Michael Crowley of the New Republic is the latest journalist to give absolution to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates for his long record of politicizing intelligence and undercutting conciliatory policy initiatives. In the current issue of the magazine, Crowley refers to Gates as “one of Washington’s most revered figures” and credits him with the completion of a “years-long rehabilitation of his once-controversial image.”
This is a good time to review that “controversial image” and to consider whether and how much Mr. Gates has really changed.
As deputy director for intelligence and then deputy director of the CIA, Gates was wrong about every key intelligence question of the 1980s – either because he allowed his assumptions to override the evidence or because he was politicizing the evidence. A Kremlinologist by training, Gates was one of the last American hardliners to comprehend the changes taking place in the Soviet Union. He was wrong about Mikhail Gorbachev, wrong about the importance of reform, wrong about Moscow’s pursuit of arms control and détente with the United States.
He was wrong about the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, wrong about Moscow and Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, wrong about Soviet withdrawal of ground forces from Central Europe and naval forces from the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. He penned a series of op-eds on Gorbachev, first arguing that Gorbachev was a fraud and a fake, then arguing that Gorbachev would be replaced by neo-Stalinists. Gates totally missed the emergence of Boris Yeltsin and the possibility of further reform. The year the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union was on its way to dissolution, Gates was telling various Congressional committees that a “long, competitive struggle with the Soviet Union still lies before us” and that the “dictatorship of the Communist party remains untouched and untouchable.”
Gates was eager to give his bosses what they wanted during the Reagan and Bush administrations in the 1980s and 1990s.When CIA Director William Casey wanted a National Intelligence Estimate that blamed international terrorism on the Soviet Union, Gates guided the project. When Casey wanted an intelligence assessment blaming Moscow for the plot to assassinate the Pope, Gates selected the analysts and dictated the conclusions.
For an estimate to justify selling arms to Iran and passing the proceeds to the Contras in Nicaragua, again Gates was Casey’s man. When the Reagan administration required speeches to justify Star Wars by trumpeting Soviet missile shields, it was Gates who tailored the intelligence and aggressively presented the case. When Casey wanted op-eds that challenged intelligence findings on the Soviet retreat from the third world, it was Gates who wrote them for The Washington Times and other papers.
Gates’ tailoring of intelligence for President Ronald Reagan led to his nomination to be CIA director in 1987 after Casey succumbed to a brain tumor. The Senate Intelligence Committee did not believe that Gates was being truthful about his denials of knowledge regarding Iran-Contra, and committee Chairman David Boren (D-Oklahoma) convinced Gates he would not survive the committee’s vote. Gates wisely withdrew his nomination. He was nominated a second time in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush and, once again, was prepared to withdraw his nomination following testimony and sworn affidavits that documented his politicization of intelligence on the Soviet Union, Central America, the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia.
Boren convinced Gates that he could get him through the process, and the White House brought in a senior political operative, Kenneth Dubberstein, to manage the nomination. Gates survived, but attracted more negative votes (31) than all other candidates for the position of director in the CIA’s history. A Senate staffer told me that Boren was willing to stick his neck out for Gates because the senator had a guarantee from the nominee that he would dutifully report all CIA transgressions to the committee chairman.
Gates failed the first test of this so-called guarantee. He predictably covered up evidence of CIA information about Iraqi laundering of US farm credits through an Italian-owned bank to permit Saddam Hussein to procure nuclear-related equipment. Despite Gates’ personal guarantee to Boren that he would be “faithful to the imperatives of honest consultation with the Congress,” when the time came, Gates was busily engaged in a political campaign against a member of Congress, Rep. Henry Gonzalez (D-Texas), who was trying to uncover illegal activity in the Bush administration. His performance in this instance was similar to his mid-1980s effort to suppress intelligence detailing Iraqi and Pakistani efforts to pursue nuclear weapons; at that time, he was protecting the Reagan administration’s policies of assisting Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran and maintaining Pakistani support for funneling aid to the mujihadeen. Gates has always served his patrons.
Hard-liner Gates had no hesitation in trying to compromise the conciliatory policy initiatives of Secretaries of State George Shultz and James Baker in the Reagan and Bush administrations. When CIA Director Casey wanted to throw a wrench into Shultz’s détente policies with the Kremlin, it was Gates who crafted anti-Soviet speeches and op-eds that resurrected the evil empire line. Interestingly, Gates still refers to Russia as the “evil empire.” Shultz eventually confronted Gates and accused him of “manipulating” the secretary of state with phony intelligence and providing “bum dope” to the president of the United States.
When national security adviser Brent Scowcroft wanted to hinder Baker’s interest in an arms control dialogue with Moscow, it was Gates who volunteered to give a series of hard-line, anti-Soviet speeches. Only Baker’s threat to take the issue directly to President Bush led Scowcroft to muzzle Gates. The memoirs of both Shultz and Baker document Gates’ lack of integrity and their lack of trust in him. Yet, Gates often bragged that he was the only CIA director in history whom a Soviet president and two secretaries of state wanted to fire.
On policy issues, when Gates wasn’t slavishly following the hard-line initiatives of his patrons, he performed as a windsock, hewing to the prevailing winds and never being out of step with his bosses. Iraq provides a good example of his tergiversation. As a member of the Iraq Study Group in 2006 and reporting to former Secretary of State Baker, Gates supported a phased withdrawal from Iraq and direct dialogue with Iran and Syria. As a newly appointed secretary of defense in 2006, Gates initially opposed a surge of military forces in Iraq.
When President George W. Bush supported the surge, Gates did his volt-face. The notion of placing a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic is another case in point. Gates announced the deployment of missiles in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic while serving in the Bush administration. And he announced the cancellation of the system while serving in the Obama administration. In an op-ed for The New York Times, he took credit for both policies and referred to himself as a “pragmatist.” Somehow, pragmatist is not the first word that comes to mind.
It is unfortunate that all of this has become ancient history to pundits like Crowley and others, who are willing to ignore the fact that past is often prologue. Now 66 years old, Gates presumably has gained experience and, hopefully, some wisdom. In his 40s, he was willing to distort intelligence evidence, dissemble before congressional committees and undercut senior administration officials.
It is certainly far too soon for Crowley to be describing Gates as the “elder statesman of the Obama administration – judicious, temperate and objective, the model of a realist wise man.” Certainly one thing hasn’t changed. Crowley is wrong to imply that Gates is waiting to decide on the question of more troops for Afghanistan, so that he can have influence as the arbiter of that decision. More likely, Gates, ever the windsock, is once again waiting to see which way the wind is blowing on this crucial decision, so that he isn’t out of line with his patron. This trait hasn’t changed. He may be the same Bob Gates.