WASHINGTON -- Seeking to answer troubling questions about possible CIA involvement in the Iran-contra scandal without further angering an impatient President Bush, the Senate intelligence committee decided yesterday to wait two months before beginning its confirmation hearing for Robert M. Gates, the former CIA deputy who is the president's choice to head the agency.
During the delay, committee members hope to use a grant of immunity and a sheaf of subpoenas to help find out whether Mr. Gates did anything during the past five years to disqualify himself from the job.
In choosing the Sept. 16 date for the hearing, the Select Committee on Intelligence consulted White House officials and Mr. Gates himself, who met Monday night with the panel's two ranking senators.
The hearing had tentatively been set to begin two days ago, but the committee's chairman, David L. Boren, D-Okla., insisted yesterday that the panel's unanimous vote for a delay did not signal that support for Mr. Gates was eroding.
"I don't think anyone should see this action as an indication that this nomination is in trouble in any way," said Mr. Boren, who before last week had expressed strong support for Mr. Gates' nomination. "Our committee is going to vote up or down on Mr. Gates not on the basis of innuendo or rumor or anonymous sources," he said, but on the basis of "sworn testimony."
Toward that end, the committee voted unanimously yesterday to seek a grant of immunity for Alan D. Fiers Jr., the former CIA official whose guilty plea in federal court last week suddenly threw the Gates nomination in doubt.
Mr. Fiers' allegations go back to the summer of 1986, when Mr. Gates was the No. 2 man at the CIA under chief William J. Casey. Ranking just below Mr. Gates was Clair E. George, the agency's deputy director for covert operations.
In pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress, Mr. Fiers said he told Mr. George that summer that he'd learned of a secret plan to divert profits from Iran arms sales illegally to the Nicaraguan contras. Mr. George replied that he already knew of the plan, Mr. Fiers said.
When the plan became public about three months later, Mr. Fiers and Mr. George denied to Congress that they had known about it.
Testimony has also shown that Mr. Casey knew of the scheme.
Mr. Gates has insisted that he didn't know, but Mr. Fiers' allegations have boxed him uncomfortably between two officials who allegedly did.
Although Mr. Boren is confident that a grant of immunity will persuade Mr. Fiers to testify, other witnesses may be harder to come by. Already refusing to testify voluntarily have been Mr. George and Jerry Gruner, who was Mr. Fiers' immediate supervisor as chief of the CIA's Latin American division.
And unlike Mr. Fiers, whose case is resolved, neither Mr. George nor Mr. Gruner has even been charged with a crime. A grant of immunity to them could jeopardize the investigation of the Iran-contra independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, and Mr. Boren said yesterday, "We're very sensitive to his needs."
The committee expects to know more on the matter by Sept. 16 because by then Mr. Walsh expects to have wrapped up all parts of his investigation that might pertain to Mr. Gates, Mr. Boren said.