Video: How will Iraq policy change under Gates?

updated 11/10/2006 6:54:31 PM ET 2006-11-10T23:54:31

Robert Gates, President Bush's choice to lead the Pentagon, argues that the United States should be talking with Iran instead of shunning it.

He says America's spy agencies misled the president on whether Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction - but also believes the nation should never launch another pre-emptive military strike without "unambiguous" intelligence.

Gates, a former CIA director, has expressed his beliefs during three decades of experience at the spy agency, the White House and at the helm of Texas A&M University. It's a trail of words that senators will pore over as they weigh his nomination to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Talking to Tehran
As a participant in 2004 in a task force studying U.S. policy toward Iran, Gates concluded that overthrowing the religious government was unlikely without major military action. And U.S. military commitments as well as the political environment in the region made that a remote possibility, he said.

He argued for an approach that President Bush has resisted: talking to Tehran.

"Engagement could encourage Iran to adopt a more clear, positive attitude toward the new governments in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and it could also create opportunities for greater interaction between Iranians and the rest of the world," said Gates, who diplomatically stated at the outset that he didn't want his words to be viewed as criticism of the administration.

He also urged Washington to play an active role in the Middle East peace process to counter Iran's sway in the region. "These efforts will help marginalize the destabilizing forces that Iranian hard-liners continue to support," he told the Council on Foreign Relations in July 2004. The Bush administration has been criticized for not making the peace process a priority.

Bombing North Korea
In a 1994 newspaper column, Gates advocated bombing North Korea's nuclear reprocessing plant and backing the action with a swift reinforcement of military might in South Korea. Diplomacy - what Gates called a "carrot-without-the-stick strategy" - had failed, he said. Today, the Bush administration is pinning its hopes on diplomacy, and has muted any talk of military threats against Pyongyang.

If confirmed by the Senate to be defense secretary, Gates will oversee a $470 billion budget and deal with conflicts facing the United States in the Middle East and beyond. Along with the uniformed armed forces, his department includes half of the 16 U.S. spy agencies, including the eavesdroppers at the National Security Agency and satellite architects at the National Reconnaissance Office.

It was in that spy world that Gates began his career in Air Force intelligence and then worked as a CIA analyst. While climbing the ranks at the CIA, he took detours to serve on the National Security Council for Presidents Carter, Reagan and the elder Bush.

As a result, when Gates is critical of the intelligence used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion, his statements carry some heft. His personal opinion: Bush believed Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

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"I don't think the president misled the American people. I think intelligence misled the president," Gates said in March 2005, speaking to a conference at Texas A&M, where he is president.

Intelligence agency demands
Looking forward, Gates fretted that the mistakes made on Iraq have reshaped how spy agencies will work with presidents who must decide whether to act pre-emptively to thwart terrorist attacks or destabilize other nations. Yet, he acknowledged, murky information may be all that's available.

"I worry that political leaders - and particularly presidents - will come to require absolute evidence before acting and, by that time, it may well be too late," he said. "But also there is the danger that they will act on the basis of ambiguous information and find that they were wrong."

"If intelligence is going to be used to justify a military attack or a pre-emptive action, it better be unambiguous and it must be timely," Gates said.

Among other observations in the Texas A&M speech:
- TV pundits make it sound easy to capture terror leaders and heads of rogue states. "Locating a Saddam or an Osama bin Laden is a lot harder than it seems."

- Intelligence officials need to be challenged on their information. "U.S. intelligence is rarely open with decisionmakers, including presidents, about the quality and freshness of its information and of its sources."

- Analysts probably did not overstate their conclusions about Iraq's weapons because of pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney or others. "One of my favorite sayings about Washington is, 'Never mistake for malice that which is easily explained by stupidity and incompetence.' I think when the analysts have erred, it has been due more to incompetence than it has to political pressure."

Gates opposition unclear
Bush announced Gates' nomination hours after a bruising defeat for Republicans in the midterm elections. With Congress still on recess, it's not yet clear how much opposition his nomination might face.

The White House would like to get Gates confirmed quickly, while the Republicans are still in control.

In hearings on his 1991 nomination to be CIA director, he was accused of slanting Cold War intelligence to support the White House. He also was questioned about his knowledge of the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan administration.

A 1993 report from Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh noted that Gates was close to many figures who played significant roles in the arms-for-hostages scandal, but Walsh didn't charge him. The prosecutor said he lacked proof that Gates lied when he said he did not recall knowing that proceeds from arms sales to Iran were being diverted to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Gates defended his actions in his 1996 memoir, "From The Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War."

"I was criticized for willfully keeping myself uninformed on what was going on in Central America, and for not aggressively looking into both the Iran and Contra operations" after becoming deputy director of the CIA, Gates wrote. But he added: "I was new to the job and was trying to learn the ropes while all this was going on."

Gates redux
A trusted national security aide to the elder Bush, Gates also has a resume that has intersected with top current officials, including CIA Director Michael Hayden and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. However, he has expressed mixed feelings about Washington and working in a Cabinet.

"There is nothing comparable to working at the White House," he wrote in his book. "The pace is frenetic and the hours impossible. Intrigue. Backstabbing. Ruthless ambition. Constant conflict. Informers. Leakers. Spies. ... Egos as big as surrounding monuments. Battles between Titans. Cabinet officers behaving like children. High-level temper tantrums."

Some wonder why Gates is returning, given his fondness for Texas A&M. Bush asked him to be the country's first national intelligence director, and he turned it down last year.

"Washington, D.C., is my past. Texas A&M is my present and my future - at least for a while," Gates told the students there last fall. "There is no position or opportunity for me now more significant than president of Texas A&M University. And none I would trade it for."

That is, until now.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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