THE refrain "What did he know, and when did he know it?" comes back with a vengeance today as Robert Gates, nominee as director of Central Intelligence, takes his seat before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.Two months ago, Mr. Gates's nomination appeared headed for trouble when a former top Central Intelligence Agency official pleaded guilty to misleading Congress about the Iran-contra affair. Possible new information Questions about Gates's own knowledge of the scheme, which unfolded while he was the agency's deputy director, had scuttled his first nomination as intelligence chief in 1987. The admissions of the former head of the CIA's Central American task force - and the recent indictment of Clair George, the agency's former head of covert operations, also on charges of misleading Congress - raised anew the possibility that fresh information about Gates's role could come to light. But President Bush is pressing on with the nomination, and, after a stretch of silence on the matter, has put on an eve-of-the-hearings lobbying blitz, meeting with top Republican senators and issuing a video press release urging support for Gates as well as Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. "I think that a lot of these kinds of feathery charges that are floating out there are nonsense," Bush told reporters last Thursday. The president acknowledged that if Mr. George were to make charges against Gates, it could influence his confirmation. "But I don't think that will happen," he added. "I have no reason to believe that at all." The top two senators on the intelligence committee haven't been quite so confident. Committee chairman David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and vice-chairman Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska met with Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh last week to determine if anything connected with Gates might come out of continuing investigations into the matter. After the meeting, Mr. Murkowski reported that Gates is a "subject" in the investigation, but not a "target," meaning he does not face indictment. Still, the distinction does not leave many senators completely comfortable with Gates. Last Thursday, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio called for a further delay in the start of the hearings. "I am concerned, I make no bones about it, about the fact that it appears that the man above him - [the late CIA director William] Casey - and several CIA officials immediately below him seemed to know more about what was going on than he did," Senator Metzenbaum said, "and I think that Mr. Gates has a responsibility to explain that quite fully and thoroughly to the committee." For many senators, a prime concern is that they will give Gates the benefit of the doubt and vote to confirm him - then be embarrassed if new charges or evidence emerge concerning Gates. "Anything is possible; he's a subject of investigation, after all," says Tom Polgar, a former senior CIA operations man who will testify against Gates at the Senate hearings. "I don't think we've ever had a nominee for high office who was a subject of an investigation by a special prosecutor." Mr. Polgar alleges that Gates participated in the attempt to cover up the Iran-contra scheme - in which United States officials sold arms to Iran in exchange for hostage releases and used the profits to fund the Nicaraguan rebel contras - and he plans to make his case before the committee with public documentation. Gates supporters argue that Casey's style was to handle the details of the projects he worked on himself, only revealing information to people who were directly involved, and that Gates was out of the loop. Further, the argument continues, the deputy director's role is more to maintain contacts with other agencies involved in US intelligence, rather than to get involved in CIA operations. "In intelligence work there is a very strong principle of compartmentalization," says David Whipple, executive director of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. "You are urged not to get your nose in other people's business. That way you're not responsible for what you don't know."
Gates's Soviet knowledge Gates backers also argue that he is the best man for the job. His background as a Soviet analyst makes him particularly suited to head the agency at such a crucial time in the history of the Soviet Union. (Gates critics counter that since the Soviet Union is breaking up and the CIA's focus likely to go into other areas such as economic competitiveness, his knowledge is less valuable.) Gates also has the advantage of being part of Bush's inner core of advisers, and he can bring intimate knowledge of White House workings to the CIA. At a time when the CIA faces major restructuring and massive budget cuts, the agency could use an advocate who has the president's ear, Gates supporters argue. Since Gates withdrew his nomination four years ago, some senators have since said their estimation of Gates has improved because of his performance in policy coordination during Operation Desert Storm.