WASHINGTON -- The confirmation hearing for Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to head the CIA, was postponed indefinitely yesterday to give the Senate intelligence committee time to dig deeper into whether Mr. Gates was involved in the Iran-contra scandal.
For Mr. Gates, the delay is an ominous replay of 1987, when he eventually withdrew his name from consideration for the same post because of unanswered concerns about the then-fresh Iran-contra investigation.
But the chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, David L. Boren, D-Okla., insisted yesterday, "The committee's action certainly does not reflect a negative attitude toward the nominee. . . . We are not going to have a political circus. We are going to be as thorough as we can possibly be."
Mr. Bush questioned the "fairness" yesterday of delaying Mr. Gates' hearings because of "behind-closed-door allegations that nobody really knows anything about."
He told reporters he was convinced that Mr. Gates did not know more than he had admitted about the Iran-contra activities because "I believe in Bob Gates' word, and he's a man of total honor."
With the Iran-contra investigation now 4 1/2 years old and many of the past questions seemingly answered, Mr. Gates' nomination had appeared to be on track for confirmation until Tuesday, when the former chief of the CIA's Central American Task Force, Alan D. Fiers Jr., breathed new life into the case.
Mr. Fiers pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of withholding Iran-contra information from Congress, and in doing so implicated several of his CIA bosses, including one who used to work directly under Mr. Gates.
A statement of fact accompanying Mr. Fiers' plea said that in August 1986 he learned of the scheme to illegally divert profits of arms sales to Iran to the Nicaraguan contras.
The statement said he then passed along the information to several of his superiors, including Clair E. George, who was then the CIA's deputy director for covert operations. Mr. George's boss was Mr. Gates, who was then second-in-command to agency Director William J. Casey.
Witnesses have already said that Mr. Casey knew of the scheme at the time, but Mr. Gates has said he wasn't aware of it until more than three months later, when Attorney General Edwin W. Meese III revealed it to the public.
The new allegations sent committee members scurrying for the Fiers court documents. The committee has also conferred during the past two days with the chief investigator of the Iran-contra case, independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh.
Committee Vice Chairman Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska, said yesterday that the preliminary inquiries had turned up nothing to implicate Mr. Gates. And, echoing the concerns of other Senate Republicans, he said, "We're not going on a fishing expedition."
But Mr. Boren said the committee would be busy between now and its next meeting Tuesday trying to talk to as many people as it could who might know more, including at the least Mr. Fiers and Mr. George.
Members will chiefly be seeking answers to a question about Mr. Gates that has been at the heart of some of Capitol Hill's most celebrated scandal investigations: What did he know, and when did he know it?
If Mr. Fiers, Mr. George and perhaps others won't voluntarily speak to the committee, the panel will meet to discuss what to do next, Mr. Boren said.
One option would be to subpoena witnesses. Another would be to offer limited immunity. But the committee might be wary of offering immunity to anyone but Mr. Fiers, whose case is closed except for his sentencing.
A grant of congressional immunity to former Reagan White House aide Oliver L. North, one of the masterminds of the Iran-contra scheme, ended up being a principal factor in an appeals court's decision to vacate three felony convictions against him.
Mr. Boren said yesterday that any discussions of immunity "are premature. We simply have to take a wait-and-see attitude at this point. We'll know a lot more early next week."
Although Mr. Boren said he did not view the confirmation hearing as an extension or reopening of the committee's earlier Iran-contra hearings, he said he nonetheless was disturbed by Mr. Fiers' implications that the committee's witnesses might not have been completely forthcoming.