WASHINGTON — President Reagan today withdrew his nomination of acting CIA Director Robert M. Gates to head the spy agency, saying confirmation hearings at this time "would not be in the interest of the CIA or of the nation."
In a statement read to reporters by his new chief of staff, Howard H. Baker Jr., Reagan said he withdrew the nomination at the request of Gates, who was criticized in the Tower Commission report on the Iran- contra scandal.
Baker also read to reporters a letter from Gates to the President, saying, "It is apparent that there is strong sentiment in the Senate to await completion, at minimum, of the work of the Senate Select Committee on Iran before acting on my nomination."
"I believe a prolonged period of uncertainty would be harmful to the Central Intelligence Agency, the intelligence community and potentially to our national security," he said.
Baker said Gates met with the President this afternoon.
Reagan's statement said he accepted Gates' request "with great regret."
"I have asked Bob to continue serving as deputy director of intelligence under a new director," Reagan said.
Praising Gates' 20-year record of service to the CIA, he said, "I have been impressed with the class he has shown under the enormous pressures of recent weeks."
"At any other time, I am certain that he would easily have been confirmed without delay."
Baker said selection of a new nominee would be "an urgent item on the President's agenda" and some names had already been discussed.
Gates met with Baker and President Reagan's national security adviser, Frank C. Carlucci, for about 30 minutes earlier in the day.
Not 'Much Prodding'
The Washington Post, citing Administration and congressional sources it did not name, had reported earlier today that Gates had decided "without much prodding" to withdraw his name.
Gates, 43, a longtime CIA employee who became the agency's No. 2 man last year, was nominated to replace William J. Casey, who is recovering from brain surgery and resigned Feb. 2.
Sources said the White House needed a CIA nominee with no role in the Iran- contra arms affair.
"It is crucial to have a new CIA director who can credibly investigate and clean up any remains of Iran-contra, not a director who himself is the subject of the investigation," the Post quoted a senior Administration official as saying.
Dennis Holliday, a spokesman for Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David L. Boren (D-Okla.) said that as recently as Friday Gates was still defending his nomination, sending to the panel documents that he said would mitigate concerns about his role in a 1985 plan for a joint U.S.-Egyptian invasion of Libya.
While Holliday said committee members had not yet had time to read the material, it was presented as something that would show that Gates had argued against the invasion idea in discussions with then-CIA Director Casey.