Senate Democrats Give Gates a Free Pass

At Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the nomination of Robert Gates to be secretary of defense, it felt like I was paying last respects to the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution, though, was not the recipient of the praise customarily heaped on the deceased. Rather, the bouquets were fulsomely shared back and forth among the nominee and the senators-all of them “distinguished,” but none more so than the very reverend John Warner, gentleman from Virginia and departing chair of the committee, who presided at the wake.

Distinguished? The Warner committee is indeed distinguished for the obsequious way it keeps genuflecting to the executive branch. Beneath the pomposity lies a dearth of courage. Led by gentleman Warner, the committee allowed itself to be co-opted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputies Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith and sat silently as they disregarded and even ridiculed those few generals with the courage to testify truthfully-Gen. Erik Shinseki, for example, the Army Chief of Staff who warned that more troops would be needed for Iraq. In effect, the committee abnegated its constitutional responsibility to prevent misadventures like launching a war of aggression on Iraq based on transparently false pretences and feckless planning.

The Nuremberg Tribunal defined war of aggression as “the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes only in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Think kidnapping, “extraordinary rendition,” torture, for example. When such abuses came to light, and the election of 2004 approached, the gentleman from Virginia deferred unconscionably to the Pentagon and CIA and let them investigate themselves.

In the Past, “Distinguished” Meant Something

As I sat at the hearing, truly distinguished Virginia statesmen rushed to mind-men like Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason who gave their life’s blood to ensuring that checks and balances, and protections of individual rights, were embedded in the U.S. Constitution. And I thought about how those patriots must be rolling over in their graves, weeping at the flaccid timidity of their 21st Century counterparts. I was on the verge of weeping myself, when the thought struck me that in less than a month another Virginian, plain-speaking Senator-Elect James Webb, may be able to apply the brakes to the more recent tradition of substituting mutual fawning for the exercise of senatorial responsibility. With a son fighting with the Marines in Iraq, it seems a good bet that Webb will be able to inject some reality and urgency-and a dose of appropriate anger- into Senate deliberations.

But on Tuesday, it was a sorry spectacle, as pretentiousness and patrician etiquette trumped courage and vitiated the advise-and-consent prerogative granted to senators by the framers of our Constitution.

In other news, “A series of particularly brutal attacks across Baghdad Tuesday resulted in at least 54 Iraqis killed and scores wounded,” according to the New York Times. The U.S. military announced that three more American soldiers were killed Monday, adding to the 13 killed over the weekend. Three more were killed on Tuesday; ten more on Wednesday; eleven more Thursday. And five Marines are about to be formally charged with the killing of 24 Iraqis, many of them women and children, in the village of Haditha in Nov. 2005.

No such bothersome details were allowed into evidence Tuesday by the stuffed shirts sitting in stuffed Senate seats in a hearing room stuffed with 80 stenographers from our domesticated press. Real life-and death-were kept out of earshot, but the room served well as a kind of funeral parlor for the late Constitution. There was a surfeit of bouquets, but none smelled genuine.

A Free Pass

That Gates would be given a free pass without serious probing was already clear in ranking member Carl Levin’s (D, MI) deference to lame-duck chairman John Warner’s (R, VA) plan for a one-day, carefully scripted hearing, at which senators could disregard new, documentary evidence of Gates’ deception of both Congress and the Iran-Contra independent counsel. Expediting the proceeding squandered the leverage given to senators by the confirmation process, had any of them wished to put that leverage in play. Moreover, Gates was often able to say, in effect, “Gosh, I just got here; didn’t know about that; haven’t read that, but I’ll put that on the top of my reading pile.”

Fully expecting that Levin’s Democratic colleagues would join him in acquiescing in this charade, antiwar activists told me before the hearing began that they had come prepared with a rhyming chant:

“You won the elections.
Now ask real questions!”

I later learned that the activists left after only an hour, unable to stomach the pompous pretence, as American troops and Iraqi civilians get blown up in Baghdad. The activists started feeling queasy after Sen. Warner’s introductory remarks raised a brief ray of hope, which was dashed a moment later. Warner alluded to what he called the “moral obligation that our government, the executive and legislative, has to the brave men and women of our armed forces.” Moral obligation; sounds good! But he quickly explained what he meant by “moral obligation”-merely that the president should “privately consult with the bipartisan leadership of the new Congress” before making his “final decisions” on Iraq. It gets worse: witness the hypocrisy shining through the distinguished chairman’s admonition to Gates:

“In short, you simply have to be fearless, I repeat, fearless in discharging your statutory obligations.”

Fearless? It was far from fearless to cede responsibility to the Pentagon to perform the kind of “full and thorough investigation” reminiscent of the one President Richard Nixon asked then-Attorney General John Mitchell to conduct on Watergate.

At the hearing the only thing fearless was the fawning. It doesn’t matter how many times Warner and Levin claim to have dropped into the hermetically sealed Green Zone in Baghdad. There is always the “In other news….” And despite the affectation at Tuesday’s hearing, none of those senators are affected in any immediate way by the carnage before the Green Zone gate.

It is James Webb’s Marine son and Iraqi civilians who are Lazarus at the gate. And, as Benjamin Franklin warned, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

From Gates: Candor or Disingenuousness?

On weapons of mass destruction: Little attention is being given to the disingenuous response Gates gave to this question from Sen. Mark Dayton (D, MN):

“Given what we know today about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, given the predicament that we’re in today, with the benefit of hindsight, would you say that invading Iraq was the right decision or the wrong decision?”

Gates left it to “historians” to decide. Defending his early support for the invasion, he resorted to the well tested, fair-and-balanced FOX Channel red herring: “I thought he [Saddam] had weapons of mass destruction…just like every other intelligence service in the world, apparently, including the French.”

Now, please, Dr. Gates: You know that to be false confirmation-and anything but fair and balanced. You know better than most where other intelligence services get information on strategic weapons in denied areas like Iraq. From the CIA. Independent-minded intelligence analysts in Australian and Danish intelligence were able to see through the subterfuge and warn their government leaders of the peril in taking at face value the intelligence shared by the U.S.

On links between Iraq and al-Qaeda:  Sen. Levin reminded Gates that he recently told the senator that he saw no “evidence of a link between Iraq under Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.” Why then, asked Levin, did Gates say publicly in Feb. 2002 that:

“We know that at least one of the leaders of the September 11 hijackers met twice in Prague with Iraqi intelligence officers in the months before the attack.”

Levin wanted to know the source of that information. “Strictly a newspaper story, sir,” said Gates. Odd. For Robert Gates is not used to relying on newspaper stories to make unconfirmed assertions on such neuralgic issues. It seems altogether likely he would have gotten “confirmation” from his successor as CIA director, arch-neoconservative James Woolsey, who cooked up and-together with Vice President Dick Cheney-promoted that cockamamie story to a fare-thee-well. In a formal report on Sept. 8, 2006, after two and a half years of investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee refuted that story once and for all.

Fresh Eyes But No New Ideas

In one moment of genuine-perhaps unintended-candor, Gates indicated he thought there were no new ideas to be had in addressing the conflict in Iraq. How about old ideas? Like dispatching more training teams to work with the Iraqi army and security forces. Gates said, “That certainly is an option.” And he vowed to show “great deference to the judgment of generals.” New emphasis on the training mission is what Gen. John Abizaid told the committee less than three weeks ago is a “major change.” Is that the “new” strategy? It is, in any case, a feckless exercise, as we know from Vietnam. Been there; done that; should have known that.

The subject of training came up very early in the Vietnam war. Three months after John Kennedy’s death, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sent President Lyndon Johnson a draft of a major speech McNamara planned to give on defense policy. What follows is a segment of an audiotape of a conversation between the two on Feb. 25, 1964:

Johnson: Your speech is good, but I wonder if you shouldn’t find two minutes to devote to Vietnam.

McNamara: The problem is what to say about it.

Johnson: I’ll tell you what to say about it. I would say we have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. We could pull out there; the dominoes would fall and that part of the world would go to the Communists…Nobody really understands what is out there…Our purpose is to train [the South Vietnamese] people, and our training’s going good.”

McNamara: All right, sir.

It wasn’t “going good” then and-as countless middle-grade American officers have recently conceded-it’s not going good now, despite our having thrown our best generals at the problem. Hewing to this misguided approach reeks of the “woodenheadedness” of which historian Barbara Tuchman writes in From Troy to Vietnam: The March of Folly. It is almost always a forlorn hope that unwelcome occupation troops can succeed in training indigenous soldiers and police to kill their countrymen. That the British, who certainly should know better, have also forgotten that lesson does not excuse the woodenheadedness.

Speaking Truth to Power?

Ironically, Tuesday’s charade at the Senate Armed Forces Committee included repeated allusion to the biblical injunction to “speak truth to power.” This has never been Robert Gates’ forte. Rather, his modus operandi has always been to ingratiate himself with the one with the power, and then recite-or write memos setting forth-what he believes that person would like to hear. Thus, while CIA Director Bill Casey’s “analysis” suggested that the Soviets would use Nicaragua as a beachhead to invade Texas, Gates pandered by writing a memo on Dec. 14, 1984 suggesting U.S. air strikes “to destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua’s military buildup.”

This makes me wonder what may be in store for Iran, should Cheney solicit Gates’ help in making a case for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Gates may have “fresh eyes,” but if past is precedent he will add only marginally to the flavor of the self-licking ice cream cone that passes for Bush’s coterie of advisers. What Bush has done is replace Sugary Gates for Rumsfeldian Tart. Otherwise, the Cheney/Bush recipe is likely to remain the same as the U.S. draws nearer and nearer to the abyss in Iraq.

RAY McGOVERN was a CIA analyst from 1963 to 1990 and Robert Gates’ branch chief in the early 1970s. McGovern now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He is a contributor to Imperial Crusades, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at:

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Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: A version of this article first appeared on