WASHINGTON—While Donald Rumsfeld was Ronald Reagan’s errand boy to Saddam Hussein in the mid-1980s, Robert Gates, the man named yesterday to succeed him as Secretary of Defense, was at the very heart of the American intelligence apparatus, actively planning and carrying out covert operations in Central America and the Middle East.
Gates, a 26-year CIA veteran and the agency’s director between 1991 and 1993, has long been accused of undermining competent, unbiased intelligence analysis at the agency during his tenure, opening the way for its role in partisan politics, a reality brought to the fore again as the Bush administration made its flawed and phony case for war with Iraq. Gates was a high official at the CIA at a time when the U.S. intelligence community experienced one of its most humiliating debacles: the failure to predict the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Instead, under CIA director William Casey the U.S. concocted evidence showing the expansion of Reagan’s “evil empire.”
Casey and his protégé Gates were fervent Cold Warriors. On December 14, 1984, in a five page memorandum for then Director of Intelligence Casey, Gates, then serving as deputy director of intelligence, set forth his views: “It is time to talk absolutely straight about Nicaragua,” the memo begins. “The Nicaraguan regime is steadily moving toward consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist government, and the establishment of a permanent and well-armed ally of the Soviet Union and Cuba on the mainland of the western hemisphere. Its avowed aim is to spread further revolution in the Americas.”
Gates goes on to say this is an “unacceptable” course, arguing that the U.S. should do everything “in its power short of invasion to put that regime out.” Hopes of causing that regime to reform itself for a more pluralistic government are “essentially silly and hopeless,” he wrote. (The ironic upshot of this sort of thinking can be found in the recent election of the former Sandanista leader Daniel Ortega as president of Nicaragua.)
Nicaragua wasn’t the only place Gates wanted to take action. In 1985, sounding very much like one of today’s neoconservative hawks, the then head of intelligence analysis at the CIA drafted a plan for a joint U.S.-Egyptian military operation to invade Libya, overthrow Col. Muamar Ghaddafi, and “redraw the map of North Africa.” On the basis of this idea, CIA Director Casey, sometimes said to be the man who invented Gates, ordered up a list of Libyan targets and the National Security Council developed a plan to have Egypt attack Libya with U.S. air support and seize half the country. The Joint Chiefs drew up plans for a military operation involving 90,000 troops. Alarmed, the State Department subsequently succeeded in downsizing Gates proposal to “contingency” status.
According to Robert Parry, a reporter who has closely tracked this period in the CIA’s history, during this time the Reagan administration was “pressing the CIA to adopt an analysis that accepted right-wing media reports pinning European terrorism on the Soviets. The CIA analysts knew that these charges were false, in part because they were based on ‘black’ or false propaganda that the CIA itself had been planting in the European media. But the ‘politicization’ tide was strong.” And Gates, he writes, led an effort to implicate the Soviets in the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. “In 1985, Gates closeted a special team to push through another pre-cooked paper arguing that the KGB was behind the 1981 wounding of Pope John Paul II. CIA analysts again knew that the charge was bogus, but could not block the paper from leaving CIA.”
Critics have long thought Gates was heavily involved from the very beginning in putting together and implementing the secret Iran-Contra war. In his book, “Firewall: The Iran/Contra conspiracy and Cover-Up,” Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel in the Iran-Contra investigation, wrote that he was skeptical of Gates’ repeated denials of having been aware or involved with the details of the Iran-Contra operations with Oliver North. According to the National Security Archive’s chronology of the day-by-day happenings in Iran-Contra, on October 1, 1985 the CIA’s National Intelligence Officer, Charles Allen, informed then deputy director Gates of his suspicion that funds were being diverted to the Contras. Gates, for his part, has insisted he first learned of the diversion one year later. “Whenever questioned, Gates had always claimed that he had first learned of Allen’s concern about the diversion on the day after Eugene Hasenfus was shot down over Nicaragua on October 5, 1986,” writes Walsh, referring to the lone survivor on board a CIA cargo plane that was shot down over Nicaragua while on a mission to supply the Contras. “Gates said that he and Allen had then reported this to Casey, who told them that he had just received much the same information from another source.”
In blunt terms, Walsh thought Gates was a liar. It was only for a lack of evidence that he eventually gave up trying to indict him.
In November 1991, years after Iran-Contra messily unraveled, the Senate deliberated on the nomination of Gates to succeed William H. Webster as the next director of Central Intelligence. Democrats, including former Senator Tom Daschle, Jay Rockefeller, and the late Paul Wellstone spoke forcefully, vowing to vote against the nominee. “Robert Gates became the Deputy Director of the CIA in April, 1986, after a meteoric rise in the Agency,” Wellstone said. “His confirmation hearings provided ample and credible evidence that, as the Deputy Director, he repeatedly skewed intelligence to promote the world view of his mentor and his boss, William Casey. Analysts specializing in the Soviet Union, Latin America, Africa, and scientific affairs, came forward–some at risk to their careers in the agency–to provide examples. The record further strongly suggests that Robert Gates supported–passively or actively–terribly misguided or illegal covert operations, including the diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan Contras obtained through the sale of arms to Iran. He also had a hand in hiding some of the details of these covert operations from Congress. Lastly, the record showed that Robert Gates crossed the line from independent intelligence-gathering into high-profile policymaking when he gave speeches advocating an unyielding line toward the Soviet Union and deployment of a star wars missile defense system.”
During the same debate, Daschle said: “My questions regarding whether or not Robert Gates participated in the politicization of intelligence culminate in my deep concern about what we can expect from Robert Gates if he is confirmed as the next Director of Central Intelligence.” He continued, “Again, I ask my colleagues, if Robert Gates cooked the books to advocate the ideological position of the administration while serving as Deputy Director for Intelligence and Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, is it possible that U.S. intelligence under his guidance will continue to politicize intelligence? My answer is, ‘We cannot afford to take that chance.'”
Gates, who is a member of the Iraq Study Group, which is preparing an assessment of the situation on Iraq that may well inform the nation’s policy going forward, has been hailed as the man who may bring order to a disastrously waged war. His nomination, some say, indicates a policy shift that is already in motion. Many of the nation’s problems now stem from the fact that politics and ideology have seeped into nearly every crevice of the federal bureaucracy. And Congress must now decide whether it can afford to take another chance on Robert Gates.