By John PradosExcerpts from Safe for Democracy:Fri Nov 10, 2006 18:48
Excerpts from Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006)
By John Prados
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 , 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."
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 . 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 mor
- The Robert Gates File - The Iran-Contra Scandal, 1991 "National Security Archive", Fri Nov 10 18:44
Main Page - Sunday, 11/12/06
Message Board by American Patriot Friends Network [APFN]
APFN MESSAGEBOARD ARCHIVES