Committee Chairman David L. Boren (D., Okla.), who has strongly supported Gates in the past, said that the nomination is not in jeopardy, despite the delay.
"There is nothing I have seen at this point in time - and I underline 'at this point in time' - that would be disqualifying," he said.
The White House statement was issued in London, where Bush is attending a summit meeting. A draft of the statement called the delay "unnecessary," but it was toned down after intelligence committee members objected, said Nancy Coffey, a press aide to Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D., Ohio).
"I think he thought Iran-contra was something that was put away, a forgotten issue. Now it's back, and it's getting under his skin," Metzenbaum said yesterday.
Boren said the committee would expand its inquiry into Gates by seeking testimony from three former CIA officers - Alan D. Fiers Jr., Clair George and Jerry K. Gruner - about the CIA's role in the Reagan administration's secret deals to ship arms to Iran and divert the profits to the Nicaraguan contra rebels in 1985 and 1986.
Fiers pleaded guilty July 9 to charges of withholding information from the congressional intelligence committees and is cooperating with special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh's investigation of a CIA Iran-contra coverup.
Until Fiers' revelation, the CIA had been telling the committee for 4 1/2 years that only former CIA director William J. Casey, who died in April 1987, knew about the diversion before it was revealed in November 1986.
Now Fiers' confession and Iran-contra records suggest that at least six top CIA officials - but not Gates - had some advance knowledge of the scandal.
Fiers swore in court papers that he and George, then the CIA's director of covert operations, lied to Congress in Iran-contra testimony.
He said that, in the summer of 1986, he told George and Gruner, then chief of the CIA's Latin American division, of a deep secret he had learned from White House aide Oliver L. North: that North was skimming millions in profits
from the Iran arms sales and slipping the cash to the contras, defying a congressional ban on aid to the rebels.
Fiers said he had lied about his knowledge of the diversion to the Senate intelligence committee. The evidence shows other CIA officials may have lied too.