Soon after the Sandinistas downed an arms-laden plane over Nicaragua, Robert M. Gates met privately with three other senior CIA officials to decide what they would tell Congress as it investigated whether the secret mission violated a U.S. ban on military aid to the right-wing insurgents seeking to topple the Marxist government.
That meeting was the subject of an inquiry by Iran-contra prosecutors when they considered indicting Gates over allegations that he deceived Congress about the illegal program.
Questions about whether Gates told the truth about his role in the Iran-contra scandal 20 years ago may surface again during a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday on his recent nomination by President Bush to replace Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense.
Gates' responses may not threaten his nomination after all these years. But they could shed light on his credibility—a highly sensitive issue that has dogged the White House and Rumsfeld because of perceptions that they have misled the public about the rationale for going to war in Iraq and how they intend to prevail.
In its day, the Iran-contra scandal, which engulfed the Reagan-era White House when President Bush's father was vice president, had all the intrigue of a spy novel. Some critics have always wondered whether Gates—one of the scandal's few political survivors—disclosed all he knew about the illicit mission to arm the rightist faction, called the contras, that sought to overthrow the Marxist government controlled by the Sandinistas, who were inspired by the late Nicaraguan rebel leader Augusto Sandino.
A final Iran-contra report by Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh focused on one private meeting involving Gates, then the CIA deputy director under William Casey.
That meeting—shortly after the Oct. 5, 1986 downing of the contra plane—preceded a call days later by a contra official to The Miami Herald and other newspapers to falsely claim responsibility for the plane, which belonged to a then-secret contra re-supply network run by National Security Council aide Oliver North.
Gates maintained that he knew nothing about the illegal program and North's role in it until Nov. 25, 1986. That is when then-Attorney General Edwin Meese disclosed that profits earned from covert weapons sales to the Iranian government—in return for the release of American hostages—were being used to fund the contra forces.
The diversion of the Iranian profits was among the ways that some Reagan administration officials used to circumvent the Boland Amendment, which barred U.S. military aid to the contras—forces initially funded by the CIA.
The independent counsel—and other observers—had their doubts about Gates' truthfulness.
"It was incredible for an active deputy director to Bill Casey to be that much out of the picture," said Thomas Polgar, a veteran CIA officer who is now retired in the Orlando, Fla., area.
Polgar testified against Gates' nomination for CIA director in 1991. "I still felt very strongly that in 1986 they covered up the situation and that Gates was part of the cover-up."
Alan Fiers, former head of the CIA Central American Task Force, who pleaded guilty for his role in the scandal, took an opposite view in a telephone interview last week from his Palm Beach County, Fla., home.
"He didn't have a clear view of all that was going on, and he wasn't involved in the cover-up part of it," said Fiers, who attended the meeting with Gates in the immediate aftermath of the shoot down.
He added that Gates should not have to "go through the wringer again" on Iran-contra.
The White House, speaking for Gates, declined to respond to The Miami Herald's questions about his involvement in Iran-contra.
"There is an extensive public record on this, and a Senate hearing will be held on Tuesday where Mr. Gates looks forward to answering the senators' questions," said White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo.
What Gates and the three other CIA officials—Casey, Fiers and clandestine-service chief Clair George—discussed during the October 1986 meeting was central to the Iran-contra investigation.
Afterward, Fiers and George testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Oct. 14 that the CIA was not involved.
At the time, congressional leaders were trying to establish whether senior CIA officials sought to cover up the agency's participation.
North was assisted by some lower-level CIA officers and private operatives, including retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Secord and Cuban exiles Luis Posada Carriles and Felix RodrIguez.
In the end, prosecutors decided not to indict Gates because they found insufficient evidence—but they concluded that his public statements were "less than candid." They noted that Gates "participated in two briefings that helped lull congressional investigators into believing that the CIA was not involved in facilitating private re-supply flights."
An account of the meeting involving Casey, Gates, George and Fiers was included in the Iran-contra prosecutor's final report. It does not say whether the four agreed to mask government involvement in the illegal program. The report notes that Gates may have left the meeting at some point.
Fiers told The Miami Herald that he was not trying to come up with a "cover story," but rather was pushing for someone to tell the truth because the spotlight was on the CIA.
Gates has acknowledged in public testimony after the scandal broke that four days before the plan was shot down, another CIA officer told him that proceeds of Iran arms sales may have been diverted to the contras. But Gates has also maintained that he was unaware of North's operational role until Meese's disclosure nearly two months later.
Either Gates was unable to establish a connection or pretended not to know of any such link, according to some former senior CIA officers who knew Gates.
"By Gates' own admission, how do you know about the diversion and not know about Ollie North's operation?" said Vincent Cannistraro, who was on detail to the NSC National Security Council at the time.
The October 1986 meeting took place in Casey's office, according to the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters.
Prosecutors included the meeting in the Gates chapter under the subtitle "Obstruction of the Hasenfus Inquiries."
Eugene Hasenfus, the sole survivor of the plane shootdown, was captured by the Sandinistas after parachuting to safety. Within days, Hasenfus told the Sandinistas that re-supply flights left from a Salvadoran air base, launched by CIA operatives.
Eventually, investigators learned that the air base was partly under the control of North and Secord, that the flights were launched by Posada and RodrIguez, and that at least one CIA officer in Central America provided intelligence for weapons drops.
Gates appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee three days after the shoot down and was asked whether the plane was linked to the CIA.
"No, sir," Gates replied. "We didn't have anything to do with that."
While there was no evidence that Gates knew then that CIA subordinates had aided the North-Secord network, he did know by then of the concern that North and Secord were diverting funds from the Iran arms sales to the contras," the Iran-contra prosecutor's report said.
According to the report, Gates joined Casey, Fiers and George at a meeting a few days after the Oct. 8 congressional testimony. Fiers told the group that speculation about a CIA role in the prohibited program would end if someone took responsibility for re-supply flights.
Fiers proposed that Secord assume responsibility, but Fiers' boss, George, objected, reminding Casey that Secord "has other problems," the report said . . . a reference to Canadian investors' threats to disclose the diversion.
On Oct. 13, 1986, a Washington-based spokesman for the contras, Bosco Matamoros, called reporters at The Miami Herald, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times and claimed that the downed plane belonged to the contras.
The New York Times published the claim the next day Fiers testified before the House Intelligence Committee and denied any agency role in the resupply network.
What Matamoros did not say is that a day earlier, contra leader Adolfo Calero had called him from Miami and ordered him to contact the reporters and falsely assume responsibility for the plane, The Miami Herald reported in May 1989. Calero said at the time that he could not remember whether he had ordered Matamoros to claim responsibility.
Calero, now in Nicaragua, did not respond to telephone requests for an interview.
It remains unclear whether the idea to have the contras take the rap was hatched at the meeting in Casey's office.
A former senior contra official familiar with Calero's call said he believes that North called Calero as a result of Fiers' recommendation at the Casey meeting attended by Gates. The former contra official asked not to be identified because he did not have authorization from Calero to disclose the information.
Fiers told The Miami Herald last week that North may have prompted Calero.
"I assume that's what happened," he said. "Common sense tells you somebody got to Calero."
But Fiers denied that such a North-Calero plan "originated in any meeting I was at."
George declined to comment through his lawyer Richard Hibey. A North spokeswoman said he would not be available for comment.
More clues about possible cover stories for the plane's mission were found in North's notebooks. The 1987 joint congressional report on Iran-contra referred to a North note about a call to Fiers, Calero and another contra leader on a press release that would say the plane was "providing humanitarian supplies" to the contras.
The report noted another meeting Oct. 7, 1986, where Fiers and then assistant secretary of state Elliot Abrams discussed ways "to ensure that the U.S. government would not be implicated by the flight."
The 1987 report did not connect the Abrams-Fiers meeting with the subsequent gathering in Casey's office involving Gates, George and Fiers.
A footnote in transcripts of Senate Intelligence Committee hearings in 1991 on Gates' nomination for CIA director referred to another North note on Oct. 13, 1986, alluding to a meeting with "RVS," possibly a reference to Richard V. Secord.
The note refers cryptically to "vulnerabilities if RVS becomes public." That reference is written next to a line that says "W.J.C./Bob G," possibly a reference to William J. Casey and Robert Gates.
Gates testified at his 1991 confirmation hearings that North did not discuss any of those issues with him.
Gates was confirmed and served as CIA director until 1993. He had been nominated once before, in 1987, but withdrew his nomination because fallout from the Iran-contra scandal was still fresh.
(Chardy and Weaver are reporters for The Miami Herald. The staff of The Herald won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the original Iran-contra scandal.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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