The Rise and Rise of Robert Gates
By Roger Morris
TomDispatch, June 26, 2007
Beirut, Lebanon, Friday, March 8, 1985, an Islamic Sabbath -- In Bir El-Abed, an impoverished, crowded Shiite quarter in the southern reaches of the Lebanese capital, Muhammad Husain Fadlallah stops on the street to speak to an elderly woman; and so, the revered 51 year-old cleric, delayed momentarily, will not be home at the usual time when a car bomb explodes at his apartment doorstep with a force felt miles away in the Chouf Mountains and well out in the Mediterranean.
"Even by local standards," reported the New York Times from car-bomb and shell-shocked Beirut, the explosion "was massive." Eighty-one people were killed -- men, women, and children -- and more than two hundred wounded. Fadlallah, the target of the attack, was unhurt. The next day, a notice hung over the devastated area where grief-stricken families were still digging the bodies of loved ones out of the rubble. It read: "Made in the USA."
The sign was more apt than even its furious makers knew. The terrorist strike on Bir El-Abed was a classic product of American covert policy. Behind the bombing lay a convoluted secret history and, beyond that, a longer legacy of power wantonly uninformed by "intelligence."
Agreeing, as usual, with the proposals of CIA Director William Casey, President Ronald Reagan sanctioned the Bir attack to avenge a devastating truck-bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport in October 1983 -- itself a bloody reprisal for earlier American acts of intervention and diplomatic betrayal in Lebanon's civil war that had cost hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian lives. The barracks attack slaughtered 241 Marines, part of an international peacekeeping force sent to Lebanon in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of the country.
After its own operatives had repeatedly failed to arrange Casey's car-bombing, the CIA "farmed out" the operation to agents of its longtime Lebanese client, the Phalange, a Maronite Christian, anti-Islamic party, avowedly built on the Italian fascist model. The CIA targeted Fadlallah, in particular, because of his reputation for fiery sermons in favor of social justice and national independence -- and because allied spy agencies -- Israel's Mossad, Saudi Arabia's GID, and Phalangist informers -- claimed he led a militant Shiite group that bore responsibility for the attack on the Marines.
In fact, Washington was unsure who had killed them. "We still do not have the actual knowledge of who did the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport," Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's Secretary of Defense, told PBS in 2001, "and we certainly didn't then."
While a spiritual mentor to many, including militants, in Lebanon's long-oppressed Shiite community, Fadlallah was known to shun any office in a political party or secular organization. Ironically, while the Reagan administration and the CIA feared the influence of theocratic Iran among Lebanese Shiites, American scholars and other informed observers knew Fadlallah as an insistent voice against Iranian dictates. He had repudiated Iran's urging of Shiite rule over multi-faith Lebanon -- so much so that some in Tehran even suspected him of pro-American sympathies.
CIA officials also knew that all three "friendlies" -- the Israelis, Saudis, and Phalangists -- frequently tried to manipulate U.S. policy to their own advantage. This was regularly done with "cooked" (or withheld) intelligence or by joint-actions meant to enhance the standing of senior CIA officials. An ex-Mossad officer would later reveal, for example, that Israeli intelligence had learned in advance of the Marine barracks plot, yet raised no alarms, calculating that such an attack might spur anti-Arab sentiment in the U.S -- or even drive the Marines out of Lebanon, giving Israel a freer hand. Only too glad to have the Americans, or their clients, do the dirty work of killing Fadlallah, a Saudi billionaire proposed to pay for the Bir bombing himself; and the CIA accepted.
In fact, the Bir bombing rested on information known in the CIA to be false, or, at best, highly suspect. As a result, it was one of the most heedless and consequential atrocities in the history of CIA covert actions -- no small distinction. The pivotal figures in that decision, the men who made all the difference, included the then-still-obscure CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence and self-styled Middle East expert, Robert Gates.
As documents, testimony, and other revelations would later make clear, the Bir plot was typical of Reagan era covert actions, which would include: Illegal aid to drug-running Contras (at war with the left-leaning Sandinista government of Nicaragua); contraband arms sent to both Iraq and Iran (at war with each other); tens of millions of dollars to the anti-Soviet Catholic Church in Poland, but also to nun- and priest-murdering death squads in El Salvador; and, most fateful of all, hundreds of millions to Islamic fanatics in Afghanistan. In the Reagan administration's secret wars -- from Managua to Tripoli, Beirut to Kabul -- crucial decisions were often taken not in careful deliberation with the secretaries of state and defense, the national security advisor, or other top officials, to say nothing of the requisite Congressional committees, but when the CIA director and the president were alone.
There they would be, usually in the Oval Office: Hard-line zealot and Catholic dogmatist Bill Casey, mumbling his plan (as he typically did), notoriously careless with facts, ever ready for the bloodiest of covert actions, and by far the most powerful CIA chief in history. With him, Ronald Reagan, an ever genial man whose archetypal simplicity and decency endeared him to voters, but who was known by his closest advisors to be nearly oblivious to the details of policy, and even hard of hearing in one ear. "Didn't understand a word he said," Reagan remarked with a shrug after a typical briefing with the mumbling Casey. Yet, in almost every instance, the President characteristically agreed -- or seemed to hear and agree -- on whatever covert action his former campaign manager was hatching.
For the Agency's director, it meant awesome, unprecedented, power. The only check on him lay with his three deputies, among the precious few who learned of his schemes before Reagan would nod approval. In the Bir plot, two of those men were hardly prone to oppose the director. Principal Deputy John McMahon and Deputy for Operations Clair George were careerists from the CIA's covert side. Along with most of their underlings, they knew little of the increasingly complex religio-political currents and countercurrents roiling the Middle East. To some extent, they also depended on, and so were enmeshed with, the same foreign spy services targeting Fadlallah.
In general, they tended to welcome covert action paid for and carried out by allies. Such operations appeared to involve little risk to the CIA, or their reputations, but offered the possibility for easy credit. Not least, they owed their powerful jobs to the Director, whose right-wing zeal and extraordinary sway they relished. "Inspired by Casey's enthusiasm for high-rolling covert action," Washington Post reporter Steve Coll wrote, "they loved his energy and clout."
Typically, there was, then, but one chance to head off the coming Bir atrocity. The Agency's Directorate of Intelligence, under Bob Gates' direction since 1982, was the repository for the sort of analysis that was supposed to inform any covert-action or foreign-policy decision. If Operations was the CIA's muscle and guile, Intelligence was meant to be its eyesight, hearing, nerves, brain, its sense and sensibility. Casey did not often formally consult the analysts in his operational machinations, but Gates was his closest deputy, privy to every covert action, and commonly went beyond his nominal role as head of "analysis" in directly recommending policies and actions or ordering and shaping intelligence studies to support whatever policy Casey wanted.
In the winter of 1984-1985, the Middle Eastern specialists of Gates' directorate were never officially informed of the Bir bombing plan. They could, however, make out its silhouette from cable traffic, requested briefings, and other bureaucratic jungle drums that beat in even the most closely-held operations. They saw the assassination of Fadlallah taking shape, if not the use of a massive car bomb guaranteed to kill scores in the vicinity.
"In our shop, we knew what Casey would be looking for in revenge for the barracks bombing and what the Israelis and Saudis were pushing," related one analyst who would later become a senior Agency official. "We laid out all the unknowables and caveats and how we were being whipsawed [by allied spy agencies], and we sent it upstairs for Gates to give to Casey, and we recommended it be bootlegged to the NSC and White House and even to Defense if it came to that."
When there was no sign that Gates had done anything with their warning, two of the analysts confronted the deputy director. "This is terrible," one of them told him.
"We are not here to pick a fight with the boss," Gates answered dismissively. "I'm not particularly concerned about some set-to in Lebanon."
Risking their careers, the analysts tried to warn officials they knew in the Pentagon, but they got no response. A few weeks later, like any other outsiders, they would read the New York Times account of the Bir explosion. "I was literally sick," one of them remembered, "the rest of the day."
Outside of Lebanon, the CIA's Bir operation would be a passing, little-noticed tragedy, the sort that sometimes marks an epoch. Among those of Fadlallah's bodyguards not killed in the explosion, 22 year-old Imad Mugniyah would join the emerging Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and, over the next decade, as a shadowy chief of security, direct a series of reprisal attacks against Americans in a bloody chain reaction of terror and counter-terror. Among Fadlallah's admirers, outraged by the bombing and ever after distrustful of the Americans he had once admired, was a round-faced, 25 year-old theology student of already recognized charisma and organizational skills. He would rise to become Hezbollah's leader -- and, after his forces fought the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to a standstill in the summer of 2006, one of the most popular figures in the Arab world: Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
In a sense, the bomb that shattered Bir El-Abed began to be assembled eight years earlier with the arrival in the White House of a grinning, God-fearing Georgian who pledged memorably in his inaugural address: "To be true to ourselves, we must be true to others. We will not behave in foreign places so as to violate our rules and standards here at home, for we know that the trust which our nation earns is essential to our strength."
On election night 1976, the three American television networks closed coverage with the old Democratic victory song, "Happy Days Are Here Again." The words sounded right to many who were banking on a post-Vietnam turn to wisdom in foreign policy from the newly elected Jimmy Carter. For the first time in more than a decade, American forces were not in, or near, major combat anywhere on the planet.
The concerted right-wing, military-industrial challenge to détente of 1974-1976 had been beaten back. Its Republican champion, Ronald Reagan, had fallen short in his GOP presidential race with Gerald Ford. The Democrat's prototype neoconservative, Washington Senator Henry Jackson, despite a huge corporate and Israeli lobby war chest, had proved an uninspiring candidate and was eliminated in the primaries. Now, gone from the White House as well was Ford, who in the final year of his presidency had fallen into traditional Cold War mode, and with him two key officials who had eagerly joined the drive to push policy ever-rightward, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney.
In their place were new men, apparently chastened by Vietnam. The national security advisor was Zbigniew Brzezinski. As an academic he had been the epitome of a Baltic Syndrome Russophobe, but in presidential politics, as an advisor to Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1976, he had been circumspect while angling for high office.
Brzezinski in any case looked to be outnumbered by the new administration's declared "moderates" -- Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, an establishment elder who had emerged from the Kennedy-Johnson era quagmire-averse, committed to détente, and to a further strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II); at the Pentagon, a defense establishment scientist, Harold Brown, who abhorred the thought of foreign military entanglements while he rebuilt Vietnam-shattered department morale; and, at the CIA, a Navy prodigy who had been first in his (and the new president's) class at Annapolis, "Admirable Admiral Stansfield Turner," as the New Republic called him, a thoughtful, even reforming exception to the increasingly well-known horrors of the Agency's history.
At the outset, the New York Times editorially praised this regime as "rightly unruffled by the old politics of cold war confrontation." The right-wing National Review was likewise sure that Washington "will now shrink from battle with the enduring enemy." Both were wrong. No one reckoned with the 52 year-old Georgia governor and former peanut farmer, whose provincial political freshness and moral uprightness was welcomed by a Watergate- and Vietnam-weary public. Nor did they reckon with Brzezinski and an energetic assistant named Robert Gates.
As with so much else, our barely surface-scraped history has yet to show the tragic complexity that was Jimmy Carter, whose presidency one scholar would sum up as "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory." There were omens of what was to come even before he took office -- his long-held support for the Vietnam War, his campaign-trail vagueness (like Brzezinski's), his administrative equivocations as governor, his steely religiosity born of a conversion following an electoral defeat. Whatever the causes, the effects would be all too plain.
Brzezinski and aide Bob Gates knew their man. With earnest conviction, habitual vacillation, and chaotic management of his soon splintering regime, Jimmy Carter -- behind what the doomed Shah of Iran once described as his "frozen blue eyes" -- would prove among the coldest of cold warriors. Four years later, when the incessant bureaucratic infighting for the President's favor was over, Vance (no pussycat) was a broken man; Brown and Turner had been sidelined; and even a victorious Brzezinski was uneasy with the wreckage they had wrought.
By then, the precedents had been set for the imperial excesses that would make the 1980s the preamble to our own post-9/11 era. Though glad to see them go, at least one beneficiary of their rule was happy with the result. "Great continuity between Carter's approach.... and that of his successor, Ronald Reagan," was how Bob Gates would proudly describe it.
"Competition" Trumps "Cooperation"
When it came to the Soviet Union, Carter was typically inconsistent in his first months in office, veering between one tactic and another in arms control while a bureaucratic war over SALT II erupted around him. On Gates' recommendation, the new president met with perennial hawk Paul Nitze, now representing the Committee on the Present Danger, the latest right-wing, military-industrial front fielded to attack détente. Soon, Brzezinski and Gates had won a defining victory. They had persuaded Carter to bring in the national security advisor's old friend and onetime co-author, Samuel Huntington, as a special consultant on strategic policy. The Harvard reactionary would later become one of the gurus of the neoconservative movement (and author of the ubër-Orientalist book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order).
In the summer of 1977, his cohorts would leak to the Washington Post that Huntington's job was "to scare the Carter Administration into greater respect for the Soviet Union." Working in liaison, Huntington, Gates, and hard-liners in and out of government promptly did just that -- a process which culminated in Presidential Review Memorandum #10, (in which both Brzezinski and Gates were instrumental). A time-honored "study," using flawed or confected intelligence and meant to channel presidential policy, the infamously shallow PRM-10 nodded to détente, while legitimizing the fraudulent premise of the old Team B, that 1976 group of right-wing outsiders a Reagan-nervous Ford had commissioned to counter the CIA's non-existent underestimation of Soviet strength.
The conveniently have-it-both-ways Huntington-Brzezinski-Gates document combined "cooperation and competition" into a single U.S. policy toward Russia -- the first half to be honored with pledges of faithfulness by diplomatic day; the second indulged with a serial philanderer's abandon by covert-action night. Among other historic effects, PRM-10 would be the basis for what would develop into Carter's "rapid deployment force" in the Persian Gulf, meant to protect American "access" to Middle Eastern oil, and eventually into a full-fledged Gulf military command, CENTCOM.
It would signal the beginning of what historian Andrew Bacevich has labeled our "oil wars" in the region. More generally, the "report" sanctioned, for a new era, the use of trumped-up "special" panels or consultants to incite political alarm in the body politic whenever militarism -- and especially military spending -- was thought to be in danger of waning.
Against the continuing obstruction of Brzezinski and Gates, Vance would coax SALT II, which had seemed imminent at Carter's inauguration, to a cheerless Vienna signing at a summit meeting in July 1979. By then, however, the negotiations had been eviscerated by Congressional opposition that emerged ineluctably out of the growing mood of confrontation with the USSR; and the agreement would die just six months later without Senate ratification when Carter withdrew the treaty as part of his outraged reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, just as all the hawks prodded him to do from the first weeks of his presidency, Carter went on to approve major new weapons programs -- what the Soviets, in mounting alarm, saw as "an endless build-up of power" -- that made the shell game of "cooperation" a travesty.
A shallow Congress, aided by a diffident media -- along with an ever uninformed, distracted public -- would never deal with the realities of the Carter-launched arms build-up that would become epochal in the Reagan years. No matter that it involved hundreds of billions of precious taxpayer dollars, venal interests holding hostage crucial public needs for generations to come, and, in the process, the ever-increasing danger of national extinction in nuclear war by accident or provocation. "Don't worry, boys," Mississippi Senator John Stennis once told the staff of the Armed Services Committee which he chaired, "nobody ever takes a hard look at the real numbers here."
As Rumsfeld had admitted when he left as secretary of defense in 1977, despite the Soviet push toward nuclear parity, the U.S. retained more than a two-to-one advantage in warheads, a preponderance that would continue into the 1980s. Given the fast-multiplying nuclear missiles on American submarines, as well as the Strategic Air Command's bombers and multiple-warhead, land-based missiles, Moscow's counterforce capacity (its ability to destroy the U.S. deterrent) fell far short of any conceivable first-strike option.
In the most fevered right-wing scenarios, with the Soviet strategic force taking out 90% of American missile silos, only 18% of the American strategic array would have been lost. On the other hand, the U.S. could calculably destroy some 40% of the Russian deterrent force, and Carter's decision to deploy new Pershing II missiles in Europe in the late 1970s put some of that U.S. first-strike capacity 10 minutes from Soviet command-and-control centers.
Meanwhile -- the point of it all -- Pentagon budgets rose steadily. In part, that spiral was the price for Congressional backing of SALT II, and it was invariably justified, as it always had been during the Cold War, by inaccurate or knowingly false claims about the rate of increase in Russian military spending. (Moscow's expenditures actually leveled off after 1976.) It was madness -- and business as usual.
On a dark, cold December night in 1979, an elite unit of Soviet troops, Kalashnikovs blazing, dashed up the slanting drive to Darulaman Palace, a 1920s citadel on the western outskirts of Kabul. Their mission was to kill the communist president of Afghanistan, feared to be conspiring with the Americans. They found him upstairs with his little boy in his arms and cut them both down in a withering crossfire. Murdered, too, was an epoch in world politics, and launched was another with unprecedented dangers we still face.
The very post-Vietnam détente-restraint of most of Carter's advisors -- and the President's own inner hawkishness -- opened the way for his presidency to become (contrary to conventional wisdom) a precedent-setting period for covert intervention. And Gates, as Brzezinski's hard-line staff officer for Soviet affairs, and later his personal outer-office assistant in the White House West Wing, was at the center of it all.
In his 1996 memoir, he would write contemptuously (and, in the case of Secretary of State Vance, falsely), "Because Vance was unwilling to use diplomatic leverage against the Soviets, and [Secretary of Defense] Brown and others wanted no part of U.S. military involvement in the Third World, their standoff gave Brzezinski an enormous opportunity to put forward covert action -- which was under the purview of the NSC -- as a means of doing something to counter the Soviets."
Gates and Brzezinski promptly impressed upon Carter that, "It is his CIA," as Gates described it. Within weeks of his inauguration, at the urging of the national security advisor and his Soviet affairs specialist, the new president approved the first covert actions inside the USSR. These operations were aimed at inciting religious discontent in Soviet Central Asia by smuggling in tens of thousands of Korans, as well as radical Islamic literature. In that and other actions to come, it would be Jimmy Carter who first fanned Islamic fundamentalism -- which would have devastating consequences in our own era.
By July 1977 -- less than two weeks after the Sandinista rebels took power from the 43-year Somoza-dynasty dictatorship in Nicaragua, a long favored Washington client in Central America -- they would begin mounting the first covert actions against the popular, and populist, new regime in Managua, as they would soon be shoring up a ruling oligarchy that faced a mounting leftist insurgency in neighboring El Salvador.
There would be similar interventions and intrigues in the Horn of Africa, on the Arabian Peninsula, and elsewhere, always justified by the Soviet (or proxy Cuban) menace. "On the march" was the way both Gates and his boss were fond of describing the communist hordes. The result would be a rash of secret wars, assassinations, terrorist acts, and manifold corruptions around the world by the administration of the "human rights" president. Moreover, these acts preceded, sometimes by several years, the vaunted covert actions of the Reagan regime, which were often only continuations of Carter policy, in some cases even on a lesser scale. "Jimmy Carter was the CIA's first wholly owned subsidiary," an Agency operative would boast to a friend later, "and the beauty of it was that so few people, even on the inside, ever knew it."
Nowhere would their penchant for the covert prove more fateful than in the remote Hindu Kush. To an already seedy history of American covert intervention there, they now added their own bloody chapter.
At the behest of Pakistan, Communist China, and the Shah of Iran (and their intelligence services), the CIA had begun offering covert backing to Islamic radical rebels in Afghanistan as early as 1973-1974. The explanation for this was that the right-wing, authoritarian regime of Mohammed Daoud, then in power in Kabul, might prove a likely instrument of Soviet military aggression in South Asia. This was a ridiculous pretext. Daoud had always held the Russians, his main patron when it came to aid, at arm's length, and had savagely purged local communists who supported him when, in 1973, he overthrew the Afghan monarchy. For their part, the Soviets had not shown the slightest inclination to use the notoriously unruly Afghans and their ragtag army for any expansionist aim.
Support for the anti-Daoud religious insurgents, far more anti-American than the Kabul regime, actually served distinctly local interests. The Pakistanis and Iranians wanted to fend off Afghan irredentism on their disputed borders and Pakistan was eager to secure a pliant regime in Kabul on its western flank as it faced rival India in the East. The Nixon administration casually supported these aims in deference to its clients with little or no thought for the Afghans, a policy-atrocity which would be repeated for the next quarter-century.
All the backing ceased, however, after an abortive rebel uprising in 1975, as Daoud launched his own détente policy with Iran and Pakistan. Then, in April 1978, his blundering crackdown on Afghanistan's small communist party provoked a successful coup by party loyalists in the army. This happened in defiance of a skittish Moscow which had stopped earlier coup plans. Aware of these facts, Vance's State Department coolly adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the new regime.
But with predictable alarm bells ringing in Iran, Pakistan, and Russophobic China, Carter's covert interventionists at the NSC saw an irresistible "opportunity," as Gates put it, "to counter the Soviets." Three weeks after the Kabul coup, Brzezinski was in Beijing discussing, among other matters of state in his Kissingeresque debut as a diplomat, the "Soviet peril" in Afghanistan.
Gates memoir dutifully notes the ensuing stream of bland speculations by the CIA's Soviet analysts about what the Soviets might next do in their tortured relationship with a faltering, needy, yet independent Afghan communist regime. But he spares us the covert actions the CIA carried out, amid a stream of memos Brzezinski and he sent Carter about the Soviet "threat" in South Asia -- an intervention kept secret from their hated rival, Secretary of State Vance, and the rest of government.
By summer 1978, the old insurgent training camps in Pakistan were open again and thronged with Islamic radicals. They were eager to fight a regime pushing land reform and education for women, while establishing a secular police state. By fall 1978, more than a year before Soviet combat troops set foot in Afghanistan, a civil war, armed and planned by the U.S., Pakistan, Iran, and China, and soon to be actively supported, at Washington's prodding, by the Saudis and Egyptians, had begun to rage in the same wild mountains of eastern Afghanistan where U.S. forces would seek Osama bin Laden a little more than twenty-three years later.
In April 1979, with arms and agitators paid for by the CIA and Pakistani intelligence (the Shah fell in January ending SAVAK's role), a radical Islamic uprising in Herat in western Afghanistan led to the slaughter of thousands on both sides, including more than 200 Russian military and civilian advisors and their families. Even so, the Soviets stoutly refused to intervene militarily. They even made their refusal absolutely plain to Washington by pointedly conducting telephone conversations with the Afghan leadership en clair for the Americans to intercept. But Gates, Brzezinski, and Carter were having none of it in what had become a deliberate plot to "suck" the Russians into Afghanistan.
The old Great Game was now in cynical full swing. In the sort of mad plan not even Rudyard Kipling could have imagined, they plotted to personally "give the Soviets their Vietnam," as Brzezinski was fond of saying.
The ceaseless machinations and bloody civil strife culminated, of course, in the December 1979 Soviet invasion. The Politburo had resisted it for more than a year and hesitated, even at the eleventh hour. It is, by any measure, one of the more dramatic, and chilling, stories in the annals of world politics. By now, Brzezinski and Gates had essentially created a new foreign policy for the United States and put it into action in secret with few co-authors and no parallel.
By the time, they and their co-conspirators are through, a course will have been set that will take the Afghans into a nightmare universe in which a million-and-a-half of them will die, millions more will become homeless (in what the UN will call "migratory genocide"), and, for more than a quarter-century, their country will be a continuing catastrophe beyond any other in the history of nation-states. In part, it is his own work that Gates now faces as secretary of defense.
"Love at First Sight"
Meanwhile, during 1978, they were attending, with similar heedlessness, to the long death rattle of the Shah's regime. That disaster, prelude to another crisis that now confronts the new Secretary of Defense, is captured in snapshots.
There is Jesse Leaf, the CIA's analyst for Iran who has never been to Iran or met an Iranian. Like Gates, as a Soviet specialist, he is an "expert" in the country he "analyzes" only "from afar." He nonetheless grasps the coming collapse, not from the "Shahdulation" of official reporting, but from incidental reading of Alexis de Tocqueville's work on the rotten ancien régime of eighteenth century France. When he tries to warn his superiors of what the future may hold, unlike Gates, he sees his career stunted.
There is Brzezinski's call to U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan in Tehran in February 1979, as fighting rages in the streets of the Iranian capital. The national security advisor tells the ambassador that the American Army attaché must have his friends in the Iranian military "overthrow" the weak post-Shah regime and "take control of the country.... to restore order." The attaché is hiding in the basement of the Iranian Army commander's headquarters, pinned down by gunfire, and can hardly save himself, much less Iran, for Washington. "I can't understand you," Sullivan replies sarcastically, "You must be speaking Polish." It might have been an epitaph for so much.
By the time the mullahs control Tehran, with American diplomatic hostages languishing in endless months of captivity, and Soviet troops occupying Kabul, Gates has gone back to the CIA. It's a move he's long lobbied for, part of his careful career climb -- and an escape, though not from Brzezinski, whose office he considers "a lonely island of sanity" in a beset president's "otherwise very screwed up White House."
He is just settling in as a "senior manager" in the CIA's "Strategic Evaluation Center" when a call comes from Director Turner, who has met him often outside Brzezinski's office. Would he be the director's assistant? Gates is reluctant -- he knows a failing regime when he sees one, in Washington anyway -- but he feels he has no choice. So he works for Turner through 1980, watching Carter's tormented last year -- the failed hostage-rescue raid in Iran, the "green light" Washington covertly gives Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to attack Iran in what will be a million-casualty, decade-long war, and, of course, the president's relentless political decline, ending in the election of Ronald Reagan. This he finds "heartening," as he tells friends.
He still does not know just how important the Turner job he didn't want has been; for it's there that he meets Ronald Reagan's new CIA Director, a Republican wheeler-dealer who had been the new president's campaign manager. He arrives at the Agency intending, as he often says, "to make war on the Soviet Union." It is, of course, what Bob Gates has been doing, in his own modest way, since joining the Agency in 1968. For the 37-year old Cold War bureaucrat and the gruff 68-year-old Bill Casey, as one witness remembers, "It was love at first sight."
A Chronology from Hell
Kids on his block in Queens nicknamed him "Cyclone," which will fit for the rest of his 74 years. Bill Casey pounds his way through Fordham and St. John's Law, stumbles into a stint with the CIA's precursor, the OSS, in World War II, and goes on to make a fortune as a flamboyant business lawyer and schlock publisher. The future CIA Director is, by now, a self-described "expert" not on any part of the world, but as the author of those forgotten 1960s classics, How to Raise Money to Make Money and How to Build and Preserve Executive Wealth, manuals that dot drug-store magazine racks of the era.
Through it all, there will be seedy connections in the milieu of the New York Mob, shady practices that bring lawsuits for plagiarism, an unsuccessful Congressional run, and constant jockeying for position on the right-wing fringes of Republican politics. Fired by his rise as a devout leader of the Roman Catholic laity, he also becomes a ferocious anti-communist. Buccaneering Bill Casey, his (Jesuit-educated) Agency deputy John McMahon, and Gates (with his own fervor) will give new meaning to the old quip about what CIA really stands for -- "Christians in Action."
If Gates had only done his time at the NSC and then vanished into the bowels of the CIA, his role would have been significant, though largely unseen and barely recorded. But with Casey's arrival in 1981, he began to rise into the kind of visibility that would, in 2006, take him into the Pentagon as a potential savior.
Under Nixon, Casey had been chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he had lied to the Senate Banking Committee about his past business imbroglios, and narrowly survived ouster. In 1976, and again in 1980, he was an energetic fund-raiser and fixer for the Reagan campaigns. When campaign manager John Sears ran afoul of Nancy Reagan, Casey was an obvious choice for Reagan handlers and future Washington power-brokers Ed Meese and Mike Deaver. With Reagan's victory, when the secretary-of-state job that he yearned for went to former Kissinger aide Alexander Haig -- "He's more handsome than I am but not nearly as smart," Casey would quite accurately say -- the CIA was his recompense.
What now followed for Robert Gates was a history as convoluted as it was momentous. Here it is, ever so briefly, in year-by-year snapshots -- against the backdrop of the era's furious, far-flung covert actions, from Nicaragua and El Salvador to Lebanon, Iraq and Iran to Afghanistan. All of this was, in turn, accompanied by secret "wars" in Washington which, beyond the usual clash of ambitions, called into question the very integrity of American intelligence. Gates would be a combatant in all of them.
Casey names Gates to head his Executive Staff, where he "smoothes" relations between the director and his initial chief deputy, Bobby Ray Inman, a 50-year-old ex-admiral off various intelligence postings. On finding Casey leaking to New York Times columnist William Safire to discredit him -- leaks Gates joins in -- Inman hits the ceiling and departs. About the same time, Gates begins to tell friends that he has aspirations someday to "get to the top" of the Agency.
Gates writes Casey a crucial memo on the Agency's "lagging" covert-action capabilities and sluggish "responsiveness." "The CIA," he argues, "is slowly turning into the Department of Agriculture." It is what the director has long suspected and just what he wants to hear from his assistant.
Near the end of the year, Gates is offered a lucrative job with a private company providing intelligence to corporations doing business abroad. It will double his salary with a huge signing bonus. He decides to take it; but, the day before he is to sign, suddenly changes his mind. The company goes out of business in a few months.
In January, Casey appoints Gates Deputy Director for the Intelligence Directorate. He promptly informs the analysts under him that he wants their "best estimates," but begins to keep a "scorecard" of favored analysts that influences promotions. "A little Napoleon," one analyst calls him.
"It was well known among analysts at the time," wrote former Soviet affairs officer Jennifer Glaudemans, "that we would have a hard time getting Gates to sign off on analyses that did not fit his ideological preconceptions." Added Thomas Polgar, an Agency veteran who returned as a consultant in the 1980s, "You never heard about a Gates position that differed from Casey's. Either he sincerely believed in Casey's ideology or he catered to it."
Casey asks Gates for a new National Intelligence Estimate on "Soviet support for international terrorism" and also "how far.... the Soviet Union would go in its support for leftists in Central America." It is the beginning of what one analyst will call "slanted studies all over the place." Commented Glaudemans: "I heard terms such as 'soft on the Soviets' and 'Soviet apologist' thrown in certain people's direction."
Gates begins "astutely" (as Time magazine would later put it) cultivating Vice President George H. W. Bush. He takes special pains to brief Bush personally and offers quiet personal briefings to his staff as well, which is otherwise essentially ignored by the Reagan White House.
Late in the year, Gates issues a report that leftist rebels in El Salvador depend "largely" on Sandinista arms, citing as evidence a Nicaraguan customs officer who allowed a Volkswagen allegedly carrying such arms to cross into Honduras. "It was a laughable document," says David MacMichael, former senior estimates officer for Latin America.
Casey names Gates as chairman of the National Intelligence Council that oversees the preparation of all National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs).
Though the CIA put such documents together, intelligence analysts at the Pentagon and the State Department traditionally inserted footnotes of dissent. Now, they are suddenly prevented from doing so. "This false unanimity was no accident," comments a former ranking State Department official. "It was the personal creation of Mr. Gates."
On December 14, Gates writes Casey a 5-page policy memo, arguing that the "Soviets and Cubans are turning Nicaragua into an armed camp with military forces far beyond its defensive needs and in a position to intimidate and coerce its neighbors.... [The] only way we can prevent disaster in Central America is to acknowledge openly.... that the existence of a Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua closely aligned with the Soviet Union and Cuba is unacceptable to the United States, and that the US will do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out." This is an unprecedented step for a deputy for intelligence.
Without U.S. aid the Nicaraguan Contra rebels will not survive, Gates argues, but the U.S. should also break relations with Managua, impose sanctions and a quarantine, set up and recognize a government-in-exile, and launch "air strikes to destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua's military buildup." He is recommending "hard measures," he tells Casey; it's time to "stop fooling ourselves."
Gates will later claim that he never shared Casey's hawkish convictions or priorities regarding Nicaragua. "For reasons I never fully comprehended," he wrote in his memoir, "Bill Casey became obsessed with Central America."
1982-1985 (the Middle East and Afghanistan):
The Bir bombing in March 1985 is part of a grim sequence of events most Americans never acknowledge. Gates knows it all intimately.
In September 1982 -- despite U.S. diplomatic pledges that its peacekeeping Marines will protect civilian innocents while Palestinian Liberation Organization forces make a negotiated exit from Lebanon -- the Marines are suddenly withdrawn and Israeli-backed Lebanese forces massacre more than 600 unarmed people (mostly women, children, and the elderly) in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Even American officials later call the withdrawal "treacherous" and "criminal."
In April 1983, in reprisal, a pickup truck carrying 2,000 pounds of explosives slams into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, wiping out the CIA station there, among much else. In September 1983, on the basis of CIA reports (that local Marine commanders contest), Washington orders Sixth Fleet warships Virginia and John Rogers to intervene in the Lebanese civil war. They lob 24,000 pounds of shells onto the positions of a Lebanese group opposing a U.S.-backed faction. In October 1983, a dump truck hurtles past Marine guards at the "Beirut Hilton" barracks at the airport with 12,000 pounds of explosives, killing 241 Marines.
In February 1984, in what an official calls "one of our worst defeats," President Reagan withdraws the surviving Marine contingent from Lebanon. In March 1984, CIA Beirut Station Chief William Buckley is kidnapped. He will die more than a year later, still in captivity.
Three weeks after Buckley's kidnapping, Reagan signs an order, drafted by NSC staffer Oliver North, setting up a new, secret "Counterterrorist Task Force" to explore the trading of arms for hostages. This will begin the Iran-Contra scandal.
In March 1985, Phalangist agents plant the car-bomb intended to kill Fadlallah. Around the same time, Gates drafts plans for a joint US-Egyptian invasion of Libya, involving extensive bombing and 90,000 U.S. troops. The plan is shelved when the State Department protests.
That spring Gates also convenes a special group to issue a memo arguing that the Soviets were behind the 1981 attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. Asked years later about the murder plot by historian Fred Halliday, he replies, "It will probably remain one of the great unanswered questions of the cold war." Reflecting White House pressure, in the same vein Gates also presses analysts to implicate the Russians in European terrorism, though most analysts know that reports prompting the White House request are false and based on the CIA's own "black propaganda" operations ordered by Casey at Gates' own urging.
In May 1985, Gates issues a Special National Intelligence Estimate on Iran reversing all previous analyses and stressing Soviet inroads into that country (even though the fundamentalist Shiite regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini loathes communism).
In August 1985, an NSC meeting discusses the illegal supplying of U.S. missiles to Iran, via Israel, whose own inventories would then be replenished by the administration.
On October 1, 1985, CIA National Intelligence Officer Charles Allen tells Gates of suspicions that funds are being illegally diverted from some unknown source to the Nicaraguan Contras, though Gates claims he will not remember being told any of this until almost a year later.
A November 22nd Gates memo reports that Iranian-sponsored terrorism has "dropped off substantially," another major reversal in analysis, though no specific evidence is cited. Later that same month, U.S. Hawk missiles are shipped illegally to Iran.
In 1985, the CIA first notices "significant" numbers of "Arab nationals" coming to Pakistan to fight with the U.S.-backed Afghan Mujahideen in the anti-Soviet war. "Our mission was to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan. We expected a post-Soviet Afghanistan to be ugly, but never considered that it would become a haven for terrorists operating worldwide," Gates would write in his memoirs. He would be blunter with historian Halliday: "Frankly, we weren't concerned about what post-Soviet Afghanistan was going to look like."
In April, Casey promotes Gates to full Deputy Director. Later that year, Congress launches the Iran-Contra investigation and a November 24th White House meeting begins, as an aide to Secretary of State George Shultz notes, "rearranging the record." At the close of the year, Casey suffers a seizure and is hospitalized with the brain tumor that will ultimately kill him.
Casey resigns on January 29th and, four days later, Reagan nominates Gates as director.
But reckonings have, by now, begun. That January, Shultz tells Gates: "I feel you all have very strong policy views. I feel you try to manipulate me. So you have a very dissatisfied customer. If this were a business, I'd find myself another supplier." It is only the first of much Shultz testimony. "I had come to have grave doubts, "he would tell Congress later, "about the objectivity and reliability of some of the intelligence I was getting."
In February, Gates has his confirmation hearings, amid a rising public and Congressional furor over the multiple illegalities of the Iran-Contra Affair. The questions are withering, especially when it comes to his implausible claim that, as a senior CIA official, he had no incriminating knowledge of, or part in, the scheme, and on his role as a principal drafter of Casey's November 1986 testimony in which the director lied to Congress.
"Sycophants can only rise to a certain level," Gates shoots back in response to charges of pandering (and negligence) in furtherance of his career. But to so much of what the Senators charge that he did and did not do, no real rebuttal is possible.
A Joint Committee on Iran-Contra asks that Gates' nomination be put on hold. Republicans warn the White House that to continue the confirmation fight will only focus more attention on the scandal. On March 2, Gates and Reagan withdraw his nomination.
Gates' prominence would not end, of course, with that bitter climax to his fateful six years at Casey's CIA. In the fitful sequel to the Iran-Contra investigation, Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh would secure convictions of several ranking Reagan officials, but ruefully conclude, in a 1991 report, that, despite a maze of evasion and prevarication, with testimony "scripted and less than candid" and with "two demonstrably incorrect statements," there was still "insufficient evidence that Gates committed a crime."
Meanwhile, Congressional inquiries petered out short of confronting the still iconic Reagan with the impeachable offense at the heart of the scandal. They were also blunted by the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the ranking Republican on the Joint Committee, Wyoming Congressman Dick Cheney.
Set against the totality of his record, there was little doubt, however, that Gates had been complicit in the crimes of the era, even if such a case wasn't fit for a jury. Ironically, no indictment could have been more damning than his memoir: "A thousand times I would go over the 'might-have-beens.' If I had raised more hell with Casey about non-notification of Congress, if I had demanded that the NSC get out of covert action, if I had insisted that CIA not play by NSC rules, if I had been more aggressive with the Director of Operations in my first months as Deputy of Central Intelligence, if I had gone to the attorney general." It was a strange form of contrition, revealing how much he knew and could have done, with all those "might-have-beens" reduced to the first and decisive "if" -- if Bob Gates had not been the hawkish careerist he was under Casey's richly rewarding patronage.
He would remain as deputy under the new CIA director, former head of the FBI and St. Louis judge William Webster, a figure of scandal-free rectitude who had little grasp of foreign affairs or intelligence. Webster's four-year tenure would be a holding action through the end of the Cold War. His rule would come to grips with none of the Agency's Faustian bargains and corrupt practices, from alliances with drug-traffickers to the money-laundering and looting of thrifts, from 900 major interventions and several thousand secondary actions to its 1980s bafflement at Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and its inability to grasp that the USSR was a moribund empire. Expected to deceive its enemies, an intelligence service must never willfully, or by incompetence, lie to itself -- yet that was, in large measure, Gates' legacy, and his stand-in Webster left it intact.
In March 1989, with the presidency of George H.W. Bush, whom he had long cultivated, Gates returned to the NSC as National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft's deputy. For the next three years, in concert with Cheney as Secretary of Defense, he waged a final battle against the Soviets, denying at every turn that the old enemy was actually dying.
When Webster retired in 1991, Bush nominated Gates again as director, and for a time it seemed, as a Senate staffer put it, "smooth sailing." Then, suddenly, he found himself facing what one old colleague called a "virtual insurrection" of current and former CIA officers, who trooped to Capitol Hill to testify with unprecedented candor and courage to his record of corruption of intelligence.
It was an extraordinary rebellion against what the New York Times called Casey's (and, by extension, Gates') "dark legacy." In the end, there would be an unprecedented 33 Senate votes against confirmation. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren had to conduct "his own covert action" to secure the nomination, as one witness described it. ("David took it as a personal challenge to get me confirmed," Gates would write.) An Oklahoma Democrat with wealthy backers and presidential ambitions, as well as a personal reputation long the subject of Washington whispers, Boren soon shocked constituents by a hasty retirement to a sinecure presidency at the University of Oklahoma. Boren's chief aide and legacy to the world of intelligence would be a former lobbyist for Greek-American interests, George Tenet.
As director at last, Gates would convene some 14 committees on reform and reorganization, shift budgets from the Cold War to the new targets of terrorism and economic espionage, and pursue other changes national security historian John Prados would find "laudable and energetic." But in his little more than a year in office, there would be no substantive changes in the enduring culture of the Agency. "After all that had happened, after all we knew," one ranking officer said of the flurry, "no one was listening."
Gates would remain under the new president, Bill Clinton, just long enough for one final disaster, providing what Prados called the "initial architecture" for the outgoing Bush regime's "humanitarian" invasion of Somalia, and so paving the way for Clinton's disastrous Black-Hawk-down episode in the streets of Mogadishu. It was a fitting exit, the Rangers bleeding and dying under the guns of gang lords who had once been in the pay of the CIA.
The Last Hope?
Gates' CIA retirement in 1993 would be punctuated by delayed detonations from the past: There would be a Russian intelligence archive linking him to the notorious 1980 "October surprise" in which weapons of U.S.-origin were shipped to Iran, while the embassy hostages, already held for so long in Tehran, were not released until after Ronald Reagan's election. A former NSC staff officer gave sworn testimony that Gates was implicated in illegal arms shipments to Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-gate scandal of the 1980s. A CIA Inspector General issued a devastating post-mortem on the Agency's analytic "hyperbole" in the Gates years, as well as its security disasters with Soviet moles Aldrich Ames and Edward Howard, among others.
Not least, there was the Gary Webb episode, in which an intrepid young journalist in California uncovered a Los Angeles connection in the Agency's busy drug-trafficking with the Nicaraguan Contras. He would be professionally and personally broken to the point of suicide when his reporting was savagely attacked by major papers that had dodged the story to begin with -- and, when Webb's series broke, had been treated to extensive "briefings" by Gates and other officials of the era to discredit the revelations, which even the CIA's own Inspector General would later partially vindicate.
And yet, his 1996 memoir was a truly self-satisfied document, celebrating the Cold War "victory" -- his victory -- over an enemy that "was an evil empire." The Agency emerged from his account as an earnest college faculty of slightly inconsistent quality, whose covert actions were invariably, bloodlessly "necessary." Asked once why the CIA had supported the most fanatically atavistic mujahideen groups in Afghanistan, he answered simply, and with a kind of devastating, pass-the-buck candor, that the anti-Soviet intervention had been "delegated to the Pakistanis and it was their decision." Asked about a "disgraceful record of interference in other countries," he replied, in the same fashion, that it had all been done "on the instructions of the president."
His savings and retirement accounts added up to no more than $165,000 when he left government. By the time he was named secretary of defense by a desperate, cornered president in 2006, he was a millionaire from his $525,000 salary as President of Texas A&M as well as directorships that ranged from Boston's formidable Fidelity Investments to drilling, pharmaceutical, and military-industrial giants. At Texas A&M, his four-year presidency would be a stalking horse for powerful alumni eager to take the provincial school "national." He cut staff, but hired a big-time football coach and athletic director, repudiated affirmative action while claiming more minority enrollment on the overwhelmingly white campus.
Now, seven months into his tenure at the Pentagon, he has brought to bear his long-honed bureaucratic infighting skills, at every opportunity replacing senior commanders associated with Don Rumsfeld with his own choices from the military bureaucracy. He's brought with him as well his own rhetoric and style which, in any other Washington, would be unexceptional, but in the angry wake of Rumsfeld, seems somehow encouragingly fresh and benevolent.
Some who know the record, or at least part of it, see him now as Gates Unbound -- the bureaucrat, if not sycophant, as his own man at last. He is looked to longingly by an unnerved, older-line Washington establishment as the man who might bring a wayward regime back to its senses. Never mind genuine sensibility about the world of the twenty-first century; what's at stake now is just surviving the Bush era.
The challenges facing him, of course, involve far more than simply damage control (as if he were back at Texas A & M dealing, as he did, with the unfortunate aftermath of a traditional bonfire that got out of hand and killed some of the faithful). After Rumsfeld, but also after nearly half-a-century of high-tech decadence, America's cannibalized military may well be at its lowest point ever; while, in Gabriel Kolko's simple, if memorable, observation, the United States now faces the "most dangerous period in mankind's entire history."
It is not a predicament that can be escaped simply by staving off some further bonfire -- like a mad attack on Iranian nuclear facilities; nor will Gates, even if successful, be capable of taking more than the initial steps in a rescue in the 18 months that are likely (though hardly destined) to be the extent of his Pentagon rule. But in none of it -- neither the apparently encouraging contrast to Rumsfeld, nor the simple avoidance of disaster in Iran -- does his record, his life story, give us grounds for more than the frailest of hopes. Yet, it is a mark of our time, an era he helped make, that, for the moment, Bob Gates, of all people, may be the last and best hope we have.
Roger Morris is an award-winning author and investigative journalist who served in the Foreign Service and on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Before resigning over the invasion of Cambodia, he was one of only three officials comprising Henry Kissinger's Special Projects Staff conducting the initial highly secret "back-channel" negotiations with Hanoi to end the Vietnam War in 1969-1970. He is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, 1913-1952, and the best-selling Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America as well as, most recently, The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America (co-authored with historian Sally Denton). His Shadows of the Eagle, a history of U.S. covert intervention in the Middle East and South Asia since the 1940s, will be published by Knopf early in 2008. His studies and commentary on American politics and foreign policy appear regularly on the website of the Green Institute where he is Senior Fellow.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]