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Why Bob Gates is the Wrong Man to be SecDef: A Caution Flag from the Past

Gates had kowtowed to the wishes of his superiors and tailored intelligence to conform to White House policy in overstating the threat from the Soviet Union. Will he speak truth to power in his new job?
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"It's a chilling record, because you have two main themes of the Iraq war present in Robert Gates' career at CIA: the arrogance and bullying of a Rumsfeld and the intelligence cherry-picking of a Cheney."
Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive

Amidst all the legerdemain and high crimes behind the Bush/Cheney White House's invasion and occupation of Iraq, nothing has proved to be more damaging (and revealing) than the deliberate skewing of intelligence to make the "facts" fit the political ends of the administration. The corrupt case for the "weapons of mass destruction" is, of course, the prime case in point. It has dirtied the hands of the top elected officials, and Condoleezza Rice, George Tenet, Don Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell.

During the October 1991 hearings on Bob Gates' confirmation to be the director of central intelligence, several colleagues testified that, as deputy director under Bob Casey in the Reagan administration, Gates had kowtowed to the wishes of his superiors and tailored intelligence to conform to White House policy in overstating the threat from the Soviet Union.

This invites comparison with Iraq where, as Sen. Carl Levin has said, "We've had enough of manipulating order to give the policymakers what they want to hear." Even the Senate Intelligence Committee, under the chairmanship of Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas)--who frequently compromised his oversight birthright--concluded in 2004 that the CIA overstated the threat from Iraqi WMD and that the Bush administration shaped its intelligence briefs to bolster the case for U.S. intervention.

On October 2, 1991 [as reported in The Washington Post] Dr. Harold P. Ford--former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council and an agency veteran since 1950--made a dramatic appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee and told Senators that Bob Gates did not deserve to be confirmed as director of central intelligence. Ford, a recipient of the agency's highest awards, questioned Gates' candor before the committee, asserted that Gates had clearly "skewed intelligence" at times, and voiced serious doubts about the nominee's "analytical judgment" and independence of mind.

Said Ford, who had worked with Gates and had initially intended to support his nomination: "I'm sorry to say it," but the word that best described Gates' committee testimony was "clever"--alluding to the nominee's faint recollection of his role in Iran-Contra. "The forgetfulness of this brilliant officer-gifted with photographic memory--does not instill confidence." Another CIA witness, Melvin Goodman, testified that Gates' role under director Casey had been "to corrupt the process and the ethics of intelligence" by politicizing issues connected to covert action; and the depiction of the Soviet threat: "He was Casey's filter in the directorate of intelligence."

Ford, who still worked part-time for the agency under contract, couched his opposition in terms of "the strong tradition among older CIA officers...of [placing] a premium on telling it like it is. I do not see Bob Gates as a strong exemplar of that tradition." While calling Gates "extremely able," the 70-year-old Ford said that Gates' pressures on lower-ranking, younger analysts had clearly gone "beyond professional bounds." It would not be such a problem if Gates had not so often been wrong.

Testified Ford: Gates had been "dead wrong" on the collapse of the Soviet Union; wrong on the Soviet threat to Iran in the mid-80's and had lied about it when finished intelligence indicated otherwise; "overly certain" that the Soviets were in charge of international terrorism; and "overly certain" that the sky would fall in if the United States did not bomb Nicaragua. In short, he had catered to the preconceptions of policymakers.

When Gates' chief defender, Sen. Warren Rudman (R-NH), in prosecutorial fashion asked Harold Ford why he had not gone to Gates to hear his side of the allegations, Ford replied: "I didn't go to anyone, sir, except my own conscience."

Will Bob Gates as Secretary of Defense speak truth to power in his new job? There is compelling testimony from his earlier 1991 confirmation hearing that is greatly discomforting on this question. He will have several intelligence agencies within his domain at the Pentagon. And he will be called to testify on some very sensitive issues, not the least of which is the facts on the ground in Iraq, before several committees of the Senate and the House. Not to mention his sessions with the Commander-in-Chief "decider."