Robert M. Gates, President Bush's controversial choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency, seems likely to survive a politically charged Senate confirmation fight. Democrats will use Gates's involvement in the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran to revive questions about Bush's possible involvement in the Iran-contra scandal. But even if Gates succeeds in deflecting partisan parries, he'll soon find himself in a nasty fight over a congressional drive to play a bigger role in directing U. S. intelligence efforts.
Congress starts off suspicious of the 47-year-old Gates, who currently serves in the No. 2 job at the National Security Council. In 1987, President Reagan nominated then-Deputy CIA Director Gates to be Director of Central Intelligence after William J. Casey was struck down by a brain tumor. Casey was up to his bandoliers in the Iran-contra affair. Naturally, senators doubted Gates's denials of early knowledge of the affair. In the face of growing opposition, Gates withdrew.
Since then, Gates has impressed Capitol Hill with deft crisis management during the Panama invasion and the gulf war. As a result, many senators seem ready to forgive and forget.
UNINFORMED SOURCES? At the CIA, Gates would face the formidable task of persuading Congress to leave the intelligence community alone. Congressional reformers think the nation's spooks have been so obsessed with the Soviet military threat that they missed the implosion of the Soviet economy. At the same time, critics charge, poor resources in the Third World have left the U. S. vulnerable to such shocks as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Other targets for reform: the CIA's overreliance on electronic spying rather than human intelligence and the massive overlap of military and civilian agencies.
Congressional oversight of these secret agencies has waxed and waned over the years. The last major spasm occurred in the mid-1970s, when the late Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) pushed through restrictions on covert activities. During the Reagan years, oversight remained quiescent. But now, the House and Senate panels are drafting legislation to overhaul the U. S. spy network and to get a handle on the estimated $30 billion spent each year on cloak-and-dagger activities.
Among the major changes being considered by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) and his Senate counterpart, David L. Boren (D-Okla.), is the creation of an intelligence czar who would supervise both the CIA and the much larger Defense Dept. spy networks. Others would like the
agencies to be more active in countering terrorists, drug traffickers, and rogue arms merchants. Some even think the CIA should do more economic espionage to help U. S. companies compete.
The Administration, especially onetime CIA Director George Bush, views the Hill's reform drive as unwarranted interference in the Executive Branch's business. "Congress isn't prepared to play a subsidiary role, and that definitely concerns the White House," says Rockhurst College professor Frank J. Smist Jr., who has written a book on oversight of the CIA.
Some in Congress suspect that the White House pushed CIA Director William H. Webster to step down because he wasn't aggressive enough in fending off the Hill. "Gates will throw up a lot of brick and mortar and build a wall around the CIA faster than Webster," says McCurdy.
Gates could avoid a fight with Congress by pushing reform on his own. Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney, a savvy Hill operator, has moved to preempt congressional meddling by shaking up the military spy services. But Gates, a hard-liner who remains deeply suspicious of the Soviets, will hang tough on reform and will try to throw an even heavier cloak of secrecy over U. S. intelligence efforts. And that's just what his boss seems to want.