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Congress can't ignore record of CIA nominee

By nominating Robert Gates to be director of central intelligence, President Bush is betting that the Iran-Contra scandal has become irrelevant history. But since February 1987 _ the previous time Gates was nominated to be CIA director _ thousands of pages of documents and testimony in the Iran-Contra affair have been declassified. It is a record Congress cannot ignore.

The documents suggest that, at worst, Gates participated in a coverup. At best, Gates was a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil bureaucrat who had information on his desk about the arms-for-hostages deals, the illicit Contra resupply efforts and the diversion of funds between the two _ and simply looked away.

While head of the CIA's analysis directorate, Gates attended a Dec. 5, 1985 meeting in the office of then-Deputy CIA Director John McMahon.

According to meeting notes, those present were informed that an American hostage, Benjamin Weir, had been "released for one planeload" but that the United States "got nothing for second load."

They also learned that National Security Council staffer Oliver North was "arranging up to five planeloads," and that the "president signed the finding" _ a retroactive authorization for the CIA's role in arranging the "second load," a November shipment of Hawk missiles to Iran.

Testifying before Congress a year later, Gates defended the arms-for-hostages initiative, calling it "an exchange of bona fides" that "had merit."

Sen. William Cohen finally asked, "How can you say that this program makes sense" and also say "You don't know the details of the operation?"

Finally, Gates knew about the diversion. On Oct. 1, 1986, a CIA analyst, Charles Allen, told Gates that funds had been diverted from the Iran arms deals to the Contras.

"I was startled by what he told me," Gates testified later.

In an Oct. 7 meeting, between Casey, Gates and Allen, it was decided Allen would put the information in a memorandum.

Two days later Gates, North and Casey had lunch at CIA headquarters _ the day Eugene Hasenfus had told a press conference in Managua he believed he was working for the CIA when his plane, carrying weapons for the Contras, was shot down over Nicaragua.

Gates claimed later that all he asked North about was the CIA's role in Hasenfus' flight, and when North assured him the CIA was "completely clean," Gates inquired no further.

Ultimately, leaks from Iran broke the scandal in early November 1986.

Casey was called to Capitol Hill. Gates, who by now had succeeded McMahon as deputy director, was in charge of coordinating Casey's testimony. After reading "two or three drafts" he recommended no changes _ even though the testimony failed to mention the diversion and maintained that the CIA did not know the November 1985 shipment to Iran included Hawk missiles.

Casey, who is now deceased, was never questioned about the effort to cover up the CIA's still largely unknown role in the Iran-Contra operation.

Last year the Bush administration quashed the prosecution of the former CIA station chief in Costa Rica, charged with perjury, on the grounds of protecting secrets.

The independent counsel, Lawrence Walsh, protested that this action "created an unacceptable enclave that is free from the rule of law."

Gates' confirmation hearings could shed light on that "enclave." Or Congress can simply look away.

Tom Blanton and Peter Kornbluh are editors of The Iran-Contra Affair: The Making of a Scandal, a collection of documents.

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