Robert Gates-Gate


As the occupation of Iraq chews up more American troops, President George W Bush has jettisoned ‘stay the course’ in favour of ‘necessary adjustments.’ Last week, he showed how quickly he can adjust when he jettisoned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and nominated ex-Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates as his successor barely a week after telling reporters Rumsfeld was doing a ‘fantastic job’ and that he wanted him to stay on for the next two years.



It had been clear for weeks that the election would be a referendum on the Iraq War and that Republican Party losses would be substantial. Rumsfeld and Bush saw a mutual need to avoid the acute political embarrassment that would inevitably attend Rumsfeld’s grilling by Congressional Committees chaired by Democrats. Besides, who better to blame for the ‘long, hard slog’ in Iraq than the fellow who not only coined the expression but made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have the sense that Rumsfeld offered himself as scapegoat for Iraq, not only to avoid another acrimonious tangle with Congressional Committees , but also to help Bush project an image of flexibility and decisiveness. And one cannot rule out possible pangs of conscience for the horrific human cost resulting from his arrogance and susceptibility to the dreams of ‘the crazies’ the so-called ‘neo-conservatives’ Bush brought back to Washington.

Former allies are most prominent among the legions now denouncing Rumsfeld. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from longstanding supporter ‘Cakewalk-Ken’ Adelman who, in an interview for David Rose’s ‘Neo Culpa’ in November’s Vanity Fair, comes across as feeling jilted:

We’re losing in Iraq … I’ve worked with [Rumsfeld] three times in my life. I’ve been to each of his houses in Chicago, Taos, Santa Fe, Santo Domingo, and Las Vegas. I’m very, very fond of him, but I’m crushed by his performance. Did he change, or were we wrong in the past? Or is it that he was never really challenged before? I don’t know. He certainly fooled me.

Et tu , Cakewalk-Ken! With friends like that, who needs Hillary?

I almost feel sorry for Rumsfeld. It is a conspicuous case of betrayal by fair-weather friends. The neo-cons are attempting to push the blame onto Rumsfeld for the debacle of which they were the intellectual authors.

The ‘Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal’ (coined by former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff Larry Wilkerson) is now down to one. And how much clout the Vice President has lost with the US mid-term election results and the departure of his bosom buddy is perhaps the largest unanswered question. But if Cheney remains éminence grise and if the past is any precedent, then new Defense Secretary Robert Gates will defer to Cheney probably even more than the President does. For if there is one hallmark of Eagle Scout Gates’s career, it is that he has earned what might now be called the ‘Colin Powell Loyalty Patch’ loyalty to the next person up, whatever their character.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Gates will help bring, in the President’s words, ‘a fresh perspective and new ideas on how America can achieve our goals in Iraq.’ How could he not? But there are distinct limits to what he can contribute, and he has never been one to adopt positions independent of what the boss thinks or says. Most important, as noted this week by Democrat Representative Tom Lantos, prospective Chair of the House International Affairs Committee, ‘You can’t unscramble the omelette and I don’t see any magical solutions.’

It seems only fair to give Gates the benefit of the doubt he could conceivably whittle away some of the Cheney’s influence. At the very least, Gates can hardly match the disaster Rumsfeld wrought with his fancy language and fanciful ideas. Those close to Gates say he has been privately critical of the way the Iraq War has been conducted. But Gates is the consummate political chameleon and unless his years away from Washington have changed him substantially, it is highly likely that he will bend obediently to the wishes of Cheney and Bush.

Gates has been getting unduly positive press treatment since the announcement of his nomination. It is one thing to give him the benefit of the doubt; it is quite another to ignore the considerable baggage he brings with him.

Those of us who had front-row seats watching Gates handling substantive intelligence cannot overlook the way he cooked it to the recipe of whomever he reported to. A protégé of William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s CIA Director, Gates learned well from his mentor. In 1995, Gates told the Washington Post‘s Walter Pincus that he watched Casey on ‘issue after issue sit in meetings and present intelligence framed in terms of the policy he wanted pursued.’ Gates followed suit, cooking the analysis to justify policies favoured by Casey and the White House.

The cooking was consequential. Among other things, it facilitated not only illegal capers like the Iran-Contra Scandal but also budget-breaking military spending against an exaggerated Soviet threat that, in reality, had long since passed its peak.

I was amused to read in David Ignatius’ Washington Post column last week that Gates ‘was the brightest Soviet analyst in the [CIA] shop, so Casey soon appointed him Deputy Director overseeing his fellow analysts.’ He wasn’t; and Casey had something other than expertise in mind. Talk to anyone who was there at the time (except the sycophants Gates co-opted) and they will explain that Gates’s meteoric career had mostly to do with his uncanny ability to see a Russian under every rock turned over by Casey. Those of Gates’s subordinates willing to see two Russians became Branch Chiefs; three won you a Division. I exaggerate only a little.

To Casey, Communists could never change; and Gorbachev was simply cleverer than his predecessors. With his training in our Soviet Foreign Policy branch (and a doctorate in Soviet affairs), Gates knew better. Yet he carried Casey’s water, and stifled all dissent. One consequence was that the CIA as an institution missed the implosion of the Soviet Union no small matter. Another was a complete loss of confidence in CIA analysis on the part of then-Secretary of State George Shultz and others who smelled the cooking.

Robert Gates, CIA photo

In 1985 Gates commissioned and warped a National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that Soviet influence in Iran could soon grow and pose a danger to US interests. This provided additional ‘justification’ for the illegal arms-for-hostages Iran-Contra deal with Iran.

More serious still was Gates’s denial of awareness of Oliver North’s illegal act
ivities in support of the Contra attacks in Nicaragua, despite senior CIA officials testifying that they had informed Gates that North had diverted funds from the Iranian arms sales for the benefit of the Contras. The Independent Counsel for the Iran-Contra investigation (1986-93), Lawrence Walsh, later wrote in frustration that, despite Gates’s highly touted memory, he ‘denied recollection of facts 33 times.’

In 1991, when President George H W Bush nominated Gates for the post of Director of Central Intelligence, there was a virtual insurrection among CIA analysts who had suffered under his penchant for cooking intelligence. The stakes for integrity of analysis were so high that many employed at the Agency summoned the courage to testify against the nomination. But the fix was in, thanks to then-Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, David Boren and his Staff Director, George Tenet. The issue was considered so important and the damaging evidence so abundant, however, that 31 Senators voted against Gates when the Committee forwarded his nomination. Never before or since has a CIA Director nominee received nearly as many nays.

A highly respected former CIA Station Chief, Tom Polgar, offered the following at the 1991 Gates nomination hearings:

His proposed appointment as Director also raises moral issues. What kind of signal does his re-nomination send to the troops? Live long enough, your sins will be forgotten? Serve faithfully the boss of the moment, never mind integrity? Feel free to mislead the Senate Senators forget easily? Keep your mouth shut if the Special Counsel does not get you, promotion will come your way?

Gates is the one most responsible for institutionalising the politicisation of intelligence analysis. He set the example and promoted malleable managers more interested in career advancement than the ethos of speaking truth to power. In 2002, it was those managers who then-CIA Director George Tenet ordered to prepare what has become known as the ‘Whore of Babylon’ the 1 October National Intelligence (mis-)Estimate on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He instructed them to adhere to the guidelines set by Cheney in his 26 August, 2002 pre-emptive speech and to complete it in three weeks (in order to force a Congressional vote before the mid-term election). To their discredit, senior CIA sycophants saluted and produced the most fraudulent and consequential NIE in the history of American intelligence.

Those commenting on the Gates nomination so far seem largely unaware of this history. The exception is Democratic Representative Rush Holt, who worked in the State Department’s intelligence bureau and now sits on the House Intelligence Committee. Pointing out Gates’s reputation for putting pressure on analysts to shape their conclusions to fit Administration policies, Holt called the nomination ‘deeply troubling’ and stressed that the confirmation hearings ‘should be thorough and probing.’

Too bad Holt is not in the Senate.

There are early indications that Senator Carl Levin, ranking Democrat on the Armed Forces Committee, intends to acquiesce in the manoeuvring of the White House’s cat’s paw Chairman of that Committee, Republican Senator John Warner, to rush the Gates nomination through the lame-duck Senate before a new Congress is in place.

Whether Levin acquiesces on Gates will be an early indication of whether the election has implanted any spine into Democrats.

In 1991, Levin was one of the 31 Senators who voted against Gates’s confirmation as CIA Director, but last week Levin said that he wanted to give Gates a ‘fair and fresh look; a lot of time has passed.’

Fair enough. If Levin wants to know what has happened in the interim, he can start with the fresh, documentary evidence in award-winning investigative reporter Robert Parry’s recent article, ‘The Secret World of Robert Gates,’ which contains highly damaging information on Gates’s role in the successful Republican effort to prevent the release of the 52 American hostages imprisoned for 14 months in the US embassy in Tehran until Ronald Reagan had won the election in 1980 and on Gates’s involvement in the illegal sale of weapons, including cluster bombs to Iraq in the early 1980s.

Another excellent source of updated information on Gates’s involvement in the secret arming of Saddam Hussein (yes, the same Saddam) and the Iran-Contra scandal is the transcript of Parry’s interview with former CIA analyst Mel Goodman on Democracy Now.

Gates has been able to escape close scrutiny of his involvement in extralegal and illegal activities largely because there are far too few journalists with the enterprise and courage of Robert Parry. While all the above-mentioned escapades are significantly damaging, the corruption of intelligence should be placed front and centre, given the huge role this played in 2002 in deceiving Congress into voting for an unnecessary war.

At a hearing on his first (abortive) nomination to be CIA Director in 1987, Gates denied that he had tailored intelligence to please his superiors, adding, ‘Sycophants can only rise to a certain level.’ Whether that was an unintentionally prophetic observation or not now depends largely on Carl Levin and his newly empowered, but apparently not yet emboldened, fellow Democrats.

This is an edited version of a piece first published on Saturday, November 11, 2006 by

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.