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Former Aide’s Indictment Could Hurt CIA Nominee : Government: Charges resurrect old doubts about Gates’ role in the Iran-Contra scandal. The questions may impede his confirmation hearings.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush Administration’s strategy for overcoming opposition to the nomination of Robert M. Gates as director of central intelligence is likely to be set back by Friday’s indictment of Clair E. George, Gates’ former deputy at the CIA, on charges that he lied to Congress about the agency’s role in covering up the Iran-Contra affair.

Although nothing in the indictment implicates Gates, the case against George serves as another reminder that lingering questions about the past are likely to outweigh inquiries about the future when the Senate Intelligence Committee meets Sept. 16 to consider Gates’ nomination.

At the very least, this latest twist in the long-lived Iran-Contra affair could prolong the hearings, thereby frustrating the Administration’s attempts to expedite--during a time of unprecedented turmoil in the Soviet Union--the appointment of one of its top Soviet experts to the helm of the temporarily rudderless CIA.

“It raises a lot of questions,” said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “What did George tell Gates? What didn’t he tell him? And, if he didn’t tell him, why?” The committee will resist efforts to speed up the confirmation process until it can get the answers to these questions, Metzenbaum said.

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When President Bush chose Gates, his deputy national security adviser, to head the CIA last May, the assumption at the White House was that Gates would not be confronted with the same questions he faced in 1987, when he was originally nominated for the job but was forced to withdraw his name because of doubts over his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

“The embers (of Iran-Contra) were cold,” one committee member who supports Gates said. “Nobody thought that this particular spark would turn into a bonfire again.”

But then came the jolt that would shock the moribund Iran-Contra investigation into life once more: In a plea bargain with prosecutors, Alan D. Fiers, the former head the CIA’s Central American operations, admitted in federal court that he misled Congress about the CIA’s knowledge of the scandal, which erupted when it was learned that profits from the secret sales of weapons to Iran were illegally diverted to Nicaraguan rebels.

Fiers said he and several other senior CIA officials, including George, shared in that knowledge months before it became public in the fall of 1986.

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Gates has continued to insist that he was ignorant of the cover-up, but questions about how someone in his position could have known so little about the Iran-Contra affair caused the Intelligence Committee to postpone its confirmation hearings until after the congressional recess, which ends Tuesday.

“Bob Gates has a lot of supporters on the committee, but none of them were about to go ahead with the confirmation until they found out where the Iran-Contra investigation was going to lead,” one senior committee aide said.

The White House, concerned that the confirmation process could drag on indefinitely, assigned Deputy Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to coordinate a concerted lobbying effort on behalf of Gates after Congress returns from its recess.

The White House is not saying much about the outlines of its strategy--when pressed for comment, Card would say only that “the strategy is to win.”

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But recent comments by other senior White House officials suggest that the Administration will stress the value of Gates’ Soviet expertise and argue that the attempted coup in the Kremlin and the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union lend new urgency to filling the CIA’s top slot as quickly as possible.

The committee, however, faces a problem. Although some members agree that Gates’ standing has been enhanced by developments in the Soviet Union, they also want to subpoena George, Fiers and other senior intelligence officials before closing the book on the Iran-Contra part of the hearings.

But, because George is unlikely to testify without a grant of immunity, subpoenaing him at this crucial stage could pose major problems for the Iran-Contra prosecutors, who would then have to prove that none of the witnesses in their case against George were in any way influenced by the testimony he gave to the committee.

Committee aides said that no final decision on how to proceed will be taken until Intelligence Committee members return to Washington next week. But some time before the hearings begin, a decision will have to be made to either subpoena George now or forgo his testimony.

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Although not unexpected, George’s indictment raises enough questions about the scope of the CIA’s complicity in the cover-up that several Intelligence Committee members said they would insist on questioning him before voting to confirm Gates. “I think we will have to subpoena George now,” Metzenbaum said.

“The argument that we have to confirm Gates quickly because of the turmoil in the Soviet Union is not reasonable,” Sen. Alan Cranston said. The California Democrat said he would oppose any attempt to appoint a new CIA director until “we have investigated everything fully . . . and are sure we have the right person.”


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