WHILE DEMOCRATIC CONTROL of Congress poses new challenges to the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and the war on terrorism, former CIA Director Robert Gates's appointment as secretary of Defense is expected to create a less contentious atmosphere with lawmakers than existed under his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.
During confirmation proceedings beginning today, some lawmakers will likely be eager to rehash with Gates the same grievances they had with Rumsfeld. Senator Carl Levin, the incoming chairman of the Armed Serves Committee, said he wants to focus on future management of the Pentagon and will keep a close eye on a Gates-led Defense Department.
"We need to make sure the American people are getting the proper return on their tax dollars and that Pentagon activities are proper, lawful, and transparent," Levin said a week after the November elections. "There has been inadequate oversight from this Republican Congress, and they have too often been a rubber stamp for administration policies and too often been unwilling to probe the inadequacies, shortfalls, and failures of administration practices and policies."
Despite Levin's vow to be more aggressive in overseeing the Pentagon, Gates will likely be less confrontational than was Rumsfeld--and he is expected to be more forthcoming than his predecessor, who was famous for spurning lawmakers' hearing invitations and information requests. As CIA director from 1991 to 1993, Gates made himself available to Intelligence Committee members during a tumultuous time at the agency, when the demise of the Soviet Union prompted moves to dramatically reorganize America's intelligence infrastructure and cut its budget.
Gates was a strong advocate for maintaining the CIA funding near Cold War levels, even at a time when lawmakers were slashing money and manpower from the armed services after Operation Desert Storm.
"I know that a number of you are convinced that this intelligence budget must be cut. I understand that," Gates told a joint hearing before the House and Senate intelligence committees in April of 1992. "But I would point out, as we begin this dialogue, we already have been cut, and fairly deeply. We do not begin at the beginning."
Like Rumsfeld's vision of a leaner, more modern military, the former CIA chief saw the Warsaw Pact's collapse as an opportunity to transform the intelligence community for a new set of adversaries, streamlining analytical organizations within the defense and civilian spy agencies and refocusing strategic priorities.
Though Gates' reformist mandate occasionally bumped up against a Congress intent on forcing change through legislation, the former director's defense of executive control of intelligence ruffled few feathers.
"With oversight committees especially, Gates had a good working relationship," said George Behan, spokesman for Rep. Norm Dicks, a Democrat who served on the House Intelligence Committee while Gates was CIA director. With Gates at the Pentagon's helm, Behan noted, "we have someone now at DoD who has a respect for Congress."
Soon-to-be Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Levin said questions raised during Gates's 1991 confirmation to be CIA director--concerning whether he shaped analysis of the Soviet Union to fit administration anti-communist policy--would be revisited during the committee's deliberations over his nomination for Defense chief.
"The important thing with Mr. Gates is whether or not he is independent, whether or not he will he speak truth to power. Or will he . . . shape the intelligence and the information in order to support policy," Levin explained. "There are a number of questions with respect to Mr. Gates that need to be satisfactorily answered.
"I want to take a fresh look at Mr. Gates. I'm not going to vote 'no' because I voted 'no' 15 years ago," he said.
WHILE LEVIN, and his Democratic counterpart in the House, incoming Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, promise greater oversight of the DoD, Gates's experience as deputy director for Intelligence and assistant CIA director in the 1980s may serve him well in dealing with the intense scrutiny.
"He went from being a junior analyst to being a senior official at precisely the time when oversight began" for the CIA, recalls the American Enterprise Institute's Gary Schmitt, who served with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in the early 1980s and as the director of Ronald Reagan's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board until 1988.
"He grew up in that system so he probably knows the pluses and minuses as well as anybody," Schmitt said.
Christian Lowe is a senior staff writer covering defense and national security for Capitol Leader and a contributor to The Daily Standard.