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Robert Gates and Iran/Contra

The day after Clair George’s arraignment, we turned to Robert Gates. The Senate intelligence committee’s hearings on his appointment to head the CIA were scheduled to begin within a few days. Craig Gillen and I met the committee’s chairman, David Boren, and ranking minority member, Frank Murkowski, and staff counsel in Boren’s office. Reiterating what I had already told Boren, we said that two questions had not been answered satisfactorily: Had Gates falsely denied knowledge of Oliver North’s Contra-support activities? Had Gates falsely postdated his first knowledge of North’s diversion of arms sale proceeds to the Contras?

We then described what our investigation had turned up about Gates. Alan Fiers had told us that he had kept Gates generally informed of his Contra-support activities, through written reports and regular face-to-face presentations, although his oral reports had been guarded because Gates had not always had a note-taker present. The CIA now claimed it could not find the notes of these meetings.

We said that Richard Kerr, the CIA’s deputy director for intelligence, had informed Gates in August 1986 of Charles Allen’s belief that North had diverted funds from the Iranian arms sales for the benefit of the Contras; Allen himself had told Gates the same thing in early October. Allen had told us that Gates, who had appeared irritated, had told Allen to write a memorandum for CIA director William Casey and had said that he did not want to hear about North. To us and to the congressional committees, Gates had denied having any recollection of either conversation. 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. 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.

That day, according to North and Gates, Casey had invited North to lunch in his office, which was next to Gates’s office. Gates had joined them, and according to North, had heard Casey tell North to clean up the Ilopango operation. North claimed that he had then begun to destroy records. Gates claimed not to remember the discussion of North’s Nicaraguan activities. Although he had heard North mention Swiss accounts, Gates said, he had not understood the reference. He claimed to have been in and out of the room. All he remembered, he said, was that North had told him that the CIA was completely clean regarding the Contra-support operation.

We suggested to the senators that they specifically request the notes of Fiers’s reports to Gates. We told them that we did not think we had enough corroborating information to indict Robert Gates, but that his answers to these questions had been unconvincing. We did not believe that he could have forgotten a warning of North’s diversion of the arms sale proceeds to the Contras. The mingling of two covert activities that were of intense personal interest to the president was not something the second-highest officer in the CIA would forget. Moreover, Gates had received the same reliable contemporaneous intelligence reports about North’s activities that Charles Allen had. The information suggesting that North had overcharged the Iranians would surely have caught the attention of anyone as astute as Gates.

When, after Eugene Hasenfus’s aircraft was shot down, Gates and Allen had told Casey about Allen’s concern that North had diverted funds to the Contras, how could Gates have forgotten that Allen and Kerr had warned him about the diversion a few weeks earlier?

The Senate intelligence committee’s hearings on George H.W. Bush’s nomination of Robert Gates to head the CIA began on Monday September 16, 1991. The hearings were televised. Gates, who had already answered extensive interrogatories from the committees, was the first witness. In substance, he denied recalling the details of Iran/Contra. He said that he wished he had been more skeptical and that he had asked more questions. Thirty-three times he denied recollection of the facts.

As I watched some of the broadcasts, I was impressed by the strength of the committee’s members and by their identification with and sympathy for the national security community. The powerful committee had several respected members, including former secretary of the Navy John Warner and Sam Nunn, both of whom were also on the armed services committee, and Warren Rudman, who had been the ranking Republican on the Senate select committee on Iran/Contra.

Only Democrats Howard M. Metzenbaum of Ohio and Bill Bradley of New Jersey pursued the Iran/Contra connection. I got the impression that most of the senators did not want to hold Iran/Contra against Gates. As associates of the national security fraternity, they might object to venal conduct, but they did not want to rake up the issue of an old non-disclosure. They obviously respected Gates’s ability and his stature as Bush’s deputy national security advisor; the president was clearly nominating someone he personally knew and trusted.

Senator Rudman openly disparaged the discussion of Iran/Contra: “I might say parenthetically that I hope someday I will never have to talk about this subject again. But I guess it just keeps coming up. It’s almost like a typhus epidemic in that anybody within five miles of the germ either died, is infected, or is barely able to survive, so I guess we’re back in that mode again.”

The committee singled out William Casey as the culprit in Iran/Contra and suggested that Gates had been largely bypassed in matters related to it. As Senator Murkowski (R-AK) put it: “What’s coming out is a better understanding of the management style of Casey, and the compartmentalization. There are numerous instances where senior CIA officials were bypassed on projects that were worked by the director and his designees solely.”

Senator John Chaffee (R-RI) said that Casey had not run a typical bureaucracy: “Bill Casey ran the outfit in a manner that jump-charged the command Chains of command in diagrams didn’t fit with Bill Casey.”

This view was contradicted by Thomas Polgar, a decorated former CIA officer and later a Senate committee staff member. Polgar testified that Gates had been Casey’s creation and had not been “compartmentalized” out of sensitive information.

Fiers testified that Gates was an exceptionally gifted operator and that his meteoric rise had aroused jealousy among some older colleagues. Fiers said that Gates was very smart, very capable, although “sort of on the make.” According to Fiers, Gates had understood “the universe” of the Contra-supply operation-that it had been run out of the White House, with North as the quarterback-but had not been given extensive detail.

Charles Allen told the committee of his efforts to warn Gates about the diversion of the arms sale proceeds to the Contras. After testifying that Gates had appeared irritated, Allen said, “My personal fears were that somehow this initiative had gotten off the track, and that it might have gone even higher to the Oval Office.”

Richard Kerr, who was now the deputy director of the CIA under William Webster, confirmed Allen’s story. In addition to relaying the information to Gates, he had told another CIA officer of Allen’s concern. As I watched the hearings, I felt certain that Gates would not have brushed off these alarming reports if he had not already known about the diversion. He simply had not wanted to be told by a new witness.

I also disbelieved Gates’s testimony about President Reagan’s December 5, 1985, retroactive finding purporting to authorize the CIA’s facilitation of the November 1985 Hawk missile shipment to recover the Iranian hostages. In the high-level meetings at the CIA a few days after the Hawk shipment, Casey’s deputy John McMahon had announced that Reagan had signed the finding. But Gates told the committee that he had forgotten about the finding by November 1986, when he supervised the preparation of Casey’s testimony for his appearances before the House and Senate intelligence committees. The CIA’s then former general counsel, David Doherty, however, told the senators that he had handed Gates a draft of the finding only a day or so before Casey gave his misleading testimony.

The testimony of Charles Allen minimized the likelihood that Gates’s failure to remember the president’s finding had been accidental. During the preparation of Casey’s testimony, said Allen, an agency lawyer had shown him a draft finding. Allen had promptly telephoned North. “In an abrupt manner,” said Allen, North had “told me emphatically that the finding did not exist and that I was mistaken.” Allen had then spoken to George. “I recall with great clarity Mr. Clair George informing me in a blunt and verbally abusive manner that the finding did not exist and that I should ‘shut up talking about it.'”

Much of the later testimony in the month-long hearings shifted away from Iran-Contra to the question of whether Gates had slanted intelligence reports to accommodate the political views of Casey or others. At the end of the hearings, Gates was given an opportunity to respond. He directed most of his response to the issue of slanted intelligence reports. By the time the committee voted, eleven to four, to approve Gates’s appointment, the testimony regarding Iran/Contra was no longer fresh. The next day, Herblock’s cartoon in the Washington Post showed the CIA headquarters with a big banner proclaiming, “Now Under Old Management.”

LAWRENCE E. WALSH was the independent counsel in the Iran/Contra investigation from 1986 to 1993. This article is excerpted from his book, Firewall: the Iran/Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up.

 

 

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