`WHAT did he know and when did he know it?'' Those questions, first asked about President Nixon's involvement in Watergate, are sure to be asked in Robert Gates's confirmation hearings to be director of central intelligence and chief of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr. Gates, as deputy director of the CIA in 1986, is thought by some to have known more about the Iran-contra affair than he has disclosed. But Congress will make a mistake if it spends too much time muckraking through Gates's actions on the fringe of Iran-contra. Far more important questions must be put to the prospective new leader of the United States intelligence community, namely: What will the president know and when will he know it?
Although we strongly condemn Oliver North's off-the-books conspiracy to assist the Nicaraguan contras when such aid was prohibited by Congress, we aren't fretful about Gates's role - unless it turns out that he personally misled or materially helped others mislead Congress. Current evidence doesn't support such conclusions, however.
The bigger issue is how the nominee proposes to guide the labyrinthine and hugely expensive US intelligence apparatus through its transition to a new, post-cold-war mission.
For 40 years, more than half of the intelligence community's annual budget (now $30 billion) went to spying on the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Surveillance of the Soviet Union, including its compliance with arms-control treaties, will continue to be a primary task for US intelligence.
But in the years ahead major threats to US and Western interests will come from many sources besides the Soviet bear - terrorism, drug trafficking, environmental degradation, competition for global resources, instability in international trade and finance. US intelligence will become a cold-war dinosaur unless it can retool itself to serve the nation's policymakers in understanding and anticipating such threats.
Given this need for more diverse brands of intelligence, it is fitting that Gates's respected career at the CIA and the National Security Council has been as an analyst, not a strings-puller for covert operations.
Outgoing CIA director William Webster deserves the nation's thanks for helping to restore public confidence in the agency's restraint and professionalism after William Casey's freewheeling cloak-and-dagger days. Mr. Webster set a standard for integrity and objectivity that his successor must strive to match.