BARRING any major revelations during his Senate confirmation hearings, Robert Gates will be the United States' next director of Central Intelligence. President George Bush, say administration officials, has carefully counted noses on Capitol Hill and concluded that the Senate will let him have his man. But getting from the nomination, which the president announced Tuesday, to the confirmation is likely to be a lively journey.
For in one stroke, Bush has brought back the Iran-contra scandal, in which officials in the Reagan administration traded arms for hostages, and used the profits to fund the Nicaraguan rebels. Mr. Gates was deputy director of Central Intelligence (DCI) under William Casey during the affair, and withdrew his nomination as director in 1987 when questions arose over his knowledge of events and a possible role in obscuring facts.
Why, then, is Bush is inviting further scrutiny of an affair that he would rather leave behind - an episode in which his own role remains clouded?
``Other factors dominate Iran-contra,'' says Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University. ``Most important is that Bush believes Gates is probably the best-qualified guy around. He operates on George Bush's wavelength, that is, he is secretive in his operating style. Bush doesn't want a Casey, who was out of control, but he wants the speed and dispatch of a Casey.''
Perhaps even more important, analysts say, Gates has been part of Bush's inner circle of policymakers as deputy national security adviser; he played a key policy-coordination role during the Persian Gulf war. Bush has long wanted to put Gates, a Sovietologist with 25 years' experience at the Central Intelligence Agency, in the top intelligence spot. Outgoing CIA director William Webster ``wasn't Bush's man,'' says an administration official. ``Webster was an independent operator.''
``This is an attempt by Bush to reach out and control the agency, and therefore have greater control over foreign policy,'' says Professor Wayne.
This is also an attempt by Bush, analysts say, to show that he has nothing to fear in his past - either regarding Iran-contra or about continuing allegations that emissaries of the 1980 Reagan campaign, including George Bush, orchestrated a deal to trade arms for the release of the US hostages in Iran.
The two issues are not formally linked, but under the Senate klieg lights of scrutiny, a number of questions that could make the president uncomfortable are likely to be asked.
``The president believes that after the war, he - and not Congress - can call the shots on foreign affairs,'' says a Capitol Hill insider, ``and that he doesn't have to worry about Iran-contra anymore. He's almost saying to Congress, `I dare you.' ''
``Bush does have a major advantage,'' says Mark Peterson, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. ``Members [of Congress] feel the president should have whom he wants. But the potential for explosion is there. So you have to ask, is this a wise appointment? Is this the area where he wants to spend political capital?''
Since February 1987, when Gates withdrew his nomination to become DCI, new information about the Iran-contra affair has been made public - and has fueled questions about what Gates knew.
For example, Gates had testified that he thought Col. Oliver North was only raising funds privately and was serving as a general adviser to the contras. He also said the CIA was not involved in resupply of the contras.
Subsequently, however, records have been revealed of high-level CIA meetings at which Colonel North's actions - including his collaboration with a CIA station chief Gates had once described as a renegade - and CIA aid to the contras were discussed.
But four years later, many Senators aren't interested in dredging up the whole Iran-contra matter again. The American public feels the same way, says Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, vice chairman of the Senate select committee on intelligence.
Perhaps the views of Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania are the most telling indicator of how Gates's confirmation process will go. In 1987, Senator Specter led the fight against Gates's nomination. Now, Specter supports him, saying he has been impressed by Gates's performance since 1987.