Danger of Keeping Robert Gates
Thursday 13 November 2008
by: Robert Parry, Consortium News
Press reports say Barack Obama may retain George W. Bush's Defense
Secretary Robert Gates as a gesture to war-time continuity,
bipartisanship and respect for the Washington insider community,
which has embraced Gates as something of a new Wise Man.
However, if Obama does keep Gates on, the new President will be
employing someone who embodies many of the worst elements of U.S.
national security policy over the past three decades, including
responsibility for what Obama himself has fingered as a chief
concern, "politicized intelligence."
During a campaign interview with the Washington Post, Obama said,
"I have been troubled by the politicization of intelligence in this
administration." But it was Gates - as a senior CIA official in the
1980s - who broke the back of the CIA analytical division's
commitment to objective intelligence.
In a recent book, Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of
the CIA, former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman identifies Gates as
the chief action officer for the Reagan administration's drive to
tailor intelligence reporting to White House political desires. A
top "Kremlinologist," Goodman describes how Gates reversed a CIA
tradition of delivering tough-minded intelligence reports with "the
That ethos began to erode in 1973 with President Richard Nixon's
appointment of James Schlesinger as CIA director and Gerald Ford's
choice of George H.W. Bush in 1976, but the principle of
objectivity wasn't swept away until 1981 when Ronald Reagan put in
his campaign chief, William Casey, as CIA director.
Casey then chose the young and ambitious Robert Gates to run the
analytical division. Rather than respect the old mandate for "bark
on" intelligence, "Bob Gates turned that approach on its head in
the 1980s and tried hard to anticipate the views of policymakers in
order to pander to their needs," Goodman wrote.
"Gates consistently told his analysts to make sure never to stick
your finger in the eye of the policymaker."
It didn't take long for the winds of politicization to blow
through the halls of CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia.
"Bill Casey and Bob Gates guided the first institutionalized
'cooking of the books' at the CIA in the 1980s, with a particular
emphasis on tailoring intelligence dealing with the Soviet Union,
Central America, and Southwest Asia," Goodman wrote.
"Casey's first NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] as CIA
director, dealing with the Soviet Union and international
terrorism, became an exercise in politicization. Casey and Gates
pushed this line in order to justify more U.S. covert action in the
"In 1985, they ordered an intelligence assessment of a supposed
Soviet plot against the Pope, hoping to produce a document that
would undermine Secretary of State [George] Shultz's efforts to
improve relations with Moscow. The CIA also produced an NIE in 1985
that was designed to produce an intelligence rationale for arms
sales to Iran."
Hyping Soviet Power
One of the key distortions pushed by Casey and Gates was the
notion that the Soviet Union was a military behemoth with a robust
economy - rather than a decaying power with a shriveling GNP. The
logic of the Casey-Gates position was that exaggerating the Soviet
menace justified higher U.S. military spending and U.S. support for
bloody brush-fire wars - central elements of Reagan's foreign policy.
Since the mid-1970s, the CIA's analytical division had been noting
cracks in the Soviet empire as well as signs of its
economic-technological decline. But that analysis was unwelcome
among Reagan's true-believers.
So, in 1983 when CIA analysts sought to correct over-estimations
of Soviet military spending - to 1 percent a year, down from 4 to 5
percent - Gates blocked the revision, according to Goodman.
From his front-row seat at CIA headquarters, Goodman watched in
dismay as Gates used his bureaucratic skills to consolidate the
agency's new role underpinning favored White House policies.
"While serving as deputy director for intelligence from 1982 to
1986, Gates wrote the manual for manipulating and centralizing the
intelligence process to get the desired intelligence product,"
Gates promoted pliable CIA careerists to top positions, while
analysts with an independent streak were sidelined or pushed out of
"In the mid-1980s, the three senior [Soviet division] office
managers who actually anticipated the decline of the Soviet Union
and Moscow's interest in closer relations with the United States
were demoted," Goodman wrote, noting that he was one of them.
"The Reagan administration would not accept any sign of Soviet
weakness or constraint, and CIA director Casey and deputy director
Gates made sure intelligence analysis presented the Russian Bear as
threatening and warlike," Goodman wrote.
These institutional blinders remained in place for the rest of the 1980s.
"As a result, the CIA missed the radical change that Mikhail
Gorbachev represented to Soviet politics and Soviet-American
relations, and missed the challenges to his rule and his ultimate
demise in 1991," Goodman wrote.
When the Soviet Union - the CIA's principal intelligence target -
collapsed without any timely warning to the U.S. government, the
CIA analytical division was derided for "missing" this historic
moment. But the CIA didn't as much "miss" the Soviet collapse as it
was blinded by Gates and other ideological taskmasters to the
reality playing out in plain sight.
Goodman was not alone in identifying Gates as the chief culprit in
the politicization of the CIA's intelligence product. Indeed,
Gates's 1991 confirmation hearing to be George H.W. Bush's CIA
director marked an extraordinary outpouring of career CIA officers
going public with inside stories about how Gates had corrupted the
There also were concerns about Gates's role in misleading Congress
regarding the secret Iran-Contra operations in the mid-1980s, an
obstacle that had prevented Gates from getting the top CIA job when
Casey died in 1987.
Plus, in 1991, Gates faced accusations that he had greased his
rapid bureaucratic rise by participating in illicit or dubious
clandestine operations, including helping Republicans sabotage
President Jimmy Carter's Iran hostage negotiations in 1980 (the
so-called October Surprise case) and collaborating on a secret plan
to aid Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein (the Iraqgate scandal).
Despite significant evidence implicating Gates in these scandals,
he always managed to slip past relying on his personal charm and
Boy Scout looks. For his 1991 confirmation, influential friends
like Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren,
D-Oklahoma, and Boren's chief of staff George Tenet made sure Gates
got the votes he needed.
In his memoir, From the Shadows, Gates credited his friend, Boren,
with clearing away the obstacles. "David took it as a personal
challenge to get me confirmed," Gates wrote. (Tenet's help on Gates
also earned him some chits with the Bush Family, which paid off in
2001 when Tenet was Bill Clinton's last CIA director and was kept
on by George W. Bush, whom he served loyally, if incompetently.)
After getting confirmed in 1991, Gates remained CIA director until
the end of George H.W. Bush's presidency. However, even after Bill
Clinton removed him in 1993, Gates never wandered far from the Bush
Family orbit, getting help from George H.W. Bush in landing a job
as president of Texas A&M.
During the Clinton years, documents surfaced implicating Gates in
questionable actions from the 1980s, but the new evidence got
For instance, the Russian government sent an extraordinary
intelligence report to a House investigative task force in early
1993 stating that Gates had participated in secret contacts with
Iranian officials in 1980 to delay release of 52 U.S. hostages then
held in Iran, a move that undercut President Carter.
"R[obert] Gates, at that time a staffer of the National Security
Council in the administration of Jimmy Carter, and former CIA
Director George Bush also took part‚" in a meeting in Paris in
October 1980, the classified Russian report said.
In the 1980s, Moscow was very interested in the U.S. dealings with
the new Islamic government of Iran, a neighboring country to the
In July 1981, the Soviets even shot down an Argentine-registered
plane that strayed into Soviet airspace while delivering a supply
of weapons from Israel to Iran with the Reagan administration's
secret knowledge and blessing.
The Russian allegation about Gates and the Paris meeting in
October 1980 also didn't stand alone. The House task force had
other evidence from French and Israeli intelligence officials, as
well as witnesses from the arms-trafficking field, corroborating
reports of Reagan-Bush contacts with Iranian officials in Europe
during Campaign 1980.
However, the House task force never followed up on the Russian
report because when it arrived - on Jan. 11, 1993 - the chairman,
Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, had already decided to get rid of the
October Surprise case as part of a sweeping clean of investigations
into alleged Reagan-Bush wrongdoing.
Years later, Lawrence Barcella, the task force's chief counsel,
told me that in late 1992 evidence implicating the Republicans in
the October Surprise caper had begun pouring in, so much so that he
urged Hamilton to extend the investigation several months.
Instead, Hamilton ordered the inquiry wrapped up - and the October
Surprise allegations rejected - all the better to start the new
Clinton administration with a bipartisan gesture to the
Like much of the other incriminating evidence, the Russian report
was shoved into a box and stuck in a remote Capitol Hill storage
room. I discovered it in late 1994 after gaining access to the task
By then, however, there was almost no media interest in the "old"
scandals of the Reagan-Bush years. Not only were those stories
dated, but many of the central players were either dead or - like
Gates - out of government.
Gates also was implicated in a secret operation to funnel military
assistance to Iraq in the 1980s, as the Reagan administration
played off Iran and Iraq battling each other in the eight-year-long
Middle Eastern witnesses alleged that Gates worked on the secret
Iraqi initiative, which included Saddam Hussein's procurement of
cluster bombs and chemicals used to produce chemical weapons for
the war against Iran.
Gates denied all the Iran-Iraq accusations in 1991, and Boren's
Senate Intelligence Committee never pressed too hard to check them
However, four years later - in early January 1995 - Howard
Teicher, one of Reagan's National Security Council officials, added
more details about Gates's alleged role in the Iraq shipments.
In a sworn affidavit submitted in a Florida criminal case, Teicher
stated that the covert arming of Iraq dated back to spring 1982
when Iran had gained the upper hand in the war, leading President
Reagan to authorize a U.S. tilt toward Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The effort to arm the Iraqis was "spearheaded" by CIA Director
William Casey and involved his deputy, Robert Gates, according to
"The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director
Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S.
origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq," Teicher
Ironically, this same pro-Iraq initiative involved Donald
Rumsfeld, then Reagan's special emissary to the Middle East. An
infamous photograph from 1983 shows a smiling Rumsfeld shaking
hands with Saddam Hussein.
Teicher described Gates's role as far more substantive than
Rumsfeld's. "Under CIA Director [William] Casey and Deputy Director
Gates, the CIA authorized, approved and assisted [Chilean arms
dealer Carlos] Cardoen in the manufacture and sale of cluster bombs
and other munitions to Iraq," Teicher wrote.
However, like the Russian report, the Teicher affidavit was never
seriously examined or explained.
After Teicher submitted it to a federal court in Miami, the
affidavit was classified and then attacked by Clinton
administration prosecutors. They saw Teicher's account as
disruptive to their prosecution of a private company, Teledyne
Industries, and one of its salesmen, Ed Johnson.
Gates benefited, too, from Official Washington's boredom with -
and even hostility toward - Reagan-Bush-I-era scandals.
Instead, the polite and personable Gates continued to enjoy
influential protectors on both sides of the aisle, from Republicans
around George H.W. Bush to Democrats like David Boren and Lee
Plus, some of Gates's CIA proteges, such as former Deputy Director
John McLaughlin, were liked by Democrats as well as Republicans.
(McLaughlin was a member of Obama's intelligence advisory group
during Campaign 2008.)
Gates's connections - and his timing - served him well when he was
placed on the Iraq Study Group in 2006 along with its co-chairs,
Lee Hamilton and Bush Family lawyer James Baker. By fall 2006, the
ISG was moving toward recommending a drawdown of U.S. forces in
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush found himself in need of a new
Defense Secretary to replace Donald Rumsfeld, who had grown
disillusioned with the Iraq War.
Though Rumsfeld was viewed publicly as a hardliner, privately he
sided with his field commanders, Generals George Casey and John
Abizaid, in favoring a smaller U.S. "footprint" in Iraq and a
phased withdrawal. Rumsfeld put his views in writing on Nov. 6,
2006, the day before congressional elections.
With Rumsfeld going wobbly, Bush turned to Gates and - after
getting Gates's assurance that he would support Bush's intent to
escalate the war, not wind it down - Bush offered him the job.
Rumsfeld's firing and Gates's hiring were announced the day after
the Nov. 7 elections and were widely misinterpreted as signs that
Bush was throwing in the towel on Iraq.
Rumsfeld's memo was disclosed by the New York Times on Dec. 3,
2006, two days before Gates was scheduled for his confirmation
hearing. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Gates Hearing Has New
But Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee were so
enthralled by the false narrative of Bush tossing over the
ideologue (Rumsfeld) in favor of the realist (Gates) that they took
no note of what the real sequence of events suggested, that Bush
was determined to send more troops.
Gates was whisked through to confirmation with no questions about
the Rumsfeld memo and with unanimous Democratic support. Sen.
Hillary Clinton and other senior Democrats praised Gates for his
Within a few weeks, however, it became clear that Bush - with
Gates's help - had bamboozled the Democrats.
Not only did Bush dash the Democrats' hopes for a bipartisan
strategy on Iraq by junking the ISG recommendations, but he chose
to escalate by adding 30,000 new troops. Instead of negotiating
with Iran and Syria as the ISG wanted, Bush sent aircraft carrier
strike groups to the region.
For his part, Gates joined in pummeling the Democrats by
suggesting that their legislation opposing the "surge" was aiding
and abetting the enemy.
"Any indication of flagging will in the United States gives
encouragement to those folks," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon
on Jan. 26, 2007. "I'm sure that that's not the intent behind the
resolutions, but I think it may be the effect."
During Campaign 2008, Gates also opposed Obama's plan to set a
16-month timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq.
Nevertheless, Gates remains a favorite of the Washington insiders,
many of whom - like Lee Hamilton - have expressed warm support for
the idea of keeping him on at least for the early part of the Obama
If the President-elect is serious about taking that advice, he
first might want to review the extensive evidence of Gates's
devious behavior and consider whether Gates deserves the trust of
the American people - and their newly elected government.
This is the third part of a series on the political realities that
will face President Obama. For part one, click on "Can the Republicans
Change?" For part two, click on "Obama: Beware the Lessons of '93."
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s
for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep:
The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two
of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com.
His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush
Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to