SO UNPOPULAR IS Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and such is Washington’s eagerness to be rid of him, that the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to take no more than a day to question his anointed successor, Robert M. Gates.
A former CIA director, Gates is a shoo-in. But senators should nevertheless use his confirmation hearings, slated to begin today, to put Gates on notice that he will have to reestablish the trust of Congress and the American people about whether to believe what the military -- and other agencies -- say about intelligence matters.
Allegations that Gates has in the past edited intelligence to suit his political superiors are certainly disturbing. Particularly worrisome is his alleged pattern of misjudging the capabilities of enemy states -- the former Soviet Union and Iran -- in precisely the ways that his political masters were bound to find most pleasing.
But the point of these hearings is not to rehash Gates’ past. It is to establish what he has learned from his mistakes and how he intends to prevent the Pentagon from repeating them.
Not long ago, such questions would have been better addressed to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon’s intelligence operations have become extensive while congressional oversight has not kept pace. And the GOP-dominated Senate Intelligence Committee failed to challenge CIA Director Michael V. Hayden when he gave superficial answers during his confirmation hearings last May.
The struggle against Islamic terrorism requires intelligence that is not corrupted by politics. Senators should ask Gates questions designed to ensure that the intelligence the nation’s leaders will use to make tactical and strategic decisions be as untainted as possible.
How, for instance, does he plan to reassure the military and civilian intelligence collectors and analysts in the Defense Department that their findings will be welcomed, even when they disagree with his own conclusions? How will he discourage the common practice of “stovepiping,” by which officials pass on -- or retrieve -- raw intelligence and use it without subjecting it to sufficient scrutiny? What will he do to minimize bureaucratic duplication and competition among the various defense intelligence agencies, the CIA and the National Security Agency? What lessons from the intelligence failures and successes of Iraq would he bring to the Pentagon, and how?
Senators might also ask Gates about reports that a unit sounding extraordinarily similar to the one accused of manipulating the intelligence on Iraq has been set up inside the Pentagon to coordinate intelligence on Iran.
Gates has the requisite background for the job and the brains to do it well. Senators should use his answers to these and similar questions to judge his fitness for office and his performance when he gets there.