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Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2006 11:33 am

Gatesgate

Illinois senators noncommittal about the tarnished replacement for Rumsfeld

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Former CIA director Robert Gates (right) with former President George H.W. Bush at a Texas A&M football game.
PHOTO BY RON JENKINS/MCT
Untitled Document The times, they are a-changin’ — or so it would appear at first glance. Within hours of the Republican Party’s rout at the polls last week, President George W. Bush announced the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. At the same press conference, the president vowed to work with the newly elected Democratic majority in Congress. Both moves were seen as positive responses to voter dissatisfaction over the war in Iraq. The air of bipartisanship now wafting from the White House may have a fishy smell, but Democrats, basking in their victory, don’t seem to mind the odor. Bush is already urging the Senate to fast-track confirmation of former CIA director Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld — before the Democrats take control in January. Neither of Illinois’ Democratic senators seems to want to slow that train down. Reached in Washington on Monday, an aide to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama says that the senator has concerns about the nominee, including his role in the Iran-Contra affair, and supports a “full examination” of Gates’ record, “including accusations that he pressured CIA analysts to shape intelligence for political reasons.” But the spokesman also says Obama “believes that the position of secretary of defense is critical, and that hearings should be held as soon as possible.”
On a similar note, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin last week issued a press release in which he expressed tacit approval of moving ahead with the nomination. “I look forward to meeting with Robert Gates, who has been nominated to take up the challenge of leading the Department of Defense when our nation is at war,” says Durbin’s press release. “My hope is that Mr. Gates will bring his experience on the Iraq Study Group (ISG) to bear and will examine the situation in Iraq with fresh eyes.”
Bush met with the ISG at the White House on Monday. Congress established the bipartisan panel earlier this year to assess the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Gates resigned from the group last week after being nominated for the defense secretary’s post. Other Republicans on the ISG include its chairman, James A. Baker III, a former secretary of state and longtime Bush family confidant; and Edwin Meese III, former attorney general in the Reagan administration.  
Neither Illinois senator sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee that will oversee Gates’ nomination hearings, but if Gates wins quick approval in a Republican-led lame-duck session, as expected, Democrats will be all but spared the responsibility of probing his checkered career as a spy. It wouldn’t be the first time Gates has skirted congressional scrutiny. Gates, 63, is currently the president of Texas A&M University, but he spent 26 years with the CIA and National Security Council. During the Reagan administration, the career intelligence officer worked for then-CIA director William Casey, who orchestrated plans to secretly ship arms to Iran. Profits from the arms deals were then illegally funneled to the Nicaraguan Contras to finance the overthrow of the Sandinista government. Furor over the Iran-Contra affair forced President Ronald Reagan to withdraw Gates’ nomination to head the CIA in 1987. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father, nominated Gates to the same position, and the Senate Intelligence Committee, then controlled by the Democrats, confirmed him with little more than cursory questioning. Gates served as CIA director from 1991 to 1993. Rubber-stamping Gates’ nomination in 1991 meant overlooking mounting evidence that linked Gates to another covert operation: supplying weapons of mass destruction to the regime of Iraq President Saddam Hussein. In 1995, former National Security Council staff member Howard Teicher said that Gates had participated in a secret plan to supply arms to Hussein’s regime. Teicher, who served as a top NSC adviser on the Middle East from 1982 to 1987, exposed Gates’ role in an affidavit filed by the defense in a federal court case in Miami against executives of Teledyne Industries and Carlos Cardoen, a Chilean arms merchant. Federal prosecutors alleged that during the 1980s Teledyne sold Cardoen 120 tons of zirconium, a metal used to manufacture cluster bombs. Cardoen’s company used this material to make 25,000 bombs, which it sold to Iraq for $150 million, according to the charges. The defendants argued that they had acted with the approval of the U.S. government. Even after pleading guilty and paying $13 million in penalties to avoid being banned from receiving future government contracts, Teledyne officials still asserted that the government knew about the scheme and chose not to intervene. Teicher’s affidavit on behalf of Teledyne states: “Under CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, the CIA authorized, approved and assisted Cardoen in the manufacture and sale of cluster bombs and other munitions to Iraq.”

C.D. Stelzer is a St. Louis freelance writer.
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