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More by the authorsBiographiesE-mail the authorsMichael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball-Terror Watch

Old Names, Old Scandals

Robert Gates was a controversial figure in the Iran-contra affair. Will his Reagan-era activities hamper his confirmation as Rumsfeld’s successor?


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Updated: 6:56 p.m. ET Nov. 8, 2006

Nov. 8, 2006 - By choosing Robert Gates as his new Defense secretary, President George W. Bush is once again turning to a trusted warhorse from his father’s administration. But the Gates nomination also could remind the new Democratic Congress about controversies from the George H.W. Bush era as well.

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Gates was investigated during the late 1980s and 1990s by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh over whether Gates had told the truth about the Iran-contra affair, which occurred during his tenure as deputy to Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey. Questions about Gates's knowledge of secret arms sales to Iran—and the diversion of proceeds to support the Nicaraguan contras—caused Gates to withdraw his nomination to succeed Casey as CIA director in 1987.

Gates was again nominated by President George H.W. Bush to be CIA chief in 1991, setting off an intense and spirited confirmation hearing in which charges and countercharges about Iran-contra flared anew. Gates also was publicly accused by former CIA subordinates of slanting intelligence about the Soviet threat—a criticism that evokes an eerie parallel to accusations hurled against the current Bush administration over its handling of pre-war intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to Al Qaeda.

After months of partisan wrangling and debate, Gates was confirmed as CIA director in November 1991 and served in that capacity until the end of the first President Bush’s term in January 1993. He later served as interim dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and, after that, as president of Texas A&M, where both the school of government and the Bush library are located. After Congress passed "intelligence reform" legislation in 2004 creating the post of a national intelligence director to coordinate the activities of feuding intelligence agencies, the White House approached Gates to see if he wanted to become the first new intelligence czar. But on that occasion, Gates turned George W. Bush down.

Bush today praised Gates as a “steady, solid leader who can help make the necessary adjustments in our approach to the current challenges.” And indeed some former associates describe Gates as a savvy and seasoned bureaucratic veteran who is almost certain to establish a more co-operative relationship with the uniformed services and other agencies.

But some of Gates's old critics—who not coincidentally have also been critics of the current Bush administration’s Iraq policy—maintain he is not necessarily the best candidate for the job of correcting a war policy that is seriously off course.

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