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Robert Gates Carries Too Much Baggage

By David D. NewsomDavid D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs, University of Virginia. / October 9, 1991



WHATEVER the outcome of the current hearings on the nomination of Robert Gates as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the president's insistence on this appointment complicates the future of the nation's intelligence process. After the testimony of recent weeks, can congressional and public confidence in Mr. Gates ever be fully restored? The issue is less whether in the past the nominee altered significant intelligence estimates for political reasons. It is more whether at this turbulent juncture in world history the United States needs someone less tainted by the disputes of the previous era. In the position for which Gates has been nominated, he will, in fact, have two roles. The director of the CIA is also, under current legislation, the director of central intelligence. In the latter capacity, the appointee has the responsibility to oversee and coordinate not only the activities and assessments of the CIA but those of other members of the intelligence community as well. This group includes the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the research and intelligence bure au of the Department of State. Proposals that these positions be separated have never been favored, either by administrations or by Congress. The process of intelligence is, in a bureaucratic sense, inevitably political. In the act of assessment, each agency involved has its particular sources and specialist biases. The military agencies can be expected to be certain that military roles and influences are stressed. The Department of State will for diplomatic reasons be cautious in its predictions. The CIA, not wishing to be seen as failing to predict disasters, may be more pessimistic than others. The task of coordinating a balanced national e stimate for a president will be more difficult if a director of central intelligence is seen by others as identified with one of the participating agencies. Personal backgrounds, inescapably, also color the approach of any analyst. The specialist who has spent a life studying and analyzing the Middle East will see other issues through that prism. The same is likely to be true of the Soviet specialist. The effective preparation of intelligence for policymakers requires individuals at the top who, either through broad experience or an intuitive sense, can impartially question regional perspectives in the search for a balanced assessment. Gates, further, comes out of a period of history that was intensely ideological. Some of the testimony of the current hearings reflects the emotional debate over the role and intentions of the Soviet Union and the justifications for US covert action in the third world. Whatever may be the validity of allegations that intelligence estimates were edited to reflect an ideological bias, senior intelligence officers probably could not retain their credibility with some officials in the Reagan administration u nless they reflected a hard-line stance against Moscow. In the world of today, the intelligence community may be called upon to give policymakers unpalatable news. The experience of those who framed estimates to meet the intensity of views in the Reagan years may not be the best preparation for the task. Robert Gates is praised as a professional - which he is. But perhaps this is not the time for a graduate of the intelligence process to head the CIA. He would bring the baggage of past internal battles and current animosities of people still in the organization. In addition, the priorities and perspectives of the past no longer apply to much of the present world scene. It is time for a fresh look at the conventional wisdom and premises of the past and for a director who will have the prestige to convey what may be radically new approaches to the executive, the Congress, and the public. This would have been a time for the president to appoint a person of national stature, highly regarded by both parties who would be - and would be seen to be - above the politics and disputes of the past. President Bush has not chosen to do that. His nominee, Robert Gates, will probably be confirmed and may, in time, regain the confidence of his critics. But this nomination has placed an added burden on the capacity of the United States to understand the forces at work in a dramatically changed world.

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