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Experience, caution mark Gates's history with Iraq

Robert M. Gates testified before a Senate committee in 1987 during a confirmation hearing for the top CIA post. He withdrew his name but was renominated and confirmed to the post in 1991.
Robert M. Gates testified before a Senate committee in 1987 during a confirmation hearing for the top CIA post. He withdrew his name but was renominated and confirmed to the post in 1991. (Paul Hosefros/ The New York Times)

WASHINGTON -- Robert M. Gates, whom President Bush nominated as the next secretary of defense to bring "fresh perspective" on the Iraq war, has had a long and complicated relationship with the country that now poses the most vexing challenge to US foreign policy, according to declassified documents and a review of the public record.

Gates, a longtime CIA operative and former director, was the official responsible for delivering secret intelligence to Saddam Hussein in the 1980s to help Iraq fight Iran. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Gates traveled secretly to the region to plot Hussein's overthrow, even though he personally worried there was no viable replacement waiting in the wings, according to congressional testimony from the time.

Before the 2003 US invasion, Gates cautioned about the potential consequences of a preemptive war, questioning whether the United States was fully prepared for the task.

Now, after spending nearly eight months reexamining US policy in Iraq as a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, his varied knowledge and experience will help inform his views of what can be accomplished as he prepares to take on the most difficult mission of his career, according to former government officials and participants in commission's deliberations.

"Gates was an analyst, and his mind is always thinking and weighing," said Judith Yaphe , a former CIA analyst on Iraq who worked with Gates at the CIA. "I think it's a good choice."

The Iraq Study Group, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton , was established at the urging of Congress in March to take a "fresh look" at the situation in Iraq, its impact on the surrounding region, and the potential consequences of US actions.

Gates has been a key participant in its deliberations, according to several officials directly involved with its work. Gates, who stepped down from the panel Friday to prepare for his confirmation hearings, recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Iraq. While there, he pressed US commanders on ways to dramatically increase the training of Iraqi forces and sought their advice on whether more US troops would make a difference in stemming the rising sectarian violence and deadly attacks on American troops, according to the officials.

The study group has been assessing a variety of options for how to disengage from Iraq without abandoning the new Iraqi government amid worries about a full-blown civil war.

Commission officials say one approach calls for withdrawing US troops from population centers, redoubling the training of Iraqi forces, and securing the country's borders and oil pipelines. The remaining American troops would focus on hunting down Al Qaeda and other Islamic militants who have been trying to foment sectarian warfare and to prevent them from making Iraq a safe haven.

Another less likely scenario would be to partition the country into Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish regions. Yet another would call for dispatching more US troops to Baghdad to try to clamp down on the violence.

The study group is expected to release its findings in December.

"They [the White House] know in advance where these guys are headed," said Andrew Krepinevich ," director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a Pentagon adviser. "It would seem inconceivable that in interviewing Gates [to replace Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld] they didn't ask him 'what are you going to recommend.' "

Yet Gates's reputation for caution may signal that he would be unwilling to push for dramatic shifts in Iraq, preferring to make changes at the margins, according to some observers.

"The record suggests that Gates combines caution and ambition," according to a report Friday by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which published a series of declassified documents detailing Gates's experience working for every president from Richard M. Nixon to George H. W. Bush. For example, "leading the CIA after the Cold War, Gates promised many reforms but went slowly in implementing them, carefully marshaling agency support before embarking on those reforms."

In the 1980s, when Gates was the second-ranking CIA official, he oversaw the delivery of satellite imagery and other military intelligence to the Iraqi government during its eight-year war against Iran, sometimes only hours after it was gathered by American satellites, congressional hearings after the 1991 war to oust Iraq from Kuwait concluded.

Gates was never found to have broken any laws and told a Senate committee in 1991 that sharing the intelligence was "allowed within the context of the law."

Evidence has since surfaced that US assistance played a crucial role in helping the Iraqi Army launch poison gas attacks at Iranian troops, a violation of international law. There also were allegations at the time that the United States provided arms to Iraq as part of a covert operation that was kept from Congress.

Gates's knowledge of Iraq has led to some prescient predictions. Before the US-led invasion in 2003, he was among one of the few national security leaders to expressed concern that the United States did not fully prepared for both the political and military responsibilities that an occupation would require.

"I think it is going to be perhaps somewhat more difficult than some of the people are saying," Gates told CNN in a February 2003 interview.

Asked in 2002 whether the United States would topple Hussein as part of the war on terrorism, Gates told the Gulf News: "I do not think that the US is prepared to launch a war."

Gates has not always been on target with his Iraq analysis. Declassified documents indicate that top officials warned Gates in the late 1980s, when he was the top CIA analyst, that Iraq was growing more threatening toward its neighbors and that the United States should cut off all aid. Gates overruled those recommendations. Soon after, Iraq invaded Kuwait, sparking the 1991 conflict.

There is also evidence of Gates being a maverick. Gates, who began his CIA career in 1966, opposed the Vietnam War and publicly protested US military involvement in Cambodia. His cubicle at CIA headquarters in Virginia was said to be festooned with anti-Nixon stickers.

He also earned a reputation for not mincing words in front of superiors. Former CIA director Richard Helms told a story about going with Gates -- then working for Henry Kissinger -- to see Nixon in the Oval Office as secretary of defense Melvin Laird was leaving. Nixon pointed to Laird and said, "There goes the most devious man in the United States" -- according to Helms's account.

Gates remarked: "Some accolade, considering the source."

Whether he will be so forthright in pushing for a new Iraq strategy remains to be seen, according to the George Washington University analysis. Wrote national security specialists John Prados and John Blanton: "On Iraq, that may mean shifts in nuance but not direction."

Bryan Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com.

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