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The Robert Gates File

The Iran-Contra Scandal, 1991 Confirmation Hearings, and Excerpts from new book Safe for Democracy

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 208

Posted - November 10, 2006

For more information contact:
John Prados - 301/565-0564
Thomas Blanton - 202/994-7000

Related article

"Robert Gates: A Look at the Record"
By Tom Blanton and Peter Kornbluh
The New York Times
May 27, 1991

Praise for Safe for Democracy

"John Prados has written the first really comprehensive history of the CIA, thereby illluminating a basic fact of American intelligence--if you want to know what the CIA is doing, listen to what the president is saying; and if you want to know what the president really wants, watch what the CIA is doing. Safe for Democracy is history for adults--not White House spin but what really happened and why. For more than half a century the CIA, with marching orders from the president, has been trying to make the world safe for democracy. As Prados describes it, the result of these adventures--little safety, less democracy--tells us what to expect from the latest crusade in Iraq."
-- THOMAS POWERS, Pulitzer Prize-winner for national reporting and author of Intelligence Wars: American Secret History from Hitler to Al-Qeada

"A masterful account of the CIA's covert and not-so-covert activities around the globe. Drawing on thousands of newly declassified documents, Prados brings together in one colorful narrative a sweeping history of America's covert wars from the high plains of Tibet to the back alleys of Cairo. The result is an authoritative book that demythologizes the agency and poses hard questions about the true costs of secrecy to democracies everywhere."
-- KAI BIRD, co-author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for biography

"John Prados is one of the most prolific and respected authors on national security issues today. In his troubling new book, Safe for Democracy, he draws on his many years of research to show that while the CIA wields the dagger, its aim is directed by the White House, often with disastrous results over the decades. At a time when the CIA is swallowed up in preemptive wars overseas and bureaucratic battles at home, this definitive history of covert action is both timely and necessary."
-- JAMES BAMFORD, author of The Puzzle Palace, Body of Secrets, and A Pretext for War


"John Prados has put it all together here in one great panorama of the CIA's covert actions. The chapters on Eisenhower make clear that he was the key president in promoting the schemes, setting the pattern for the Cold War. Highly readable, this is intelligence history, and intelligent history, at its best."
-- LLOYD GARDNER, author of Approaching Vietnam, Spheres of Influence, and Pay Any Price


"John Prados has again demonstrated his excellence as a researcher and writer--coupled with his in-depth understanding of intelligence issues--to provide a comprehensive and up-to-date account of the CIA's 'secret wars.' Safe for Democracy will be carefully read by those in and out of the intelligence community--in many countries."
--
NORMAN POLMAR, co-author, Spy Book: The Encyclopedia of Espionage

 

 

Washington D.C., November 10, 2006 - Bush administration nominee for Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates had a long career in government which showed a notable combination of ambition and caution, according to a new book by Archive senior analyst John Prados [Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006)] which deals with Gates among its much wider coverage of the agency since its inception.

As Director of Central Intelligence in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, Gates faced criticism for moving slowly with reforming the agency for the new era, and thus missing a moment of extraordinary opportunity that occurred at that time. In earlier posts at top levels of the CIA, Gates figured in the Iran-Contra affair, in which he engaged in sins of omission if not commission, hesitating to make inquiries and pass warnings that might have headed off this abuse of power. As the CIA's top manager for intelligence analysis in the early 1980s he was accused of slanting intelligence to suit the predilections of the Reagan administration and his boss, Director William J. Casey.

Excerpts from Safe for Democracy related to Mr. Gates are here posted by the Archive. They are accompanied by the full three volumes of the extraordinary confirmation hearings of Gates for CIA director which took place in 1991, and which at the time constituted the most detailed examination of U.S. intelligence practices carried out since the Church and Pike investigations of the 1970s. Also posted is the portion of the report by Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh which concerns Mr. Gates, along with his response to those findings.

Six Presidents Served

A career intelligence officer, Robert M. Gates has emphasized the number of presidents he served and the long sweep of history he witnessed. The sixty-three year old Gates indeed worked under every U.S. president from Richard M. Nixon to George Herbert Walker Bush, and has now been nominated by the second President Bush as secretary of defense. His resume includes some key periods in contemporary history, serving in a White House role as Deputy National Security Adviser during the first Gulf War, leading the U.S. intelligence community in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, being implicated in the Iran-Contra affair, taking an active role in directing CIA intelligence analysis during the Reagan administration, fulfilling assignment as a staff aide to National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski during the Carter administration, working on U.S. national intelligence estimates on the Soviet Union, and playing a peripheral role in nuclear arms limitation talks during their early years. Gates holds a PhD from Georgetown University, graduated from the University of Indiana, and was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. His only direct military experience was as a young officer in the United States Air Force, where he worked primarily as an intelligence analyst, including for the Minuteman ICBM missile wing stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri.

The record suggests that Gates combines caution and ambition. As Director of Central Intelligence, leading the CIA after the Cold War, Gates promised many reforms but went slowly in implementing them, carefully marshaling agency support before embarking on those reforms. In Iran-Contra, the record of the special prosecutor's investigation shows that Gates learned of a number of the key developments at a time when he could have intervened, but remained hesitant to do so. That caution cost him the first two times he was nominated for Senate confirmation-in both cases, to head the CIA-in 1987 and 1991. In the first instance, he was forced to withdraw from consideration. Gates' second nomination, in 1991, led to the contentious hearings posted here.

As a manager of intelligence analysis under CIA Director Casey, Gates again demonstrated his two most recognizable traits. Knowing that Casey wanted to see certain kinds of analyses, for instance that painted the Soviet threat in bleak terms, Gates, according to former intelligence officers, demanded that his staff comply and encouraged reporting that some insisted was blatantly slanted, to a degree that led a variety of intelligence analysts to oppose his nomination as director. Such opposition was and remains unprecedented in the history of the CIA. On the other hand, on the Nicaragua covert operation of the mid-1980s, Gates showed caution in advising Casey near the end of 1984, when Congress was on the verge of cutting off all aid to the U.S.-backed Contra rebels to hand off the project to some other U.S. agency, which would protect CIA from charges that resulted from questionable activities. In the Carter White House and as an aide to CIA Director Stansfield Turner, Gates also displayed his guardedness. Until 1986, when he emerged as Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, Gates functioned in a quintessentially staff role.

Given his narrow background in military affairs, Robert Gates may be expected to go slowly in innovating new policy or strategy as Secretary of Defense, to devote considerable effort to reestablishing rapport between the Secretary's office and the military service chiefs, and to work loyally in support of White House objectives. On Iraq, that may mean shifts in nuance but not direction. On the other hand, the Gates appointment may be a moderating influence on U.S. Iran policy, since he has dealt with this issue and has knowledge of the players going back more than two decades, was burned by policy missteps on Iran during the Reagan administration, and has in the past favored an opening to the Teheran government.



Excerpts from Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006)
By John Prados

Pages 572-574:

AN UNCOMFORTABLE INTERREGNUM followed Bill Casey's collapse [on December 15,1986]. With Casey in and out of the hospital, Robert M. Gates served as acting DCI. On February 2, 1987, Casey resigned. The White House faced the sudden need to find a new director of central intelligence. Years before, at the outset of Ronald Reagan's presidency, Gates had told colleagues he wanted the top job. Now he came close to getting it. So close. The day Casey resigned, President Reagan nominated Gates as DCI in his own right. Perhaps the Reagan White House, beset by Iran-Contra, had not the energy or vision to seek out a new candidate for DCI. Or possibly Reagan saw Gates as a loyalist. Perhaps the call was for a professional but not someone with roots in the clandestine service. Gates fit that bill too. In any event, for a time it looked like Bob Gates would be moving into the director's office.

The Senate would have to approve the Gates nomination, but the White House had clearly felt out the ground there. In the 1986 off-year elections the Democrats regained control of Congress, making Oklahoma Senator David L. Boren chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Boren and a number of others reacted positively to the Gates nomination. Even Vermont's Pat Leahy saw the Gates appointment as a wise move. Opinion held that Gates would be asked tough questions on Iran-Contra but then confirmed.

Bob Gates put his best foot forward. There could be no denying his background as a superbly qualified intelligence officer. He had done that work for the air force and the CIA, beginning with Soviet nuclear weapons. He had seen diplomacy on the U.S. delegation to arms control talks. Gates had crafted the NIEs as an assistant national intelligence officer, as national intelligence officer, and later as ex officio chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He had done management as an assistant to a CIA director, an executive staff director, and as deputy director. Gates had headed one of the agency's tribes as deputy director for intelligence. He knew the White House, serving there under Jimmy Carter. As DDCI he had gotten a taste of covert operations and the clandestine service. In twenty-one years, in other words, Robert Gates had acquired wide agency experience. He had made some enemies, in particular as he handled intelligence reporting during the Reagan years, but in 1987 those people did not contest his nomination, which seemed unstoppable.

Except for Iran-Contra. Gates gave that his best shot too. Not coincidentally it became known that when he took over as acting director, Gates had recorded a classified video affirming that the CIA would act only under legal authorities and would never again do anything like the Iran arms shipments without a proper presidential finding. When hearings opened on February 17 [1987], Gates quickly made it known that he felt Iran-Contra had broken all the rules. He would resign if ordered to do something like that. Gates regretted not following up on the scattered indications of illegality he had perceived, But the nominee's assurances foundered on the rocks of the Iran-Contra investigations. A number of questions had yet to be answered then, including whether Gates had helped mislead Congress, the extent of his participation in concocting false chronologies, his role in efforts to have the CIA take over the Secord "Enterprise," when Gates learned of the diversion of funds to the contras, and what he had done once he knew it.

The more questions, the more Bob Gates's chances disappeared into the maw of assorted illegalities. Had Gates known of violations o the Arms Export Control Act? Had he known of the "retrospective" finding? What had he done? Again and again. At this point Congress created a joint committee to investigate Iran-Contra, and it did not expect answers for months. Then, on February 22, the public learned that in 1985 Gates had sent the White House a memorandum from one of his national intelligence officers advocating the improvement of relations with Iran through arms sales, a view at variance with existing estimates. Two days later the Joint committee asked that Gates s nomination be put on hold. Senator Boren posed the alternatives of a vote or a withdrawal of the nomination while senior congressional leaders warned the White House that a fight over Gates would concentrate yet more attention on Iran Contra. Reagan who had just released a presidential commission report in an effort to put the scandal behind him did not care to hear that.

Robert Gates decided to withdraw. The next day the administration took back the nomination. Gates issued a statement defending his actions during the Iran-Contra affair denying he had covered up evidence or suppressed improprieties. Eventually the joint committee cleared Gates of illegal actions, and the Iran Contra special prosecutor affirmed that conclusion, but there had been failings. Gates cites mitigating circumstances in his memoirs, where he writes:

I would go over those points in my mind a thousand times in the months and years to come, but the criticisms still hit home. A thousand times I would go over the "might-have-beens" if I had raised more hell than I did with Casey about nonnotification 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 DO in my first months as DDCI, if I had gone to the Attorney General.

It became Robert Gates's misfortune to be swept up in a web of illegality so immense it brought dangers of the impeachment of a president, which made Gates small fry indeed and virtually overnight neutered Ronald Reagan.

In withdrawing the Gates nomination, President Reagan simultaneously announced his appointment of William B. Webster to lead the agency. Webster liked to be called "Judge"-he had been a jurist on the federal bench, eventually on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Where CIA denizens begrudged Stansfield Turner his preferred title of admiral, no one held back with Judge Webster. Dedication to the law and to his native St. Louis, at least as deep as Turner's to the navy, had seen Webster through law school at Washington University, then a decade as a St. Louis attorney, another as a U.S. district attorney, and then the bench. In 1978 President Carter named Webster to head the FBI, the post he held when Reagan asked him to move to Langley. Three days shy of his fifty-third birthday, Judge Webster came with stellar reviews-squeaky clean, exactly what Reagan then needed. The Senate intelligence committee approved his nomination in early May, and the full Senate consented to it shortly thereafter. Judge Webster was sworn in immediately.

Bob Gates felt the weight of Iran-Contra lifted from his shoulders, only to hear from his brother that their father had just died. As Gates dealt with personal tragedy, Webster established himself at Langley. Again like Admiral Turner, Judge Webster brought in a coterie as his inner circle-this time of former FBI aides. That move scarcely endeared Webster to CIA staff, though he took some of the sting away by announcing Gates would remain DDCI.

The new CIA director had a background in government and even in the security field, where his 'time at the FBI had included notable investigations of corruption among congressmen, the Korean CIA, and, of course, Iran-Contra. In Webster's last months at the FBI the Bureau had looked into Southern Air Transport, the agency's quasi-proprietary. But Webster's knowledge of intelligence, mostly peripheral, resulted from participation in the National Foreign Intelligence Board, the DCI's committee of the directors of all the U.S. intelligence agencies. His background in foreign affairs, even thinner, did not help in the corridors at Langley.

Webster's tenure has received mixed reviews. Melissa Boyle Mahle, an officer with the DO's Near East Division, saw the Judge as isolating himself, managing rather than leading CIA, passing Olympian judgments, treating the agency as something dirty or infectious. "He did not lead the troops, or ever really try to get to know them," she writes. The chief of station in Brussels, Richard Holm, felt Webster never really fit in but nevertheless had been a good choice, and Holm was sorry when he left. Floyd Paseman, by 1987 a branch chief in the East Asia Division soon elevated to the management staff, believes Webster "did a terrific job of restoring the CIA's image." Dewey Clarridge asserts that Webster "didn't have the stomach for bold moves of any sort." Robert Gates acknowledges the criticisms but calls Webster a "godsend" to the CIA, observing that none of the complaints "amounted to a hill of beans compared to what he brought to CIA that May: leadership, the respect of Congress, and a sterling character."

Pages 582-585:

Judge Webster may have been the most prominent casualty of the Gulf War. During the long interregnum between Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of the coalition military campaign came a period of diplomacy and economic sanctions. In Capitol Hill debates and the struggle for public opinion, Webster was called upon to render opinions on the effectiveness of sanctions, Iraqi intent, and the balance of forces. Others seized on Webster's words as ammunition. This did not please Bush. Never that comfortable at Langley, Judge Webster decided he had had enough. He let a few weeks go by after the Gulf triumph, then stepped down. The DO shed few tears.

The White House announced the resignation on May 8, 1991. Appearing briefly with Webster, President Bush said he had yet to think of a successor but praised Robert Gates. That same day Bush summoned Gates to his cabin aboard Air Force One and asked if the former spook would accept the CIA nomination. Gates immediately agreed. He expected a painful confirmation process, and he got one. Iran-Contra investigations continued, and Bob Gates would not be definitively cleared until the special prosecutor's final report, still two years in the future. When Alan Fiers pleaded guilty in July 1991, Gates feared that Fiers would implicate him in some way. "The lowest point in my life came the day before the plea bargain was announced," Gates recalls. Acutely conscious of the fact that civil servants rarely rise to head their departments, Gates realized it had been a generation since Bill Colby had been confirmed. Gates had been close to some quite controversial people, from Kissinger to Casey. Then the summer of 1991 brought the final collapse of the Soviet Union, kicking off the debate as to whether the CIA had failed to predict it. Of course Gates had had a dominant role in CIA analysis of Russia for years. But this time, unlike 1987, Gates resolved to proceed with the confirmation process no matter what.

Charges that Robert Gates had politicized intelligence took center stage when confirmation hearings opened in September [1991]. At first an extended examination of the nominee was not planned. Marvin C. Ott, deputy director of the SSCI staff at the time, recalls that the predisposition to let Gates sail through created a staff presumption that there was nothing to look into. Committee staff and members were flummoxed by the appearance of a succession of analysts who gave chapter and verse on many Gates interventions in intelligence analysis. Reports on Afghanistan and Nicaragua were among those cited. Evidence emerged that current employees, reluctant to criticize openly, also saw Gates as an interventionist. Far from pro forma nomination hearings, those on Gates morphed into a major CIA inquiry.

The nominee presented a preemptive defense, attempting to disarm critics with examples of how he had simply tried to push analysts to back up their assertions, picturing some alleged interventions as his effort to tease out better reporting. Then a number of former analysts went before the committee to dispute that rendering, most notably Mel Goodman, who had been a colleague for years; Jennifer L. Glaudemans, a former Soviet analyst; and Harold P. Ford, one of the CIA's grand old men. Alan Fiers appeared as part of the committee's fairly extensive coverage of Iran-Contra, but his testimony did Gates no harm. Others supported the nomination. Gates himself returned for "something fairly dramatic," a round of follow-up testimony refuting critics. The hearings became the most extensive examination of U.S. intelligence since the Church and Pike investigations. Work at Langley ground to a halt as CIA officers watched every minute on television, much like Americans riveted by the 0. J. Simpson murder trial.

The intelligence committee wrestled with its quandary. President Bush intervened, invoking party discipline to ensure that members backed the nominee. Ott believes Gates appealed to the White House for this measure. Committee chairman David Boren staged his own covert operation, acting impartially in the camera's eye while laboring in secret to build support for the nominee. Boren agreed to one of the most extensive committee reports on a nomination ever, in which his committee attempted to reconcile Gates's testimony with the charges against him. In Ott's view, this episode became the first time in a decade where partisanship reigned on the SSCI. Finally the committee approved Bush's appointee. Gates was confirmed early in November.

For all the drama of the hearings, the sequel did not live up to the fears of opponents. Director Gates strove to preserve flexibility as Langley marched into the post-Cold War era. He showed a healthy appreciation for the need to change, forming a whole range of task forces, fourteen in all, each to recommend changes in some aspect of CIA activity. A group on openness figured among them, advising that a swath of records be made public. In 1992 Gates spoke before a conference of diplomatic historians and promised that the agency would open up, even in regard to covert operations. As an earnest of its intentions, the CIA declassified large portions of the body of NIEs on the Soviet Union and that December sponsored a conference reflecting on the period. Stansfield Turner gave the keynote address.

One of the Gates study groups considered politicization. Although its instructions were drawn so narrowly it could conclude there had been none, Gates gathered a large contingent of officers in The Bubble in March 1992 to ventilate the issue. Directly confronting the matter that had clouded his confirmation, Gates squared the circle by acknowledging that whether or not there had been politicization in the past, it was a danger to be guarded against. The director declared his determination to find better ways to prevent policy driven analysis.

Another task force focused on covert action. Among the novelties there, a delegation of senior clandestine services officers met with scholars at the Institute of Policy Studies, a leftist think tank, to solicit their views on directions the agency might take. They did not flinch when told the DCI ought to abolish the Directorate for Operations. Of course no such advice made its way into the final report, but DDO Thomas Twetten was placed on notice that the old days were gone. Twetten, one of the anointed, who thought nothing of rejecting a Freedom of Information Act request for Mongoose documents whose substance was already in the Church Committee report, was forced to retrench. The directorate consolidated operations in several African countries closing a number of stations-a move that soon came back to haunt the agency.

A national center to target human intelligence assets flowed from Gates's concern for more spies. But DO officers in the field met with silence when they proposed new operations or recruitments. Iran Contra showed that Langley would not back its officers in trouble, and now morale became difficult to sustain. One Latin American division field man told his mates, "Pay attention this is the end of an era." Clandestine officer Melissa Mahle pictures the atmosphere well: "We were not listening. Operations officers felt they had been made the scapegoat of a failed White House policy… We did not hear the call to do …business in a new way, in a way that would be more attuned to the attitudes of the post-Cold War 1990s. In a climate in which the agency's goal seemed to have been achieved, Robert Gates could not stem the retirements and resignations that began about then. The clandestine service denigrated him as a mere analyst who did not understand operations.

As far as covert action is concerned, Mahle makes the apt point that part of the CIA's problem was rooted in Reagan-era practice, in which covert operations were conducted openly and made the subject of political debate and partisan accusation, all to avoid explanations when projects did not go as advertised. She writes: "The CIA entered into a new phase of 'overt covert action,' a marvelous oxymoron that should join the ranks of 'jumbo shrimp' and 'military intelligence." The consequences of acting overtly included constant demands for specifics-from Congress, the press, the public, foreign governments-that meant secrecy headaches. Operational details could be exposed. Political tumult could terminate actions in midstream, magnifying the fear of abandonment of CIA's proxies. And overt action amplified tensions between CIA and the Pentagon too, as the special warfare community pressed for greater control. Worse, the CIA's role became that of bag man, hiring the proxies, whether foreign security services or local factions, as spearpoints for U.S. action. Paramilitary capabilities atrophied with cutbacks in the Special Activities Division. Operations also became less controllable as CIA steadily reduced its direct role.

The growing importance of proxies had implications for the use of covert action to implant democracy. To the old dilemma of shady means in service of lofty goals was added the spoiler of agents who acted in America's name with their own agendas, or those who took the CIA cash and wouldn't stay "bought." These problems were, and are, intractable.

As director, Robert Gates's vision involved gradual, planned change. He put teeth into the idea of support for military operations. One of the task forces worked on that alone. He tried to turn the agency toward the challenges of proliferation and transnational threats. Director Gates wanted more and better training for analysts, use of open source information, and techniques like competitive analysis. He ordered the revamping of CIA file systems. He opposed restructuring, including talk of a national agency for mapping and photographic interpretation, but agreed with the Pentagon on reforms at the National Reconnaissance Office. When Gates came to Langley, 6o percent of the CIA budget aimed at Russia; when he left that figure had dropped to 13 percent. But Gates never completed his mission. George H. W. Bush lost the 1992 election to William J. Clinton. A few days later, on November 7, Gates announced his retirement. He stayed only long enough for Clinton to choose his own director.


Documents
Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Chapter 16, "Robert M. Gates" - Excerpt from the Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Volume I: Investigations and Prosecutions, August 4, 1993

Robert M. Gates, Letter in Response to Findings of Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, September 22, 1993 - Excerpt from Final Report of the Independent Counsel for Iran/Contra Matters, Volume III: Comments and Materials Submitted by Individuals and Their Attorneys Responding to Volume I of the Final Report, December 3, 1993

"Nomination of Robert M. Gates," Hearings Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Volume I, September 16, 17, 19, 20, 1991 - Part 1 of 2 (16MB) - Part 2 of 2 (16MB)

"Nomination of Robert M. Gates," Hearings Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Volume II, September 24, October 1, 2, 1991 - Part 1 of 2 (10MB) - Part 2 of 2 (17MB)

"Nomination of Robert M. Gates," Hearings Before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Volume III, October 3, 4, 18, 1991 (15MB)

 

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