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Gates Drops Bid for Top CIA Post : Reagan Withdraws Nomination Amid Opposition Over Iran Role

March 03, 1987|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Reagan on Monday withdrew the nomination of Robert M. Gates to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, absorbing a new jolt to his effort to move his staggering Administration beyond the troubles of the Iran- contra scandal.

Gates' withdrawal came after he conferred with Reagan on Monday afternoon and was announced by new White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr., who spent a hectic first day on the job meeting with top officials to orchestrate the next stage of the Administration's attempts to recover from the scandal.

In one development, the White House announced that Reagan will deliver a nationally broadcast speech Wednesday at 6 p.m. PST, offering his first lengthy response to the stinging criticism of his handling of the Iran arms sale initiative by the commission he had appointed to critique the White House national security apparatus.

Possible Nominees

No new nominee to direct the CIA was named. Gates, whose role in the Iran affair had attracted growing congressional opposition, will continue as acting director until a new director takes over, and then will return to his job as deputy director, the White House said.

The list of possible nominees to succeed William J. Casey was said to include Brent Scowcroft and John Tower, two members of the commission that delivered its investigative report on the Iran-contra affair last week. However, a Republican source said Tower has declined to be considered. Sources said other potential candidates include U.N. Ambassador Vernon A. Walters; Bobby Ray Inman, former deputy director of the CIA, and William Odom, director of the National Security Agency.

Hope for Name Soon

"It is an urgent item on the President's agenda and we hope to have a name to submit very soon," Baker said.

The arrival of Baker as the new chief of staff in the wake of Donald T. Regan's resignation Friday fueled an atmosphere of hectic activity at the White House on Monday. As Baker's new aides were moving into their offices, a key Regan assistant was moved across the street to the Old Executive Office Building.

Baker took pains to portray Reagan as deeply involved with his presidency and in touch with the challenges he faces.

One day after former Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine), the third member of the Tower Commission, said he was amazed by Reagan's detachment from the Iran policy's implementation and his inability to recall important details of the Iran-contra affair, Baker volunteered:

"I have never seen Ronald Regan more energetic, more fully engaged and more in command of difficult circumstances and questions that we were dealing with throughout this day. He has never been better."

Asked why he felt a need to make such a statement, Baker said in a late-afternoon briefing for reporters that such matters as, "Is this President fully in control of his Presidency? Is he alert? Is he fully engaged? Is he in contact with the problems?" are "uppermost in people's minds."

Thinks Advice Heard

Asked whether the President had reacted to the widespread advice that he change his "hands-off" management style and apologize for the Iran affair, the new White House official replied: "I think that the advice was heard and understood."

He added:

"I do not see a hands-off President, or . . . an AWOL President. I see a man who is very much in touch with the issues before this country and that confront his government."

On the other hand, he said that in connection with the Iran affair, "there were many, many things that the President did not know and that, under better circumstances, perhaps he should have known."

Baker's news conference was delayed several hours in the vain hope that Reagan would have found a new nominee for the CIA post and could announce the choice himself.

Congress Members Called

As late as 4 p.m.--33 minutes before Gates' withdrawal was announced--the White House was said to still be contacting senior members of Congress in its search for a candidate.

The Administration's difficulty in finding a replacement for Gates stymied a plan to move quickly over its newest obstacle, erected when Gates decided to withdraw because the agency would have been damaged in a confirmation fight, even if he eventually won Senate approval.

Gates' difficulties with the Senate arose from allegations in the Tower report that CIA intelligence analysts under his supervision had deliberately slanted their reports to buttress the arguments of Administration officials who wanted to sell weapons to Iran.

In a letter to Reagan, Gates, a career employee of the CIA, noted the "strong sentiment" in the Senate to delay acting on his nomination until a Senate select committee has completed its investigation into the Iran affair, and stated: "A prolonged period of uncertainty would be harmful to the Central Intelligence Agency, the intelligence community and potentially to our national security."

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