Bush reaffirms backing of Gates for CIA, but some senators are growing restive


WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that he still enthusiastically supports his nomination of Robert M. Gates to head the CIA, despite disclosures Tuesday that implicated several of Mr. Gates' former subordinates in the Iran-contra scandal.

But congressional support for the nomination could be wavering. Members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence said yesterday that they wanted to look further into whether Mr. Gates might have been involved in the scandal, and they expect to decide today whether to postpone his confirmation hearing from its scheduled beginning on Monday.

Mr. Bush, asked yesterday whether he had any reservations about Mr. Gates, said, "Absolutely none." He used the moment )) to "fully, totally reaffirm my complete support for this outstanding individual."

Questions about Mr. Gates were prompted by information in a guilty plea Tuesday by the former chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force, Alan D. Fiers Jr. Mr. Fiers admitted to twice withholding information from Congress about the Iran-contra scheme, in which profits of arms sales to Iran were illegally diverted to aid Nicaraguan guerrillas.

The late CIA Director William J. Casey was supposedly the only person in the agency to have known of the scheme before it was made public in November 1986. Mr. Gates,who was second in command to Mr. Casey, had joined other lower-ranking agency officials in denying knowledge of the scheme before then.

But a statement of facts accompanying Mr. Fiers' plea said that he told his CIA supervisors about the Iran-contra deal at least three months earlier, in the summer of 1986. One of the people he allegedly told was Mr. Gates' immediate subordinate, Clair E. George, who was then the CIA's deputy director for covert operations.

The court statement said that Mr. George then told Mr. Fiers: "Now you are one of a handful of people who know this."

That would leave Mr. Gates sandwiched in the chain of command between two officials who knew of the scandal at least three months before he said he found out.

Thomas Polgar, a retired CIA official who was the top analyst for the Senate's Iran-contra investigation in 1987, said yesterday that, because ofhe CIA's strict chain of command, "I cannot imagine that a person of Clair George's intelligence and experience would not tell his chief when he got information of that magnitude and importance."

Senate intelligence committee members are asking for more information. Chairman David L. Boren, D-Okla., an early supporter of the Gates nomination, said yesterday, "We're consulting the independent counsel [Lawrence E. Walsh, chief investigator of the Iran-contra case]."

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