Robert Gates, George W. Bush’s choice to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, is a trusted figure within the Bush family’s inner circle. But there are lingering questions about whether Gates is a trustworthy public official.
The 63-year-old Gates has long faced accusations of collaborating with Islamic extremists in Iran, arming Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq, and politicizing U.S. intelligence to conform with the desires of policymakers – three key areas that relate to his future job.
The Bush administration is seeking to slip Gates through the congressional approval process by pressing for a confirmation before the new Democratic-controlled Senate is seated. In 1991, Gates got a similar pass when leading Democrats agreed to put “bipartisanship” ahead of oversight when President George H.W. Bush nominated him for the job of CIA director. At the time, the career intelligence officer brushed aside accusations that he played secret roles in arming both sides of the Iran-Iraq War. Since then, however, documents have surfaced that raise new questions about Gates’ denials.
For instance, the Russian government sent an intelligence report to a House investigative task force in early 1993 stating that Gates participated in secret contacts with Iranian officials in 1980 to delay release of 52 U.S. hostages then held in Iran, a move to benefit the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
“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, according to the Russian report, which meshed with information from witnesses.
Once in office, the Reagan administration did permit weapons to flow to Iran via Israel. The arms flow continued, on and off, until 1986, when the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal broke.
Gates also was implicated in a secret operation to funnel military assistance to Iraq in the ’80s, as the Reagan administration played off the two countries battling each other in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War.
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 those Iran-Iraq accusations in 1991 and the Senate Intelligence Committee – then headed by Gates’ personal friend, Sen. David Boren, (D-Okla.) – failed to check out the claims before recommending Gates for confirmation.
However, in early January 1995, Howard Teicher, one of Reagan’s National Security Council officials, revealed more details about Gates’ 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 the spring of 1982. Iran had gained the upper hand in the war, leading President Reagan to authorize a U.S. tilt toward Saddam Hussein.
The effort to arm the Iraqis was “spearheaded” by CIA Director William Casey and involved his then-deputy, Robert Gates, according to Teicher’s affidavit. “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 wrote.
Ironically, that 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’ 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.
Beyond the secret schemes to aid Iran and Iraq in the ’80s, Gates also stands accused of playing a central role in politicizing the CIA intelligence product, tailoring it to fit the interests of his political superiors, a legacy that some Gates critics say contributed to the botched CIA analysis of Iraqi WMD in 2002.
Before Gates’ rapid rise through the CIA’s ranks in the ’80s, the CIA’s tradition was to zealously protect the objectivity and scholarship of the intelligence gathered by the agency. However, during the Reagan administration, that ethos collapsed.
At Gates’ confirmation hearings in 1991, former CIA analysts, including renowned Kremlinologist Mel Goodman, took the extraordinary step of coming out of the shadows to accuse Gates of politicizing the intelligence while he was chief of the analytical division and then deputy director.
The former intelligence officers said the ambitious Gates pressured the CIA’s analytical division to exaggerate the Soviet menace to fit the ideological perspective of the Reagan administration. Analysts who took a more nuanced view of Soviet power and Moscow’s behavior in the world faced pressure and career reprisals.
In 1981, Carolyn McGiffert Ekedahl of the CIA’s Soviet office was the unfortunate analyst who was handed the assignment to prepare an analysis of the Soviet Union’s alleged support and direction of international terrorism. Contrary to the desired White House take on Soviet-backed terrorism, Ekedahl said the consensus of the intelligence community was that the Soviets discouraged acts of terrorism by groups getting support from Moscow for practical, not moral, reasons.
“We agreed that the Soviets consistently stated, publicly and privately, that they considered international terrorist activities counterproductive,” Ekedahl said. “We had hard evidence to support this conclusion.”But Gates took the analysts to task, accusing them of trying to “stick our finger in the policymaker’s eye,” Ekedahl testified.
Ekedahl said Gates, dissatisfied with the terrorism assessment, joined in rewriting the draft “to suggest greater Soviet support for terrorism and the text was altered by pulling up from the annex reports that overstated Soviet involvement.”
In his memoirs, From the Shadows, Gates denied politicizing the CIA’s intelligence product, though acknowledged that he was aware of Casey’s hostile reaction to the analysts’ disagreement with right-wing theories about Soviet-directed terrorism.
Soon, the hammer fell on the analysts who had prepared the Soviet-terrorism report. Ekedahl said many analysts were “replaced by people new to the subject who insisted on language emphasizing Soviet control of international terrorist activities.”
A donnybrook ensued inside the U.S. intelligence community. Some senior officials responsible for analysis pushed back against Casey’s dictates, warning that acts of politicization would undermine the integrity of the process and risk policy disasters in the future.
As the Bush Family grapples with the disaster in Iraq, it is turning to an even more trusted hand to run the Defense Department. The appointment of Robert Gates suggests that the Bush Family is circling the wagons to save the embattled presidency of George W. Bush.
Determining whether Gates can be counted on to do what’s in the interest of the larger American public is another question altogether.