Thursday, November 16, 2006

Anybody But Rumsfeld, Say Democrats

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

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.


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.


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