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Panel Puts Off Gates’ Hearing To Look at New CIA-Iran-Contra Evidence

July 17, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Senate Intelligence Committee will wait until Sept. 16 to begin hearings on President Bush’s nomination of Robert Gates to head the CIA, while it explores new evidence that the agency covered up its role in the Iran- Contra affair.

Both the panel’s chairman, Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., and its senior Republican, Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska, said the two-month delay was not an indication the nomination is in trouble.

But one senior administration official familiar with the strategy for getting Gates through the Senate predicted the weeks ahead will see a steady trickle of allegations with no chance for rebuttal.

″The dynamics are definitely not in his direction,″ said the official, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

Vice President Dan Quayle predicted today that there won’t be any revelations fatal to the Gates nomination in the continuing investigation. ″There is no smoking gun,″ Quayle said.

By delaying confirmation hearings until fall, Quayle suggested, the Senate committee has given critics a clear field for taking shots at Gates.

He told a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in Manchester, N.H., that Gates is being attacked for political reasons and he called the nominee ″a man of complete integrity.″

While it waits for the hearings to begin, the committee plans to grant limited immunity from prosecution to Alan Fiers, the former CIA official who has been talking to government prosecutors about the agency’s coverup role in the Iran-Contra arms and money scandal.

Boren also said the committee had given him authority to subpoena two other potential witnesses who might have knowledge of Gates’ ties to Iran-Contra: Clair George, then the CIA’s deputy director for operations; and Jerry Gruner, then head of the agency’s Latin American division.

George retired from the CIA in 1987. Gruner, whose name had not been publicly revealed in the investigation until Boren mentioned it to reporters Tuesday, remains with the agency as a station chief in a European capital.

Boren said the committee does not contemplate offering immunity to either of the latter two witnesses. Sources have said George remains a target of Iran-Contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh’s criminal investigation.

The panel wants to see what Fiers - and perhaps the others - know about the extent of CIA knowledge of White House aide Oliver North’s network that sold arms to Iran and diverted part of the profits to aid anti-government rebels in Nicaragua.

Senators particularly want to know what Gates may have known.

In past testimony, Gates has denied anything more than a vague knowledge of the Iran-Contra deal until about the time it became public in November 1986. He was then the agency’s No. 2 official.

Fiers, who has pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress in a plea bargain with prosecutors, testified that the network was much more widely known within the CIA months before it was publicly revealed. He said officials just below Gates in the chain of command knew of it.

Boren and Murkowski said delaying the hearings was preferable to a start- and-stop process that could drag on for months, and that Gates and the White House were in full agreement with the decision.

But the move came just four days after Bush delivered an emotional defense of Gates and called for an immediate start to the hearings, while castigating the Senate panel for panicking and running ″like a covey of quail″ under public pressure.

Since then, however, the president has come to understand the legal and procedural problems the committee faces, and has changed his mind, Boren said.

Boren said Walsh has no objection to granting immunity to Fiers. As for the other possible witnesses, Boren said Walsh hopes to have completed most of his case by September or October and may not object to their being questioned then.

North’s personal calendars show he was in contact with Gruner during 1986 when Gruner was Latin American division chief and Fiers’ immediate superior.

Fiers has told prosecutors that he informed George of the diversion of arms sale proceeds to the rebels in late summer 1986, but that George already knew about it when Fiers told him. Fiers says George directed him to hide his knowledge of the North network from Congress.

″There is nothing I have seen at this point in time - and I underline ‘at this point in time’ - that would be disqualifying″ to Gates, Boren told reporters after an hour-long, closed-door committee meeting Tuesday.

He said Gates had told him, ″If I did not have a clear conscience, I would not have accepted the nomination when the president offered it to me.″ Gates would succeed William Webster, who is retiring after four years as CIA chief.

In addition to the Iran-Contra affair, the intelligence committee wants to question Gates about CIA involvement with the scandal-tainted Bank of Credit and Commerce International, alleged arms sales to Iraq facilitated by the agency, and intelligence shortcomings during the Persian Gulf War.