WASHINGTON — Shortly after Ronald Reagan was reelected president, the CIA forwarded a controversial intelligence report on the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II to the White House. It suggested the Soviets were involved in the plot.
Inside the agency, many analysts considered the intelligence estimate flawed. In the words of one CIA branch chief, the assertion lacked "common sense" and was, at best, conjecture.
The contention later was proved false. But there was one person who did see a Soviet hand at play in the plot, and that was the man who mattered at the time: CIA Deputy Director Robert M. Gates, who personally handed the report up to the White House.
On Tuesday, the Senate begins its hearings on replacing Donald H. Rumsfeld, a Defense secretary criticized for failing to hear dissenting views, allowing his department to peddle flawed intelligence, and leading the military into a war in which victory has proved elusive. And it is Gates whom President Bush has selected to lead the Pentagon, offering the onetime CIA director up as "an agent of change."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 13, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 118 words Type of Material: Correction
Defense secretary nominee: A Dec. 4 article in Section A profiling Defense Secretary-designate Robert M. Gates said that as CIA director in the early 1990s, Gates gave important responsibilities to Harold P. Ford -- a longtime agency employee and a critic of Gates -- in an indication of a new openness at the agency. Ford, who at the time worked as a consultant for the CIA researching and writing on the agency's history, says he was given no new responsibilities or position by Gates and had no contact with him after Gates' 1991 confirmation hearing. Gates has been credited with placing new emphasis on studying the agency's history so that the intelligence community could learn from its past.
But Gates appears to some an odd choice, given the Pentagon's rocky and occasionally divisive atmosphere under Rumsfeld. For much of Gates' career, critics and even some admirers have likened him to the imperious Rumsfeld and his close administration ally, Vice President Dick Cheney.
"Gates was making it clear to analysts what intelligence they were to produce," said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit institute that gathers and analyzes declassified documents. "It's a chilling record, because you have two main themes of the Iraq war present in Robert Gates' career at CIA: the arrogance and bullying of a Rumsfeld and the intelligence cherry-picking of a Cheney."
Hearings were key
But critics and friends also suggest that Gates, 63, has evolved. The charges that he was a bully who was wrong on the important foreign policy issues of the day were sifted during his 1991 confirmation hearings to become CIA director. Those hearings, along with his failed nomination in 1987, were a public flogging that, those close to him say, forced him to reexamine his style.
"Bob Gates has learned over the years," said former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.), who was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee during the 1991 hearings. "He realized in retrospect he had been misunderstood by some people who became his critics. After that, he became more patient."
The '91 hearings stretched on for months, and friends say the searing national spotlight softened the sharp-elbowed Gates and taught important lessons that he took to his jobs as CIA director and, later, president of Texas A&M University.
"I think he really was stunned to find that people actually disliked him," said retired Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, a career intelligence officer who worked closely with Gates in the Carter and Reagan administrations. "I'm not sure I'd say [he was] chastened, but maturity and experience causes you to simply be calmer in dealing with people."
To some, it is an open question about which Bob Gates would take the helm of the Pentagon: the former CIA analyst with a bullying intellect and occasionally dictatorial style like Rumsfeld's, or the patient listener who eventually won over critics at the CIA and tradition-bound Texas A&M.
Whatever qualities Gates brings, he will face the challenge of leading the world's dominant military at a time of historic strains over frustrated war efforts abroad and shifting political currents at home.
The portrayal of Gates as a blunt and uncompromising taskmaster during the 1980s is not shared by all who worked with him as he climbed the government's national security hierarchy. Many insist he always has approached problems with an open mind.
"He was good at building a consensus and understanding what other people's points of view are, even if he didn't agree with them," said retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, President Carter's CIA director for whom Gates served as executive assistant.
Gates' rise through the ranks -- he remains the only entry-level analyst ever to become director -- was colored by the Cold War.
From the start of his government career, which began after he served two years as an Air Force officer in the late 1960s, he sided with anti-Soviet hard-liners. It was a view of Moscow that would bring him close to Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security advisor, and William J. Casey, Reagan's CIA director.
But it earned him the enmity of advocates of detente, including George P. Shultz, Reagan's secretary of State, who would later accuse Gates of shaping intelligence to fit his worldview and push to get Gates fired.