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Robert M. Gates: Poster Child for Bureaucratic Deceit

Robert Gates on Face the Nation, 2018.

“If it were to be clear that the strategy is not working, then I would be one of the first to advocate changing the strategy.  I will not sign the deployment orders sending kids in harm’s way for a strategy that I don’t believe in.”

– Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.  September, 2010.

From 2001 to 2015, the number of U.S. servicemen and women in Afghanistan exceeded 100,000, although four secretaries of defense (Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel) conceded privately that the war was not winnable and that no strategy would alter our glide path to defeat.  In 2019, the last soldier to die in Afghanistan from Ft. Carson in Colorado was Sgt. Maj. James G. Sartor, who was on his seventh combat deployment in Afghanistan.  All four of these secretaries presumably signed at least one deployment order for Sgt. Sartor, one of many victims of deceit as the Pentagon played  Russian Roulette with military lives.

Only Secretary Gates proclaimed, however, that he would never sign deployment orders for a strategy that he didn’t believe in.  Only Gates has sanctimoniously asked to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery to “rest among my heroes for all eternity.”  Gates never risked his life on the battlefield; he has no right to “rest among” those who did.

On his various trips to Afghanistan, Gates told soldiers he was “encouraged by the progress you’re making in securing and stabilizing the country.”  He knew this was not true, but he audaciously castigated President Barack Obama for not believing in the Afghan mission and for distrusting the nation’s military leaders.  He charged that Vice President Joe Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”  But it was Biden who warned Obama in 2009 against both increasing troop strength in Afghanistan and getting “boxed in” by Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And it was Gates who argued mendaciously that the “training of the Afghan military is going well, and security responsibility is steadily being transferred to them.”

Although Gates left the government in 2011 with the highest award that can be given to a civilian—the Presidential Medal of Freedom—his resume was pockmarked with deceptive words and acts—that expose the falsity of his so-called willingness to stop signing deployment orders to Afghanistan.  Following the death of CIA director William Casey, President Ronald Reagan nominated Gates to be CIA director.  The chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, David Boren (D-OK), called Gates at home to warn him that the majority of the committee believed Gates to be lying about his knowledge of Iran-Contra and that therefore he could never be confirmed.  Iran-Contra stopped Gates in 1987; it should have stopped him in 1991.

In actual fact, Gates was on center stage at an important decision-making juncture,  preparing the intelligence case for Iran-Contra from the outset.  He was the intermediary in 1985 between the national intelligence officer, Graham Fuller, at the CIA and the National Security Council staffer, Howard Teicher, who argued that the Soviet Union was on the verge of improving relations with Iran and that the race between the United States and the Soviet Union “for Tehran was on, and whoever gets there first wins all.”  I was a senior Soviet analyst at the CIA in 1985-1986, and can confirm that no Soviet analyst at the CIA or the Department of State believed this Cold War hyperbole.  (This should be a cautionary tale for the current campaign by pols and pundits who argue that Russia and China will use the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to gain a dominant role throughout Central Asia and Southwest Asia.)

Four years after Gates’ nomination was withdrawn in 1987, President George H.W. Bush renominated Gates to be CIA director and, despite more negative votes than any previous CIA director had garnered, he was confirmed.  Even some of his Republican supporters acknowledged that Gates had been deceitful in his testimony, and Chairman Boren made the unusual statement that he would closely monitor Gates’ performance at the CIA.  He directed Gates to call CIA officials who had submitted sworn affidavits against his confirmation and  guarantee there would be no reprisals.  But there were reprisals, including harassing polygraph tests and roadblocks to career appointments.

I was the leading witness against the confirmation of Gates, but received no call.  Gates simply dismissed my testimony as being governed by “an element of personal jealousy.”  In response to my hammering him for politicizing intelligence, Gates told Chris Whipple (“The Spymasters: How the CIA Directors Shape History and the Future”) that “it’s an amazing thing how a guy can live twenty years in a whorehouse and come out a virgin.”

Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) said it best: Gates was wrong on every major intelligence issue of the 1980s, particularly regarding the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, Afghanistan, and Iran.  Not only was Gates wrong, but he made sure that CIA’s Soviet division was wrong and, according to former director Stansfield Turner, the result was that CIA suffered a corporate failure.  Gates never understood that Gorbachev willingly gave up the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe as the price for reinvigorating the Soviet economic system.

Former secretary of State Colin Powell observed that by the time the CIA realized that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, any regular viewer of cable news had already come to that conclusion.  (Another cautionary tale: it seems that, by the time the intelligence community realized the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan would create chaos and havoc, any regular viewer of cable news had come to that conclusion.)

As deputy director for intelligence in the early 1980s, Gates made sure that CIA published no information on Moscow’s reduced rate of spending on defense, particularly reduced spending on strategic weapons.  Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger opposed any reference to reduced spending, so Gates ordered the CIA’s Office of Soviet Analysis to forward a memo to the secretary of defense that exaggerated Soviet economic strength.  Weinberger lied about Bush’s role in Iran-Contra; he received a presidential pardon in 1992 when William Barr was serving his first tour as attorney general.

Gates’ constant harangues against Biden almost certainly stem from Biden’s vote against his confirmation in 1991; Biden’s refusal to cast a vote for Gates in 2006 as secretary of defense; and from Biden’s warning to President Obama in 2009 about the unwillingness of the military to ever accept the need for a troop withdrawal.  Gates would never forget that, in explaining his vote against confirmation as CIA director, Biden noted he was “disappointed with Gates’ analytic skills, especially in regarding to the Soviet Union.”  And several months after Gates took command at the CIA, Senator Biden summoned him and complained about the CIA’s politicization of intelligence on China to support the Bush administration.

In dressing down the CIA director, Biden reminded Gates that he pledged at his confirmation hearings to introduce competitive analysis in CIA’s assessments to minimize the problem of politicization.  Gates was no fan of competitive analysis; in fact, he was the first director to stop publishing footnotes in National Intelligence Estimates, which were designed to highlight institutional differences within the intelligence community.

What the mean-spirited and self-aggrandizing Gates’ memoirs don’t tell us is that he had become an outlier in his last year at the Pentagon as the White House ignored his views on Afghanistan, the raid against Osama bin Laden, the insubordination of General Stanley MCChrystal, and the ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”  Nor did the memoirs contain any criticism of the Bush family that was responsible for the political rehabilitation of Bob Gates.  In return, Gates kept quiet about George H.W. Bush’s knowledge of Iran-Contra.

Ten years after Gates left the CIA, another CIA director—George Tenet—politicized intelligence and walked away with the Presidential Medal of Freedom from another President Bush.  Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.