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New defense pick already working on Iraq strategy

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush's choice to take over the Defense Department is already involved in planning for the future of the war in Iraq as a member of a high-level commission reviewing U.S. strategy.

Bush tapped Robert Gates, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency during his father's presidency, on Wednesday to replace embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who stepped down amid heavy criticism of his management of the war.

The 63-year-old Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan, congressionally-established panel led by former Secretary of State James Baker, a longtime Bush family confidante; and Lee Hamilton, the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission.

The panel is working to finish its assessment of the increasingly unpopular conflict and is expected to recommend changes in the U.S. strategy there.

Members already have held extensive high-level meetings with Bush, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and numerous other U.S. and Iraqi military officials. (Watch reaction to 'new face' at Pentagon -- 2:05)

On another contentious issue, Gates has called for direct talks with Iran's government.

In a 2004 paper he co-authored with Carter administration National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Gates argued that "Washington should approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests while continuing to contest objectionable policy."

Gates became dean of the George Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University in 1999 and became the university's president in 2002. He turned down an offer to become Director of National Intelligence in 2004, but told the university Wednesday that he must break his pledge to serve as president for five years.

"I love Texas A&M deeply, but I love our country more," he wrote. "And like the many Aggies in uniform, I am obligated to do my duty." (Readers' advice for Gates)

Gates was a career CIA officer who became the head of the agency's analysis arm in 1982. He was promoted to deputy director in 1986 and became director in 1991.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said he hoped Gates will take "a fresh look at the situation" and move to correct "the mistakes of the past." McCain said he hoped the new secretary will expand the regular Army and Marine Corps to take the strain off reserve and National Guard units now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Obviously, we have to involve other nations in the region to try to help resolve the situation, and of course we need to seek as much bipartisan participation as we can in working on this issue," said McCain, who has said he lost confidence in Rumsfeld long ago. (Watch what Bush said about Rumsfeld quitting -- 1:27)

And Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, said replacing Rumsfeld would make "no difference at all" unless the administration changes the policies it has pursued in Iraq. He said Gates' appointment appears to be a signal that the president will change course soon.

"I think what's going to happen is he needs a legacy. He's a failed president at this point," said Murtha, a former Marine colonel with close ties to the military who stunned Washington last year by calling for a U.S. withdrawal.(Watch analyst predict generals 'will welcome Bob' -- 2:24)

Sen. John Warner, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday that "I'm certain that Gates will come in with some of his own ideas, new ideas, new initiatives."

"I think the Congress, certainly speaking for myself, will give him a lot of respect for those views, once he's in a position of confirmation being complete, being able to express them," he said.

Warner said he would move forward with confirmation hearings before the current Congress wraps up its business.

Iran-Contra questions

Gates has faced controversy in previous confirmation hearings. He withdrew from consideration for the top job at the CIA in 1987 amid questions about his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh's office found his account of the matter "scripted and less than candid," but concluded that there was not enough evidence to bring charges against him.

He eventually got the top job in 1991 over the objections of senators who criticized the agency's failure to predict the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe or Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. (Watch Bush call Gates 'man of vision' -- 2:20)

But Sen. Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he was prepared to give Gates "a fair and fresh look." Levin was one of 31 senators who voted against Gates' confirmation to the CIA's top job in 1991.

And former CIA Director Stansfield Turner praised Gates, telling CNN, "I never saw him do anything that I would question the ethics of or the honesty of."

Turner, who led the agency during the Carter administration, said Gates was able to refurbish the service's reputation after the criticism that followed the era of Vietnam and Watergate.

In an article that appeared on CNN.com in 2002, Gates wrote about the difficulty of "connecting the dots" of raw intelligence reports.

"While some pre-9/11 items of intelligence today seem like red flags, pulling together incomplete or ambiguous fragments of information into a credible and compelling analysis is more difficult than the Monday-morning quarterbacks would have you think," Gates wrote. (Full storyexternal link)


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Robert Gates at the White House Wednesday, after President Bush announced he will nominate Gates to be Secretary of Defense.

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