Past Is Not Prologue For Gates

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
The Hill
November 16, 2006
Pg. 1

By Elana Schor
Senate Democrats could find themselves walking a fine line as the chamber takes up Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates, weighing the value of regime change at the Pentagon after six stormy years of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld against their new position of power as an incoming majority.
The dozen sitting Democrats who voted against Gates when he took over as CIA director in 1991 face a particular challenge as they re-examine old allegations about Gates’s role in intelligence-gathering during the Iran-Contra affair. Several CIA colleagues came forward then to charge Gates with twisting intelligence to fit the White House agenda, criticism that had derailed an earlier Gates bid to head the agency.
The Senate’s Democratic majority ended up confirming Gates in 1991, with eight members who are still serving voting yes — including new Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Yet, those 12 Democratic votes against Gates in 1991 appear to set little precedent for Senate Democrats ready to replace Rumsfeld’s combative and closed leadership style with Gates, a former member of the independent Iraq Study Group that will soon weigh in on the Iraq war policy.
The first senator to reveal that he would reverse an old vote against Gates was Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that a desire to change course in Iraq would overcome his former skepticism about Iran-Contra.
“To put it very, very bluntly, as long as he’s not there, Rumsfeld is there,” Biden said.
Another Democrat who had opposed Gates’s CIA bid, Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), then attributed his vote to unanswered questions about Gates’s politicization of intelligence, a charge reminiscent of some war critics’ view that the Bush administration “cherry-picked” intelligence to justify invading Iraq.
“In the spirit of moving along,” Baucus said on Monday, he would likely support Gates this time around. “Gates is certainly qualified.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who will take over the Intelligence Committee next year, gave a floor speech against Gates in 1991. Rockefeller said in a statement last week, however, that choosing Gates to head Defense “may signal that [Bush] is searching for a realistic and pragmatic approach in Iraq and the war on terror.”
Other Democrats set to become committee chairmen in January voiced discontent 15 years ago over Gates’s role in sharing intelligence with Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s 1980s war with Iran, including Sens. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa). Seven other sitting Democrats voted against Gates then: Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), John Kerry (Mass.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Chris Dodd (Conn.), Carl Levin (Mich.), and Paul Sarbanes (Md.). Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), who, like Sarbanes, is retiring this year, also voted against Gates.
Levin will take over the Armed Services Committee next year, but he is not likely to gavel in any Gates hearings. Levin and current Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) are planning to start the confirmation process when the Senate returns from Thanksgiving recess and complete it as soon as possible.
What is unclear is whether Democratic senators will view their past votes on Gates as a precedent; the caucus’s unified effort to effect positive change in Iraq and begin a phased redeployment of troops is certain to play into the debate. Reid, who voted to install Gates at the CIA in 1991, said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast yesterday that he welcomes a swift process.
“There is some urgency in our minds to move this along as quickly as possible,” said Reid, who noted that Gates’s ties to Iran-Contra did concern him. “I certainly want to get rid of Rumsfeld, sooner rather than later.”
Levin has said that he will re-examine Gates impartially, adding this week that “the last 15 years are more important to me [than Iran-Contra]. … I’ll give him a fresh, fair hearing.”
Democrats are conscious of the need to thoroughly examine Gates before sending him to replace Rumsfeld, who had become a symbol of the Bush administration’s Iraq missteps for members of both parties. Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Democrats’ new third-ranking leader, was in the House during Gates’s last confirmation vote but cautioned that Democrats “do not want to do anything dilatory.”
Democrats will be asking, “Does he have an independent mind?” Schumer said.
Reid and Schumer addressed several other future goals at the Monitor breakfast. Senate Democratic leaders are considering legislation to establish criminal penalties for election fraud and manipulation, a response to widespread reports last week that Democratic voters were targeted with late-night robo-calls and efforts to mislead them away from the polls.
Reid also hinted that the outside fundraising groups that have become pivotal to Democratic campaign operations would be scrutinized by the Democratic majority.
“We’re going to have to take a real close look at 527s,” Reid said.