In a testy outburst over the weekend, President Bush dug in his heels on his nomination of Robert Gates to head that most shadowy and enigmatic mechanisms of American government, the Central Intelligence Agency.
As a former head of the CIA himself, Bush no doubt knows what kind of person he wants in that job, but if we read the convoluted language of Washington correctly, Sen. Bob Dole is telling the president he should consider withdrawing the nomination in light of new revelations of deceit and lying to Congress at the top levels of the CIA. "If the president wants to pursue the nomination," said Dole, "then we should move very quickly." The implicit message in that introductory phrase could hardly be clearer.
But the Senate Intelligence Committee was entirely right to put a hold on Gates' nomination after Alan Fiers, a ranking CIA operative during the '80s, pleaded guilty to charges that he deceived Congress on instructions from higher-ups about the arms-for-hostages trade in 1986. Gates, while not directly implicated by Fiers, was a very "high-up" in the CIA at that time -- the No. 2 man to William Casey, as a matter of fact.
In earlier inquiries into the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages secret deal, Gates claimed he was kept "out of the loop" by his immediate boss, Casey. The Senate must have some assurance that Gates is telling the truth now. Even if he is, we already know this much: Gates either knew about Iran-contra, or he didn't. Put another way, he is either a liar or an incompetent. Since collecting information is the very function of the CIA, Gates' lack of knowledge of what was going on above him and below him would be nearly enough in itself to disqualify him.