Shortly after Ronald Reagan was reelected president, the CIA forwarded a controversial intelligence report on the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II to the White House. It suggested the Soviets were involved in the plot.
Inside the agency, many analysts considered the intelligence estimate flawed. In the words of one CIA branch chief, the assertion lacked "common sense" and was, at best, conjecture.
The contention later was proved false. But there was one person who did see a Soviet hand at play in the plot, and that was the man who mattered at the time: CIA Deputy Director Robert M. Gates, who personally handed the report up to the White House.
On Tuesday, the Senate begins its hearings on replacing Donald H. Rumsfeld, a Defense secretary criticized for failing to hear dissenting views, allowing his department to peddle flawed intelligence, and leading the military into a war in which victory has proved elusive. And it is Gates whom President Bush has selected to lead the Pentagon, offering the onetime CIA director up as "an agent of change."
But Gates appears to some an odd choice, given the Pentagon's rocky and occasionally divisive atmosphere under Rumsfeld. For much of Gates' career, critics and even some admirers have likened him to the imperious Rumsfeld and his close administration ally, Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Gates was making it clear to analysts what intelligence they were to produce," said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit institute that gathers and analyzes declassified documents. "It's a chilling record, because you have two main themes of the Iraq war present in Robert Gates' career at CIA: the arrogance and bullying of a Rumsfeld and the intelligence cherry-picking of a Cheney."
Hearings were key
But critics and friends also suggest that Gates, 63, has evolved. The charges that he was a bully who was wrong on the important foreign policy issues of the day were sifted during his 1991 confirmation hearings to become CIA director. Those hearings, along with his failed nomination in 1987, were a public flogging that, those close to him say, forced him to reexamine his style.
"Bob Gates has learned over the years," said former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.), who was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the 1991 hearings. "He realized in retrospect he had been misunderstood by some people who became his critics. After that, he became more patient."
The '91 hearings stretched on for months, and friends say the searing national spotlight softened the sharp-elbowed Gates and taught important lessons that he took to his jobs as CIA director and, later, president of Texas A&M; University.
"I think he really was stunned to find that people actually disliked him," said retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, a career intelligence officer who worked closely with Gates in the Carter and Reagan administrations. "I'm not sure I'd say [he was] chastened, but maturity and experience causes you to simply be calmer in dealing with people."
To some, it is an open question about which Bob Gates would take the helm of the Pentagon: the former CIA analyst with a bullying intellect and occasionally dictatorial style like Rumsfeld's, or the patient listener who eventually won over critics at the CIA and tradition-bound Texas A&M.;
Whatever qualities Gates brings, he will face the challenge of leading the world's dominant military at a time of historic strains over frustrated war efforts abroad and shifting political currents at home.
The portrayal of Gates as a blunt and uncompromising taskmaster during the 1980s is not shared by all who worked with him as he climbed the government's national security hierarchy. Many insist he always has approached problems with an open mind.
"He was good at building a consensus and understanding what other people's points of view are, even if he didn't agree with them," said retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, President Carter's CIA director for whom Gates served as executive assistant.
Gates' rise through the ranks -- he remains the only entry-level analyst ever to become director -- was colored by the Cold War.
From the start of his government career, which began after he served two years as an Air Force officer in the late 1960s, he sided with anti-Soviet hard-liners. It was a view of Moscow that would bring him close to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security advisor, and William J. Casey, Reagan's CIA director.
But it earned him the enmity of advocates of detente, including George P. Shultz, Reagan's secretary of State, who would later accuse Gates of shaping intelligence to fit his worldview and push to get Gates fired.
"In Sovietology, it's to some extent a speculative science. You can either err by being much too soft on the Soviets, or you can err by being somewhat too hard," said Brzezinski, who counts himself and Gates among the latter group. "I don't think [Gates] was politicizing intelligence. He was rendering views different than George Shultz's."
Signs of the taskmaster
Casey found the young analyst to be a kindred spirit, a fellow cold warrior with the intellectual firepower to demand more rigor in what Casey viewed as a flabby and overly cautious CIA analysis of the Soviets. Gates rose even faster than before, first as the agency's lead Soviet analyst, then as head of all intelligence analysis, and finally as Casey's deputy director.
His rapid advance -- Gates was just 38 when he became Casey's director of intelligence in January 1982 -- revealed some of the first signs of the overweening taskmaster. It certainly was a role Casey wanted him to play.
"We never sent Bob to charm school when it came to criticizing analysis," said John N. McMahon, Casey's deputy and Gates' boss for four years. "You can dump on someone in several different ways and get the point across, and one is to be forthright and just bang it out -- and Bob did that."
But even if he was doing Casey's bidding, it also appeared to be a role Gates relished. In a September 1981 memo to Casey, shortly before taking over the intelligence directorship, he was merciless toward the agency's analysts.
"There are far too many people playing it safe," Gates wrote. "CIA is slowly turning into the Department of Agriculture."
For the remainder of the Reagan administration, Gates appeared to show little restraint.
"Analysts would come to him with what they thought was great analysis, and he'd tear it apart," recalled Richard L. Haver, the top official in the Pentagon's intelligence operation at the time.
"He would correct their English, their syntax, and he would hammer the way in which they crafted their conclusions."
Gates' hammering may have been what the CIA needed, but it also created enemies. That became apparent on the national stage in 1987, when he was nominated to succeed Casey as CIA director.
Any stylistic controversies, however, were overshadowed that year by the burgeoning Iran-Contra scandal, in which proceeds from secret U.S. arms sales to Iran were funneled to White House-backed insurgents in Nicaragua. Gates was not charged, but questions over his role were enough to force him to withdraw his nomination.
In 1991, when Gates once more was nominated to lead the CIA, his reputation for bullying analysts came into full light. Gates had expected a rehash of Iran-Contra. But those close to the nominee said he was stunned by the browbeating accusations, some of which came from old friends.
"It was totally a shock to me, and it shocked Bob, I know, as well," said McMahon, who said the analysts made no such charges within the CIA against Gates.
The committee's investigation and hearings lasted from June until October. Ultimately, he was confirmed by a split Senate.
Switching his style
Gates has never spoken at length about the effect of those hearings. But many said that the Gates who took charge of the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters at the end of 1991 was quite different from the man who had been Casey's tough-minded deputy.
Gates returned to the CIA with an aggressive reform agenda. But rather than force changes through top-down edicts, he sought input from senior subordinates. On his first day on the job, Gates launched 12 reform task forces to take on a range of issues.
"He told us when we started off where he wanted us to go," Haver said. "But we were given lots of latitude to argue with him."
One of Gates' first acts was to give important responsibilities to Harold P. Ford, a longtime CIA official as well as a lecturer and historian who had been one of his most persuasive critics in the confirmation process. The move sent a signal that dissent was welcome, said Blanton, director of the National Security Archive.
Gates employed similar approaches when, nine years after leaving the CIA, he became president of Texas A&M.;
Much as he had assuaged the skeptical ranks at CIA, Gates moved quickly to counter faculty doubts by increasing their clout.
"I always felt we had a voice with this president, a voice we never had before," said Martha L. Loudder, a former president of the Faculty Senate. "He motivates people because they understand he wants to make changes that they want to make."
The issue of affirmative action on student admissions was a particularly sensitive conflict. In 2003, Gates, who opposed racial preferences, squared off against professor Bob Strawser, another former head of the Faculty Senate, who wanted to reinstate them.
Gates held firm, but many said he changed the debate. Remarkably, at a university with one of the most vocal group of graduates in the nation, he ended preferences for the children of alumni -- a largely white group. That change, along with more aggressive recruiting, drove up minority enrollment on campus.
Strawser believes this is the management style Gates will bring to the Pentagon. And the uniformed military, many of whom privately have said they are frustrated after feeling ignored by Rumsfeld, may be heard once more.
"I think the military leaderships will have a surprise. They will get a full hearing," Strawser said. "He isn't going to take votes, but he will listen and take advice."
Those who worked with both men agree that Gates' style will be profoundly different from Rumsfeld's.
"Don has always been a change agent. He comes into a new situation with his own, independent ideas," said Frank C. Carlucci, a former defense secretary who has worked closely with Rumsfeld and Gates. "Gates will listen more to the establishment, but he'll reach his own conclusions. He's more of a consensus-builder."
Inman, a friend of Gates' who also has worked with Rumsfeld, predicted that Gates would be seen roaming the halls of the Pentagon, seeking out mid-level officials for their opinions.
"Part of it is out of curiosity, but it's also partly image -- that he's not sitting on the throne or in the cloistered environment," Inman said.
"He is, by his nature, polite. That's not an allegation I'd make in Don's case."
Times staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.