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Q&A: Who Is Robert Gates?

President Bush announced at the White House Wednesday that he would nominate Robert Gates to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In an interview with Neal Conan, host of Talk of the Nation, NPR intelligence correspondent Mary Louise Kelly talks about Gates, the former head of the CIA and a veteran of the first Bush administration.

Neal Conan: Tell us a little bit about Robert Gates.

Mary Louise Kelly: He certainly knows his way around Washington circles. He has served on the National Security Council. He was Brent Scowcroft's deputy there during the first Bush presidency. He's highly respected in intelligence circles and is known as a loyal servant of the Bush family. He is currently president of Texas A&M University. One other point worth mentioning: This is not the first time President Bush has tried to pull Gates into his administration. Bob Gates was actually the first choice for the new position of national intelligence director when that job was created last year. And Gates turned it down. At the time... he made clear he thought the job was a pretty bad idea and would add a layer of bureaucracy. So it's interesting to see he's coming back to Washington to serve his president.

Conan: Of course, as head of the Defense Department, if he's confirmed, he will be dealing with that new intelligence chief. The majority of the funding and the majority of the efforts in American intelligence come from the Department of Defense.

Kelly: He'll also be grappling first and foremost with Iraq. He is a member of the Iraq Study Group, this bipartisan commission the president has appointed. It's being run by a pair of insiders. There are a number of heavy hitters on that panel, and Bob Gates has been one of them. So he's been very involved right up to this current moment in terms of looking at Iraq and asking how can it be done better.

Conan: You describe him as a Bush family loyalist.

Kelly: I don't think he'll be seen as a partisan. That's my impression from having talked with him. He's served six presidents, a bunch of administrations. To speak to him, he does not come across as someone who is going to toe a hard Republican Party line. His CIA tenure was memorable on a couple of accounts, one of which was that on his confirmation hearings for that post in 1991, there was a controversy about what role Bob Gates played in the Iran Contra controversy. [The Senate voted, 64 to 31 to confirm Gates after contentious CIA confirmation hearings.] I would be surprised if any of that came up to threaten his current nomination.

He has been in and out of the CIA for most of his career. He certainly has experience dealing with allies such as Pakistan and across the Middle East. He's going to come at this from a different angle. He does not have tremendous military experience, although he did spend a couple of years in the Air Force in the Vietnam era. It's a little ways back, but those credentials will now be serving him well.

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