearsay is -- and I choose my words carefully -- McCarthyism, pure and simple.

Some of the younger people at the CIA were really angry at Gates because he tended to reject their analysis. That was the, if you will, if you would, the genesis of the nastiness of those hearings. Bob Gates not only denied it, but gave us chapter and verse where things he was accused of doing, such as rewriting reports, he had not rewritten.

ROBERT GATES: The allegations that I drove this paper to its conclusions and then knowingly misrepresented it to policymakers are false.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gates, of course, ultimately was confirmed by the committee, though four Democrats voted against him, including DeConcini. The possibility that Gates skewed intelligence weighed heavily on the Arizona Democrat. Today, it's still a concern.

DENNIS DECONCINI: This guy's a very smart, savvy guy, Bob Gates. I've seen him in this town a long time. He makes friends, not enemies. He knows all the players here.

But he's a company man, and he's a Bush company man. And will he have the courage -- and I'm sure Carl Levin and some of the members of the Armed Service and Intelligence Committee are going to ask him that question -- will he have the courage to take good information that comes up from the agency, from his Defense Intelligence Agency, and not turn it the way the White House would like it to be?

An independent perspective?

KWAME HOLMAN: Rudman acknowledged that Gates' major challenge before Armed Services Committee members tomorrow will be to prove he'll bring an independent perspective to the job of defense secretary. While the issues that roiled Gates in the past mostly are outdated, he said, they still may be on the minds of more veteran lawmakers.

WARREN RUDMAN: They're not relevant in an absolute sense, but they are relevant in the sense as to the character of the man who will be heading the largest part of our government, the Department of Defense. And if one were to believe, based on that hearing of record, that Bob Gates was not a person of integrity, than that would be a serious issue. I don't think anybody can fairly reach that conclusion.

KWAME HOLMAN: Gates is not expected to undergo the same kind of grilling tomorrow he did 15 years ago. The committee is scheduled to spend just one day questioning Gates before voting on his confirmation.