updated 11/11/2006 9:04:55 PM ET 2006-11-12T02:04:55

Robert Gates successfully navigated the legal and political perils of the Iran-Contra scandal. He emerged as CIA director and survived an ordeal that took a heavy toll on the first President Bush, the man perhaps most responsible for Gates’ success.

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George W. Bush now has designated Gates as Donald H. Rumsfeld’s successor at the Pentagon, a job that will require the next defense secretary to find a different direction for the Iraq war, which has devastated the political fortunes of the Bush administration.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada says he has questions about Gates’ involvement in Iran-Contra. Republicans plan to push the nomination through before they lose control in January.

Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a private group that has collected hundreds of thousands of pages of documents on the scandal and published several books on it, calls Gates “the ultimate hear-no-evil see-no-evil high official during Iran-Contra.”

In a final report, Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh said that, “like those of many other Iran-Contra figures, the statements of Gates often seemed scripted and less than candid.”

In rebuttal, Gates said Walsh’s 1994 report was “unjustifiably disparaging, unbalanced, filled with innuendo and insinuation, and draws conclusions not supported by the evidence.”

What did he know?
Questions about Gates focus not on what he did in Iran-Contra, but on what he knew. CIA Director William Casey had his own parallel chain of command that excluded Gates. At the time, however, Gates was the agency’s No. 2 official.

“You would think he had to know, but was he involved? No,” former CIA officer Vincent Cannistraro said of Gates.

Former Democratic Sen. David Boren of Oklahoma, who presided over Gates’ 1991 confirmation hearings, among the longest in Senate history, said Casey shut out Gates because he was “the kind of person who wouldn’t have put up with what was going on.”

The Iran-Contra affair plagued the final two years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and damaged the final political campaign of Bush’s father. The scandal that broke out 20 years ago this month also bruised Gates’ career, forcing him to withdraw his nomination as CIA director in 1987.

Gates soldiered on as the No. 2 official at the CIA, then went to the White House’s National Security Council. Four years later, the first President Bush nominated him for the top CIA job.

Converging scandals
Iran-Contra was the convergence of two covert operations run by the Reagan White House — selling arms to Iran in an effort to free U.S. hostages in Lebanon and supplying arms to the Contra guerrillas fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua.

NSC aide Oliver North oversaw the Contra resupply network during a congressional ban on military aid to the rebels.

Congress was kept in the dark. The two operations were exposed when a resupply plane was shot down over Nicaragua and when a Middle East newspaper disclosed the Iran initiative.

In 1991, as Gates prepared to testify at his confirmation hearings for the CIA, new evidence emerged that raised additional questions about whether he had told the truth in Iran-Contra.

An ex-CIA officer alleged that he and at least three other CIA officials besides Casey had heard early on about the most explosive secret in the scandal — the diversion of profits from the Iran arms sales to the Contras.

The new evidence meant that at least five people above and below Gates knew about talk of a diversion in the summer before the secret surfaced. Had Gates known?

‘Out of the loop’
The president stood by Gates.

“Hey, you’re my man. I’m all for you. ... don’t let ’em get you down,” Bush said he had assured the nominee.

As with Gates, the president was dogged by Iran-Contra. He spent the final weekend of his last political campaign answering renewed questions about his role in the scandal.

Bush had described himself as being “out of the loop” regarding opposition by two Cabinet officials to the secret arms-for-hostages deals with Iran.

The comment, however, was undercut by a reissued indictment showing that Bush, while vice president, participated in a meeting where the opposition he later denied knowing about had surfaced.

After losing the election five days later, the Bush campaign said the allegations had stopped the president’s comeback in the polls.

A deft defense
At his Senate confirmation hearings in 1991, Gates handled Iran-Contra with a carefully crafted acknowledgment of responsibility. He also received some supportive testimony.

Gates said he simply had forgotten about being told by a CIA colleague about a diversion. The CIA official who told him said that was “quite easy to understand,” adding that the information had been “very speculative.”

Prosecutors said Gates’ explanation that he did not recall the conversation is “to say the least ... disquieting.

“He had been told by a very senior officer that two of President Reagan’s personal priorities were in danger — not something an ambitious deputy director of central intelligence would likely forget,” the prosecutors’ final report states.

In rebuttal, Gates said, “I did not engage in obstruction or willful misleading” and that the prosecutors’ report “should have so stated.”

Gates told prosecutors he was unaware North had an operational role in supporting the Contras. Gates said he believed North’s activities were limited to putting Contra leaders in touch with wealthy American donors and to giving the Contras political advice.

Cannistraro, who dealt with both Gates and North, says “I find it almost impossible that Gates wouldn’t know what I knew, and I knew a fair amount. He couldn’t avoid knowing.”

But Gates has said he did not know.

“A thousand times I would go over the ’might-have-beens,”’ Gates wrote in his memoirs. “I was new to the job and was trying to learn the ropes while all this was going on.”

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