"I may be dangerous," he said, "but I am not wicked. No, I am not wicked."
- Henry James, The American
It was a failed administration's ritual scapegoating,
the ousting last winter of its ruinous secretary of defense. But in the sauve
qui peut confirmation of his replacement – "The only thing that mattered,"
said a Senate aide, "was that he was not Don Rumsfeld" – there was inadvertent
With George W. Bush's choice of ex-CIA Director Robert Gates to take over the
Pentagon, this most uninformed of presidents unwittingly gave us back vital
pages of our recent history. If Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice, and the neoconservative claque in the second echelon
of the administration are all complicit in today's misrule, Gates personifies
older, equally serious, if less recognized, less remembered abuses. His laden
résumé offers needed evidence that Washington's tortuous, torturing
foreign policies did not begin with the Bush regime – and will not end with
While Rumsfeld's record bared some of Washington's uglier realities and revealed
the depth of decay in the U.S. military, Gates' long passage through the world
of espionage and national security illuminates other dark corners – specters
of the Cold War still haunting us, nether regions of flawed, corrupted intelligence,
and the malignant legacy of foreign policy's evil twin, covert intervention.
Like the Senate, the media welcomed Gates, in the words of the Christian
Science Monitor, as the "Un-Rumsfeld." In the wake of his flinty predecessor,
he arrived as a smiling, silver-haired cherub of Midwestern earnestness. That
image seemed borne out by his swift firings of ranking Army officials in the
Walter Reed scandal, his apparent questioning of the value of the Pentagon's
notorious penal colony at Guantánamo, his more moderate (or at least
conventionally diplomatic) rhetoric in the international arena, and even his
heresy in mentioning respectfully – and quaintly – the Constitutional role of
"the press" in a Naval Academy commencement address.
For all his relative virtues in 2007, however, Gates remains a genuine Jekyll-and-Hyde
character, a best-yet-worst of America as it flung its vast power over the world.
To appreciate who and what he was – and so who and what he is likely to be now,
at one of the most critical junctures ever to face a secretary of defense –
is to retrace much of the shrouded side of American foreign policy and intelligence
for the last half-century or more. Most Americans hardly know that record, though
its reckonings are with us today – with a vengeance. At the unexpected climax
of his long career, the 63 year-old Gates faces not only the toll of the disastrous
regime he joins, but of his own legacy as well.
This is a vintage American chronicle with dramatic settings and dark secrets.
The cast ranges from hearty boosters in Kansas to bitter exiles on the Baltic,
from doomed agents dropped behind Russian lines across Eurasia to Islamic clerics
car-bombed in the Middle East – all in a family saga of long-hidden paternity.
As with Donald Rumsfeld, such a sweeping history – the history, in this case,
of that blind deity of havoc, the CIA – cannot come condensed or blog-sized.
It is, necessarily, without apology, a long trail a-winding. Though in the end
this will indeed be a profile of our new secretary of defense, much has to be
understood before Gates even joins the story in a serious way as policy-accomplice
and -maker. But the trip is full of color, and quicker than it seems. And as
usual, the essential lessons, along with the devil, are in the details.
As with so many good stories, it begins on a train – two trains, in fact, crossing
landscapes worlds apart, a great separation Robert Gates was heir to, revealing
much about the man – and us.
"Heart of the Vortex"
One of the Santa Fe Railroad's old diamond-stacked,
wood-burning locomotives, chugging in off the Kansas prairie on what civic historians
memorialized as "a dark and stormy night" in May 1872, was the making of Wichita.
Finagled by boosters with government bonds and railroad-company influence, beginning
a flow of private profit from public money and political favor that would be
the hallmark of the town (and nation), the new tracks thrust the settlement
ahead of competing sites as a lucrative depot for great cattle drives up the
old Chisholm Trail.
Wichita, 180 clacking miles southwest of the Kansas City stockyards, would
now become the "cow capital" of the plains. Even when barbed wire turned the
droves of cattle toward Dodge City in the 1880s, the train saved the town, helping
to transform it into a milling center for the surrounding sea of wheat. Raucous
saloons, brothels, and gambling dens gave way to the white clapboard, civilized
murmur and discreet hypocrisies of merchants and farmers, churches and schools.
A sizable pool of oil was discovered nearby in 1915, and a year later Wichita
built its first airplane, just in time for the American entry into the Great
War. Over the 1920s, with amiable banks within reach and a hungry workforce
streaming out of the ragged farm economy, ex-military pilots and barnstormers
opened 29 aircraft factories in what was now being touted as "the Air Capital
of America." The Depression killed some of those plants, but World War II and
its Cold War sequel begat the giants – Boeing and Beech, Cessna and Learjet,
feeding parasite payrolls like Raytheon's and those of Wichita originals Pizza
Hut and Coleman Camping.
By 1951, busy McConnell Air Force Base, its runways conveniently verging on
Boeing's, roared with the bounty of Cold War budgets. It was already home to
a Strategic Air Command wing and soon to an outlying horseshoe of 18 Titan II
missile sites. Ever abreast of the times, Wichita neighborhoods of hale entrepreneurs
and factory hands were now home, as well, to clean-cut silo warriors whose understood,
if unspoken, round-the-clock business was preparing for the incineration of
the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and Communist China.
In 1960, Wichita was still a small city of 250,000 – a stubby skyline along
the silt-heavy Arkansas River. "Small-town atmosphere with modern-city amenities…
low crime rate, nationally-recognized school system, low cost of living, ample
opportunities for culture and recreation" – paradise according to the Chamber
of Commerce. Kansas' "largest little city" smugly sold itself as the ideal.
America agreed. In 1962, for the first of three times, quintessentially Midwestern,
quietly metaphorical Wichita was voted the "All-American City."
Just as typically, the model had dissidents. Behind booster smiles, labor always
met the anti-union snarl of the corporations and the city they ruled. For the
less than 10% of the community that was African-American or Hispanic, unrelieved
racism, face-to-face mockery, went with Brown v. Board, part and parcel
of early desegregating Kansas. Not least, the place bred its disillusioned intellectuals,
known as the "Magic Locals," who, in the course of the 1950s, fled for the Beat
Scene of San Francisco's North Beach, where they were celebrated as "the Wichita
Group," in part for the scorn they hurled at their abandoned archetypal town,
and thus the nation.
Their bane was the "vortex," the interlaced cultural-economic tyrannies and
personal duplicities of what one of them called the "Suburbia, Materialism and
Conformity… 'Donna Reed/Leave it to Beaver' identity held dear by a largely
white, educated middle class." So archetypal was the critique that primal-beat
poet Allen Ginsberg sought out the place on a Guggenheim-financed road trip
in 1966, finding "radio aircraft assembly frame ammunition petroleum nightclub
Newspaper streets." He plunged boldly "On to Wichita to Prophesy! O frightful
bard! Into the heart of the Vortex."
A Man Without Anecdotes
In that same year, as Ginsberg recited, one of
the Vortex's most commendable sons, destined to be perhaps its most influential,
was being recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency. Robert Michael Gates
was an example the Wichita Group would have found characteristic, if not prophetic
– an all-American boy in the all-American town.
He was born in the fall of 1943, during Wichita's wartime boom which would
prove nearly endless. His father sold wholesale auto parts, and the family lived,
like much of postwar America, in what he pointedly would call "a middle class
section" of town, presumably comfortable, average circumstances (where "average,"
after all, was declared a civic virtue). The uniformly generic accounts that
have been written about his life portray young Bob growing up with the full
local infusion of wholesomeness. "A model child," he was "bright, well-organized
and punctual…. read voraciously and loved to run and hike," but still found
time for church youth groups and "tutoring underprivileged children."
His early ambition to be a doctor offered a ready excuse for otherwise suspect
science projects, experiments on rats he kept in his basement or the boiling
of cat carcasses to examine their skeletons. (Alexander Cockburn, one of his
least forgiving critics, called him "a cat torturer/drowner in his youth.")
He even attended the same grade school as future Republican Senator Arlen Specter
(who, in Gates' 1991 confirmation hearing for CIA Director, vouched personally
for the exceptional quality of their elementary education). Gates went on to
excel at Wichita East, education-proud Kansas' largest high school.
He was also an Eagle Scout. More than just another rite of male passage, it
was for him credential, qualification, identity – a talisman of innocence and
purity – and he would cling to it. He often listed his Distinguished Eagle Scout
Award ahead of his CIA medals and, at 63, earnestly served as president of the
National Eagle Scout Association even as he became secretary of defense.
After a quarter-century in government, participating in some of the most crucial
episodes of his era, Gates observed it all, yet in a sense owned none of it,
preferring to identify himself first and foremost with the rank he won in 1950s
Wichita. "That's how he started," said a colleague, "and no matter what he's
done or how things turned out, that's how he wants to be seen." In the nation's
future spymaster and bureaucrat of the covert as oath-bound Eagle Scout, there
was, of course, Hardy Boys irony.
Beyond his merit badges, media profiles over the years offered remarkably little
of the flesh-and-blood man who served as a senior official for three presidents.
It was as if rigorous CIA checks had already ruled out any of the unwieldy personal
details. Gates' own 600-page memoir typically told almost nothing of his background.
"Friends remember him," Time recounted in 1991, "as a child who demonstrated
a need and a knack for pleasing his elders." His Midwestern provenance left
him self-conscious, yet defiant, among the CIA's vestigial Eastern elite and
in a State Department he ridiculed as "guys with last names for first names."
He was, as he proudly pointed out, of "plain tastes and middlebrow origins,"
so prairie practical and provincial that whenever he saw someone carrying flowers,
he asked in utter seriousness, "Where's the funeral?"
In Washington as in Wichita, he was a familiar genus, reassuringly, unthreateningly
American. An interviewer in 1990 noticed an aphorism on the wall of his White
House office: "The easiest way to achieve complete strategic surprise is to
commit an act that makes no sense or is even self-destructive." It was a reminder,
Gates explained, of the enemy's sinister ways. "A useful admonition when
trying to understand the Saddam Husseins of the world," the reporter noted brightly.
It was accepted, after all, that the U.S. faced alien forces of evil intent
and inherent duplicity in the sometimes menacing, unsavory business of foreign
policy. Men of homegrown virtue like Bob Gates had to fathom the challenge and,
whatever the transgression of traditional American values, of the code of the
Eagle Scout, more than match the methods.
In 1961, he went off to William and Mary, the venerable college in Williamsburg,
Virginia, where Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe had been educated
two centuries before, but which had since slipped into parochial obscurity.
Shuttered for the Civil War when faculty and students left en masse to fight
for the Confederacy, state-supported William and Mary admitted its first African-American
only in 1963, nearly a decade after the University of Virginia and other regional
white redoubts. "Oh my goodness, very traditional, very conservative, and very,
very southern," remembered a woman who studied there in the 1960s and still
works at the school. "During Vietnam I think we had some of the only campus
demonstrations in the country that were pro-war."
It was not a usual Wichita college choice, but Dan Landis, an Eagle Scout at
Wichita East who had gone there two years earlier, ardently recruited Gates,
and he was given a generous scholarship. On arrival, he was ushered into the
Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, while Landis set him up driving a school
bus part-time for pocket money. He also enlisted Gates as an adviser to a local
scout troop and got him to join his church. The two Kansans settled into what
other students saw as a "straight-arrow, no-nonsense" routine.
Asked recently what the future CIA director and defense secretary did for extracurricular
activities in the eventful 1960s, Landis, a retired educator, replied simply,
"We did scouts and we went to church." Actually, Gates was also a dorm advisor
and business manager for a campus literary and arts magazine and, while already-discreet
Bob never revealed his politics to Landis, he was also active in the Young Republicans.
The "scholar scout," as a college newspaper called him in 2007, began in pre-med
but soon switched to European History. Timothy Sullivan, who sat in courses
with him and went on to be president of the college, thought Gates "immensely
disciplined, really smart and obviously very ambitious." Like most witnesses
along the way, Sullivan could remember no "sparkling anecdotes" about the famous
man, but assumed the qualities behind his later success must have been "in some
form or other evident" at the time. They were all, he did remember, "undergraduates
who didn't know much about the world and certainly nothing about the world in
which we were going to wind up."
At commencement in 1965, the service fraternity, scout troop, school bus, church,
and campus work all won him the college's award as the senior making "the greatest
contribution to his fellow man" (another accolade faithfully retained in his
résumé). He was interested now in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Bloc,
perhaps in teaching, though later he would say that the assassination of John
F. Kennedy in his junior year moved him to think as well of public service.
He would take a fellowship for a master's in history at Indiana University,
a well-funded Soviet and East European Affairs center known for training future
government officials and academics in the Cold War's most valued specialization.
"A real patriot in the very best sense of the word," was the way Landis summed
up his Kansas friend. It was one thing the Vortex and Wichita Group might have
The Baltic Syndrome
Our story's other train was more exotic, a muscular
new Red Putilov engine emblazoned with the hammer and sickle and pulling an
ornate, plush wagon-lit with scars still raw where the imperial double-headed
eagle of the Romanoff czars had been chiseled off. The year was 1933. Rolling
eastward across the Russian plain, the swaying car carried the first U.S. diplomats
dispatched to Moscow as President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union
after some 15 years of severed relations following the Bolshevik Revolution.
Aboard was a 29 year-old foreign service officer, later to become famous as
a diplomat and scholar, George Kennan. Though he was already deemed a government
expert on Russia, the train provided Kennan's first actual exposure to the Soviet
Union. As he listened to their escort, Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, reminisce
in London-fluent English about growing up in a village by the rail line, about
books he read as a boy and his dreams of becoming a librarian, the Princeton-educated
diplomat from Milwaukee was astonished. "We suddenly realized, or at least I
did, that these people we were dealing with were human beings like ourselves."
Kennan noted, as if making a scientific discovery, "that they had been born
somewhere, that they had their childhood ambitions as we had." It would prove
but a fleeting moment of respite in an endless ordeal of mutual ignorance, dogmatism,
In his surprise, Kennan symbolized generations of U.S. officials who would
continue to see the Soviet Union through the prism not only of native provincialism
and ideological hostility, but also the pervasive bias of their training. Pre-world-power
America, in its isolation, knew little of the old Russia and even less of the
tumultuous, often savage new politics of class and revolutionary party power
that followed the Bolsheviks' coup of November 1917. "A fearsome set of internationalists
and logicians," Winston Churchill had called the new Soviet leaders with Tory
wrath, "a subhuman structure upon the ruins of Christian civilization." While
a million Americans now voted socialist and there was some early sympathy for
the "Reds," most of the U.S. from Wall Street to Main Street shared Churchill's
reflexive fear and loathing, if not his florid elocution.
Anti-capitalist Soviet Russia was not merely a disagreeable state on some far
horizon, but an immediate threat to domestic tranquility. Alarm gripped even
the most respectable of newspapers, in which the Bolsheviks, like early Christians
in Rome or Jews in Medieval Europe, were reliably reported to be eating babies
and committing other unspeakable outrages. "BRUTALITIES OF THE BOLSHEVIKI,"
announced a typical 1919 headline in the usually sedate New York Times,
"STRIP WOMEN IN STREETS – PEOPLE OF EVERY CLASS EXCEPT THE SCUM SUBJECTED TO
VIOLENCE BY MOBS."
In the late summer of 1918, U.S. troops landed in north Russia and in Siberia,
part of a joint military intervention with the French, British, and Japanese
to aid the monarchists and turn the tide against the Bolsheviks in the Russian
civil war; meanwhile, across America, an accompanying Great Red Scare loosed
mass arrests, persecutions, and deportations of foreign radicals of every stripe.
It was "a moment of political repression," wrote noted historian Howard Zinn,
"unparalleled in United States history." In a sweeping onslaught of reaction,
all-American Wichita would, by 1919, imprison and try hundreds of its citizens,
assumed seditious, if not terrorist, simply for having joined, or worked for,
Over the next two decades of mortgaged peace, Washington and other Western
powers would abide tyrannies around the world – Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy,
and Fascist Spain, as well as despots from China to Argentina. Yet the Soviet
Union was in another category, "untenable, unacceptable, unimaginable," as one
writer put it. In geopolitics and language, the new revolutionary state was
to be treated as an infected patient, held in isolation behind a cordon sanitaire
(as Kennan would himself so famously urge after World War II in his celebrated,
if unoriginal, policy of "containment").
With Washington refusing even to recognize the Soviet regime throughout the
1920s, no posting or direct exposure to Russia was possible for the officials
charged with keeping watch on the scourge. The fallback position was academic
training in the nature of the new regime; and, since expertise was lacking in
American colleges, Washington sent its Kennans to study Soviet affairs at European
universities. The "experts" they found there, however, were almost exclusively
exiles from czarist Russia, expatriates by class, outlook, and personal history,
loathing – but also largely ignorant of – Soviet rule, and often financially
as well as sentimentally nostalgic for the fallen autocracy.
Few of history's losers owed defeat more to political blindness or were more
blinded by defeat; and no victims remained more staunchly oblivious to what
had befallen them than the Russian émigré exodus. Knowing Russia
so little to begin with, Washington's representatives proved incapable of seeing
just how distorted were the perspectives of their mentors, whose reflexive animus,
after all, America's top officials shared without the encumbrance of knowledge.
Lost from the start were intellectual integrity and independent judgment, those
most basic necessities for any diplomatic or intelligence service and, of course,
for formulating national policy.
From that corrupted tutelage, freshly minted U.S. specialists were commonly
assigned to Latvia or Estonia, small Baltic states conquered by Russia in the
eighteenth century but now (briefly) independent. These became Meccas for the
anti-Soviet Diaspora, in many respects small replicas of the caste system and
reactionary politics of Imperial Russia itself. So it was that America's diplomats,
expected to understand and interpret the Soviet Union for vast stakes, were
shaped not only by an insular and fearful American culture, but also by the
pervasive lost-world bias of their trainers. Not surprisingly, a Baltic Syndrome
ripened and settled into career orthodoxy. Without having set foot there, America's
early "experts" on the USSR, men who would shape policy in the Cold War, formed
indelible attitudes "while studying Russia from afar."
Kennan's epiphany on the train proved short-lived. The Soviets soon plunged
into the nightmare world of dictator Joseph Stalin's Great Purges. Facing the
accompanying craze of xenophobia and suspicion, U.S. diplomats reacted predictably.
The outwardly charming, patrician ambassador from Philadelphia, William Bullitt,
Jr., regretted in dispatches the influence in the Kremlin of a "wretched little
kike" – whom he discreetly did not identify by name – as opposed to what he
called "straight" Russians (whom he tolerated only slightly more). Fluent in
Russian, but in the disappeared Russia of their émigré tutors,
Kennan and his colleagues understood little of the rulers and ruled in a society
so separated from them by class and perspective. "Weird developments" was the
way one of them characterized the murderous midnight arrests and show trials
that ravaged the USSR in the 1930s, seemingly inscrutable events rooted in defining
struggles between crushing backwardness and revolutionary fervor, democracy
and dictatorship, confident openness and fearful isolation.
The embassy found even more baffling an undeniable popular support for the
tyranny that had so savagely extinguished the great Enlightenment and Western
social democratic ideals of the Revolution. Behind the Communist Party despotism
lay a chilling authenticity in the "dictatorship of the proletariat," which
had carried upward a new stratum of privilege and power. Kennan would not bother
with the "hackneyed question of how far Bolshevism has changed Russia" – so
he began a 1938 State Department lecture. Missing much of the point of the past
20 years and the 50 to come, he stressed what he considered the historical essence
of a people: Russia's congenital "Asiatic" aggressiveness and penchant for "Byzantine"
intrigue. "After all," he explained with no audible irony or hint of self-awareness,
"nations, like individuals, are largely the products of their environment..."
For its part, Washington had no official doubts about the evil paradox of the
Soviets, a system seen as mad and inept, yet diabolical and relentless, its
policies cruelly capricious yet cunningly planned. "We were all agreed," as
one of Kennan's superiors put it archly, "what was the situation in the USSR."
Cartoon Worlds, Russian and American
Through the inter-war years, and especially after
World War II, the specialists, invariably in agreement, advised a coterie of
senior officials whose own consensus was historic. Their names made up a roll
call of men who shaped postwar U.S. policy and much of the world in the second,
American half of the twentieth century – Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary
of Defense and Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett, Ambassador Averell Harriman,
Assistant Secretary of Defense and World Bank President John McCloy, Secretary
of Defense James Forrestal, State Department aide Paul Nitze, and a handful
of others. With much inbreeding of schools, firms, and society, theirs was a
universe of Groton, polo, and tennis, of Wall Street combines, rich wives, shaded
estates, "wealth, cleverness, and social grace," as Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson
described it – and of congenial precepts about world affairs, including ready
agreement about Russia. It was, above all, a circle of fateful insularity.
Assumed to be of broad experience, they were men who had never experienced
the Depression torment of their era, as so many of their countrymen had, to
say nothing of the upheavals of war and revolution that convulsed so much of
the early twentieth-century world. Apparently cultured, they had cultivated
no sensibility for societies beyond those of Western Europe. Typically, the
lean, magnetic young financier Bob Lovett played the mimic for his Long Island
weekend circle, with rubber-faced, reportedly hilariously accented parodies
of the world's laughable people – Russians, Arabs, and Chinese among others.
In its lurid propaganda of the period, the Soviet tyranny barraged its own
predominantly peasant, still largely pre-modern populace with cartoons of vulture-like
figures labeled Wall Street bankers and corporate lawyers, all visibly anti-Slavic
bigots of reactionary venom. Like the matching portraits of bomb-throwing Bolsheviks
in American cartoons, the images exploited the primal. Yet, in ways long unrecognized
in the U.S., the men who governed Washington's relations with the world lent
much flesh-and-blood credence to the crude caricatures on the walls of Soviet
factories and collective farms.
What America's analysts and policy-makers lost in their stunted worldview was
the sheer complexity, contradiction, and paradox of the Soviet Union, all relevant
to informed policy. Missing between myopia and phobia was the authentic alternative
to the Baltic Syndrome's policy by caricature: an intellectual openness and
seriousness, honesty and sensibility, that might have led to genuine insight,
to actual "intelligence" that could have saved lives and fortunes, even moderated
the Kremlin tyranny and hastened its end.
As a post-Soviet flood of archives has revealed (though it was no secret even
during the years of Soviet rule), Moscow's foreign policy was waged more often
in caution than aggressiveness, more out of weakness than strength, and with
an abiding parochial fear and ignorance of the U.S., a hostility that Washington's
acts in kind only reinforced, justified, and prolonged. So much of the great
"superpower" rivalry was what John Le Carré would aptly call a grotesque
The Soviet leaders had been seared by revolution, intervention, purges, the
West's cynical efforts to push Hitler east in the 1930s, and the near-defeat
and utter destruction of World War II, followed by U.S. postwar dominance and
encirclement in which they found themselves an eternal half-hour from nuclear
annihilation ("I'll climb the Eiffel Tower and spit on all of Europe," the provincial
Leonid Brezhnev, a future Kremlin leader, had said defiantly but pitifully in
1945.) The postwar Soviet leadership were creatures of their preconceptions
and preoccupations, and of their odious politics, as much as any ruling class
in history. Yet to relegate them to caricature, to ignore the touchstones of
their lives, was ultimate folly. What American specialists saw were not fearful,
compromised "human beings like ourselves," but monstrous, implacable, mythically
evil enemies in ill-fitting suits, to be opposed at all costs, with the end
– the "defeat" of Russia one way or another – justifying the means.
The stakes were incalculable. The Cold War would fatally mortgage domestic
and foreign affairs in the world's two most powerful countries, enthroning corrupt
oligarchs in each who mocked the ideals – political democracy in the case of
the U.S., economic in the case of Russia – for which so many had died. Their
"superpower" clash would dominate world politics for more than four decades.
It would draft tens of millions, devour fortunes, cordon Europe and Asia off
into armed camps, entangle neutrals, wantonly destroy any potential political-economic
alternatives to either corrupt system, rouse bitter political struggles on every
continent, unleash proxy wars with untold millions of casualties, periodically
threaten nuclear holocaust, and fix the fate of nations from Chile to Cambodia,
the Congo to Afghanistan. When it ended in 1991 with the seeming victory of
the United States, the outcome recast the planet. It had been the rivalry of
the century, and it threw a still unrecognized curse over the next. No wonder
that new period, rather than being given a name of its own, would be known,
like some sad afterword, as "the post-Cold War era."
From 1933 to 1945, there was one notable exception to the astigmatism of the
specialists and their superiors – the President of the United States. Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, that Hudson River squire, harbored no illusions about the
Bolsheviks. At the outset of his presidency, he made clear his disgust with
what he called "the hunger, death, and bitterness" of Soviet rule. Yet he believed
that the Kremlin's foreign policy would be shaped by the acts of other powers
and he took a broader view of Russia's painful experiment as well as its profound
weakness. "He had some curiosity about the Soviet Union, a measured respect
for its accomplishments," judged his biographer James MacGregor Burns, "and
a certain sympathy for its goals of social justice, although he doubted that
one could obtain 'Utopia in a day.'"
For a dozen years, FDR held at bay the cultivated repugnance of his diplomats
and the incestuous bigotry of his plutocratic senior officials. "Frankly, if
I were a Russian, I would feel that I had been given the run-around in the United
States," he said of a bottleneck in World War II aid to Russia. "If I were a
Russian…" – it was not a premise common in government cables, intelligence briefings,
or policy papers, then or later; nor did such essential human empathy necessarily
mean some policy simplistically favorable to the Soviets.
In 1944, for instance, Roosevelt was seized with a typical enthusiasm for a
postwar plan to reform the ancient feudal land of Iran, to free the country
and the Persian Gulf of its historic predators, Russia as well as Britain. The
policy would enrage London and Moscow, FDR was told; he nonetheless pressed
on. Defying the old empires, communist or capitalist – that was to be "an example
of what we could do," he told an aide, "by an unselfish American policy."
It was all over in April 1945 with his death. Into the Oval Office moved the
more typical American certainty of Harry Truman, a feisty, remorselessly compromised
machine politician who would be led in the White House by bellicose, half-informed
aides and who gleaned what little he knew of the outside world from a "story
book view of history," as his biographer Richard Miller once put it, read with
"a rousing Fourth of July patriotism" in rural western Missouri – not so far
up the tracks from the Vortex.
Like Wichita's B-52s and Titan missiles, the CIA
was targeted on Russia. As World War II had been for its predecessor, the Office
of Strategic Services (OSS), the Cold War was for the CIA. It defined every
purpose, and all else incidental. More than 80% of the Agency's ever fattening
budget in its early years was locked in the ice floe of the Baltic Syndrome.
The CIA was not to be confused with – or disposed to confuse the President and
his top officials with – genuine intelligence about countries of the world in
and for themselves. The Middle East, Asia, Latin America, Africa – a region
mattered, for the most part, only as it related to the struggle with the Soviet
Union. From the Vietnam War to Afghanistan and Iraq – with scores of lesser-known
disasters in between – that willful negligence was, and remains, immensely damaging.
As it happened, though few American experts seemed to realize it, the target
had already been demolished as the Cold War began, a condition from which it
never really recovered. If blinkered U.S. specialists missed much of Soviet
political or social reality, they could not help seeing the country's sheer
physical ruin. Revolution, terror, civil war, purges, collectivization, famine,
the horrors of the Gulag, World War II's carnage, still more postwar starvation
– the three-decade toll by various reckonings was in the range of 30-50 million
dead and countless maimed, an inconceivable demography of national desolation.
Whatever the number, the visible result was a USSR in what one of its historians
called, with rare candor, "a state of abject poverty." The 1946-47 Ukrainian
famine, like the Nazi siege of Leningrad, made gruesome reality of old American
news claims of cannibalism. Nikita Khrushchev, the former shepherd and miner,
who rose to lead (and reform) the post-Stalin USSR, recounted in horror and
shame a scene he had seen himself in postwar Odessa: "The woman had the corpse
of her own child on the table, and was cutting it up."
In 1945, welcoming General Dwight Eisenhower to Moscow after their joint victory
over the Nazis, Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov told his fellow commander that
the Soviet plight was even worse than that of the defeated, destroyed Axis powers.
"Russia would never place itself in the position of begging," Eisenhower recorded,
noting the plea embedded in Zhukov's description, "but.... he could tell me
with the utmost frankness that the standard of living in Russia today was deplorably
low, and that it was his conviction that even the present standard in Germany
was at least as high as it is in Russia..."
Touring the USSR two years later, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
saw the same far-reaching ruin. "The Soviet Union is very, very tired," he wrote
Eisenhower. "Devastation in Russia is appalling and the country is in no fit
state to go to war.... It will be 15 to 20 years before Russia will be able
to remedy her various defects and be in a position to fight a major world war
with a good chance of success."
Nowhere was evidence plainer than in the creaking Soviet military. By 1948,
demobilization had reduced the Red Army in Europe from more than eleven million
to less than three million. Combat-ready troops matched Western armies numerically,
but lacked the equivalent nuclear weapons or strategic air power – and those
were just the most obvious deficits. The Red Army remained shoddily equipped,
subject to high rates of desertion and deplorable morale. As late as 1950, half
its transport was unmechanized, moving on still badly war-torn roads, with 80%
of railway bridges still seriously damaged. Troops were consumed with the occupation
of vast new Soviet-controlled territories in Eastern Europe from the Baltic
to the Balkans, with quelling resistance and supporting the rule of local communists,
and, above all, with extracting reparations and rebuilding the demolished USSR.
"In the late 1940s, the Red Juggernaut," concluded a post-mortem by a team of
scholars years later, "was anything but."
Of Condoms and "Endings in Silence"
Formed in 1947, the CIA proved up to the task
of justifying its mission – despite the enemy's utter exhaustion and preoccupation.
By what historian Franklyn Holzman called "politics and guesswork" (what our
own era termed "fixing intelligence around the policy"), the Agency launched
a long tradition, which Robert Gates would inherit and carry forward two decades
later, of the systematic exaggeration of Russian power. To the horse-drawn Soviet
occupation army in Eastern Europe, analysts added phantom divisions, magically
restored demobilized troops, and then topped the fictional mix with hair-raising
scenarios of a possible invasion of Western Europe. They "exaggerated Soviet
capabilities and intentions to such a great extent," as Holzman's study documented
20 later, "that it is surprising anyone took them seriously."
As would be true over the next four decades, the media turned out to have not
the slightest difficulty parroting the fabrication. Typically, under the headline,
"Russia's Edge in Men and Arms" – and this was just as the Red Army reached
its nadir – an April 1948 US News announced: "Russia, at this stage,
is the world's no. 1 military power [whose] armies and air forces are in a position
to pour across Europe and into Asia almost at will."
By now a senior official awash in contrived, ever more ominous intelligence,
it was Kennan who completed the CIA's initial portfolio with a 1948 proposal
to conduct covert subversion, sabotage, and – in a term of suitable ambiguity
– "political action" inside Russia, the Soviet Bloc as a whole, or any other
country where the rivals might compete. For the old threat that knew no bounds,
foreign or domestic, it was to be containment uncontained. The task was not
exactly new for American governments long engaged in freebooting regime-change
in Latin America. But the writ for intervention now spread into what, for ever-provincial
Washington, were essentially uncharted regions of the world.
Begun under the control of the State Department, covert action was swiftly
taken over by an increasingly bureaucratically adept, politically potent CIA.
Kennan himself soon had qualms. "I would be extremely careful of doing anything
at the governmental end that purports to affect directly the governmental system
of another country, no matter what the provocation may seem," he said in a speech
as he left government in 1953. "It is replete with possibilities for misunderstanding
and bitterness. To the extent it might be successful it would involve the U.S.
in heavy responsibilities." The warning would echo down half-a-century of grim
history to Kabul 2001 and Baghdad 2003. But Kennan (whose view policy-makers
were glad to accept so long as it agreed with their own) was by then an outsider,
like many ex-officials he had already become a prophet without honor in the
increasingly close-minded councils of Washington policy-making.
The new mandate for intervention would lie with the innocuously titled "Office
of Policy Coordination." After initial fumbling by men far too hesitant, it
was handed over to Frank Wisner, a well-to-do southerner and fey Russophobe
in the Lovett mold. He came to Washington in his bald, jowly forties by way
of a Wall Street law firm, a wartime OSS liaison with Romanian royalty, and
the requisite Manhattan and Georgetown society friends from whom he recruited
the "old boys" who would give the early CIA much of its outer gloss and inner
fatuousness. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, later Le Carré and others
– a teeming genre – would portray the smug ignorance, incompetence, sleaze and
self-ruin of spies' machinations. But the Wisner club's all-too-real version
of life imitated, and improved on, art.
Funded by money skimmed from the Marshall Plan, their "operations" were grim
previews – and parodies – of things to come, of a world that less than two decades
later would be second nature to Robert Gates. The code names were colorful;
the realities dark. BLOODSTONE enlisted Nazi SS veterans, most of them war criminals,
and placed them in key positions – from the founders of West German intelligence
to CIA-paid advisers to tyrannical client regimes in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, or
Saudi Arabia, where they proved adept at organizing secret police and using
Gestapo torture methods to deal with domestic democrats and Islamic devouts
(wiping out the former while scarring and steeling the latter for a fierce evolution
to our jihadist world). MOCKINGBIRD employed Washington Post editor
Phil Graham and other ready establishment collaborators to suborn the foreign
press and American media. "By the early 1950s," wrote biographer Deborah Davis,
"Wisner 'owned' respected members of the New York Times, Newsweek,
CBS and other communications vehicles."
Meanwhile, the denizens of "Policy Coordination" set off stink bombs at suspect
youth rallies around the world, launched balloons with millions of propaganda
leaflets over Soviet satellites as well as the USSR, and sent flocks of agents
into Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia to sabotage and foment uprisings,
which were confidently expected momentarily. To attack enemy morale, always
presumed to be frail, they schemed to parachute in as well hugely outsized condoms
labeled "American medium." Whatever the condom effect, the fate of most agents
was clear. Betrayed by sheer ineptitude, Soviet moles, or both – Wisner was
a convivial friend of the legendary Soviet agent Kim Philby and other Kremlin
spies high in Western intelligence – operatives plunged into the Iron Curtain
night somewhere south of Rostock or across the Amu Darya at new moon only to
appear later as tortured wraiths in some show trial dock or simply to vanish
without trace. "Endings in silence," a former control officer called it.
The results of CIA covert actions were far more
bracing in non-European societies not controlled by the Soviets, where black
bags of cash or small mercenary military forces sufficed to seize power. Hence,
the ten months from August 1953 to June 1954 that shook Wisner's world with
self-congratulation – and American foreign policy with fateful precedents.
In August 1953, in an Iran in which FDR had hoped to apply "an unselfish American
policy," the CIA's TP-AJAX (Operation Ajax) bought South Tehran street toughs
and assorted notables in order to overthrow the popular, elected government
of Mohammed Mossadegh, staving off oil nationalization, securing Persia's petroleum
for the five U.S. major oil companies as well as the old British oil overlords,
and returning to the throne as Shah of Shahs (after an ignominious flight from
Tehran) the dim, grandiose, but obligingly despotic Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
The next June, in Guatemala, the CIA launched PB-SUCCESS, dragging a drunken
right-wing colonel through a cold shower before installing him, temporarily
sober, as caudillo to replace another popular, potentially populist regime
worrying to U.S. business interests. Each of these operations was based on the
flimsy, thoroughly unexamined pretext that the country was in imminent danger
of a left-wing – ipso facto Russian – takeover; both would be followed
by medals proudly pinned on in private White House ceremonies; both would involve
fraud and folly not exposed for decades; and both would have mortal consequences
in the affected countries and, in the case of Iran, for twenty-first-century
America and much of the Middle East as well.
The Tehran bagman for the CIA was Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., Theodore's grandson.
The Agency's other men for the Middle East were less patrician but similarly
unqualified: Miles Copeland, Jr., a jazz trumpeter from Alabama with a few college
hours in music at Tuscaloosa and no substantive knowledge of the Arab world;
James Critchfield, educated at North Dakota Agricultural College in the late
1930s, then a military prison commandant in occupied Germany who befriended
one of those useful Nazis; and James Jesus Angleton of Boise, who had followed
a mediocre (if racy) career at Yale with OSS intrigues in Italy (in which he
made good use of prewar family ties to the Mafia). The later-notorious Angleton
was an extreme case, but not an atypical one. He combined a whiskey-drenched
anti-Soviet mania (which would, in the 1970s and 80s, develop into genuine paranoia)
with some bureaucratic agility, but no palpable expertise in Middle Eastern
affairs – all of which, of course, fitted him perfectly to direct the CIA's
intimate ties with the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad.
"They somehow inherited British attitudes towards the colored races of the
world," reporter Thomas Powers, a chronicler of the CIA, wrote gingerly. Somehow.
The trumpeter, ag school graduate, manic drunk, and the oblivious, expedient
men above and below them simply knew no better.
The legacies of all this would be epic. The brutal military and corporate-mafia
repression installed in Guatemala foreshadowed Chile after the 1973 U.S.-backed
coup and murder of socialist president Salvador Allende by General Augusto Pinochet,
as it would Central America's death-squad agonies in the Reagan 1980s. Even
quieter victories by CIA-cosseted regimes in the Philippines and the Congo would
soon lead to plundering, bloody dictatorships.
Nowhere, however, was the toll of covert intervention higher than in the Middle
East and South Asia:
In Iraq, a CIA-supported corrupt monarchy, inherited from the British, stifled
democratic stirrings in the 1950s; then, CIA-instigated Ba'ath Party coups in
1963, and again in 1968, killed reformers and reforms (along with any hopes
of sectarian equity), and led to Saddam Hussein's tribal-clan despotism.
In Iran, the Shah's CIA-allied and -tutored torture regime centering on his
SAVAK secret police destroyed any real possibility of a democratic counterforce
to the Ayatollah's ensuing clerical tyranny bred by the Shah's blundering, martyring
In Syria, CIA-bankrolled, opéra bouffe juntas dating to the 1950s
begat the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad.
In Lebanon, CIA collusion with Israel helped prop up the privileged rule of
the Maronite Christian minority from the late 1940s through the civil-war torn
1970s and 80s, while the hostility of the long-oppressed Shia majority eventually
led to Hezbollah.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, from the 1950s on, incessant CIA Cold War machinations
in the Hindu Kush, and patronage of Pakistani military dictatorships, would
set the stage for the calamities of the Afghan anti-Soviet War, the civil war
that followed, the rise of the Taliban with its safe haven for al-Qaeda, and
so of our post-9/11 world of terror and war.
Even in the obscure Horn of Africa, there were CIA payoffs to Somali politicians
and warlords in the 1960s – $20,000-a-year was the going rate for prime ministers.
The bribes went alongside generous backing for the venal, autocratic regime
of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie across the border. (This was ransom for
a U.S. electronic spy station in Ethiopian-occupied Eritrea.) CIA-chauffeured
Suburbans whisked His Imperial Majesty to and from the recreational hangings
of democracy or ethnic-rights dissidents in the expansive central square of
his capital, Addis Ababa – all of which only sped the region's long descent
into apocalyptic famine and war.
No flashpoint of the early twenty-first-century from the Mediterranean to the
Java Sea would be without a half-century-plus legacy of covert Washington interventions.
These were instrumental in birthing, or maintaining, tyrannical regimes that
almost invariably bred, in opposition, an anti-U.S. atavism, while ruthlessly
extinguishing democratic alternatives. The United States and its prime intelligence
agency did not, of course, single-handedly create the incendiary world of 9/11.
But Washington wantonly fostered so much that was contrary even to the most
cold-eyed version of its own self-interest that what Robert Gates termed the
"splendid" American triumph over the USSR in the Cold War would also prove one
of the great Pyrrhic victories in the annals of world politics.
Historians arguing over that half-century of covert actions tended to discover
a "rogue" CIA trampling American ideals or else a much-maligned agency only
"following orders." In the twisting internal politics of Washington, it was
largely a distinction without meaning.
Deniability-minded postwar presidents were surely prone to Henry II's demure
order – "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" – to his zealous knights
to hack to death Archbishop Thomas Becket in the sanctity of the cathedral.
But to the Oval Office, as Henry's court, evidence of meddling came up the chain
of command, with willing knights always in waiting. No regime or ruler "changed"
by Washington since 1947 fell solely because of presidential animus.
Death sentences on men and regimes – with multitudes regularly destroyed in
the ensuing maelstroms – were pronounced by key presidential advisors or came
in the form of institutional verdicts from the collective wisdom of the CIA,
National Security Council, Pentagon, State Department, or some combination of
all four. Presidential orders were usually prompted, or recommended, by successive
small inter-agency groups made up of senior men and discreetly labeled with
the number of a birthing presidential directive or some other suitably bloodless
bureaucratic designation – 303, Forty, the Special Coordination Committee.
Not that the CIA was not manipulative, did not harbor an occupational contempt
for the awkward hindrance of democratic politics at home (or abroad), was not
driven by organizational as well as personal demons, or played by virtuoso exiles
or alien spy agencies pursuing their own ends. America's orgy of intervention
traced to all those influences, as well as to the National Security Advisor,
that assassination- and coup-whisperer to amenable bosses and bureaucracies.
From Kennedy's McGeorge Bundy to Lyndon Johnson's Walt Rostow, Richard Nixon's
Henry Kissinger, and Jimmy Carter's Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as lesser figures
under Ronald Reagan and his successors, some of the most ardent initiators of
covert murder and mayhem were those NSC gatekeepers and counselors supposedly
there to restrain presidents and regimes from such primitive and ultimately
For Frank Wisner, all the covert glory began to fade in the historic fall of
1956. Flouting a more cautious, but typically unenforced Eisenhower policy of
restraint toward Eastern Europe, his Operation RED SOX/RED CAP during the Hungarian
revolt against Soviet puppet rule (and the coincidental Suez crisis in which
Britain, France and Israel invaded Abdel Nasser's Egypt after he nationalized
the Suez Canal, all to the CIA's surprise) was a classic of its kind. Broadcasts
inciting the Hungarians to rise up, an émigré army manqué,
and the usual balloons fatally linked the rebels to the U.S., hardening Moscow
all the more in its decision to crush the uprising as a "counter-revolution"
and an act of Cold War rollback – both of which Wisner, if not Washington, fully
Watching from his mission on the Danube was a 42-year-old Russian ambassador,
future KGB chief, and eventual Kremlin leader, Yuri Andropov, who would take
it all in – and eventually into the Politburo, where, 23 years later, his too-often-borne-out
fear of American machinations would trigger Russia's catastrophic invasion of
Afghanistan, the seminal event of our post-9/11 nightmare.
Wisner soon sank into dementia, a condition he shared with a telling number
of others in early Cold War high-society, including the Washington Post's
Graham, Secretary of Defense Forrestal (who threw himself out of the window
of the hospital where he was committed), and, not least, Angleton, who turned
his madness in a burst of rampant destruction on his own agency as well as the
rest of the government in a crazed search for a Soviet "super mole." Wisner
was eased from the CIA in 1958, his files reviewed and promptly burned as the
"ramblings of a madman." There would be discreet clinics and quiet treatment
for mania, if little care for the larger pathology he and his fellow psychotics
Late in October 1965, as Bob Gates began graduate school at Indiana, Wisner
drove to his Maryland Eastern Shore retreat, and blew off his head with a shotgun.
Crowding the National Cathedral, Washington's elite and CIA colleagues – special
Agency guards kept the KGB from a close look – sang the hymn of Christian martyrdom
"Fling Out the Banner" before a hero's burial at Arlington. "Instead of a dirge,"
one of the old boys remembered, "it was exuberant, powerful, exultant." Conscious
mourning, as conscious foreign policy, was still far away.
Students like Bob Gates were to be something of
a remedy for the CIA's first generation of men, so uneducated about a world
they manipulated with such careless and brutal abandon. In widening recruitment
efforts, and requiring a gamut of substantive and psychological tests (even
a psychiatric interview for its new officers), the CIA seemed to acknowledge
that its ranks lacked a certain professionalism – in terms of diploma knowledge
of the world as well as certifiable sanity.
By 1965, the Agency was also responding to a national mobilization of education
as a Cold War weapon. This had been underway for years in the aftershock of
the spectacular 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik, the orbiting little
satellite neither the CIA, nor the American public had expected from their caricature
Russians. Worse yet, it sat atop a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile.
Much of Gates' career would be shaped by that sobering event – a Commie rocket
that could reach Wichita – when he was only 14, still parboiling cats and ardently
rising in the Boy Scouts.
Sputnik's launch began a craze in the U.S. to spur military-related science
and technology from grade school to graduate school. The 1958 National Defense
Education Act also allotted unprecedented millions for "foreign area training,"
part of a vast effort to create well-informed specialists on the Soviet Bloc
and the Third World, a know-thine-enemy vogue shared by foundations as well
as Congress. Thus, the irony of government-financed graduate study to ward off
the socialist menace, and Carnegie and Ford Foundation philanthropy to save
capitalism by paying serious young Americans to read Marx and Lenin.
Universities like Indiana with more than the usual offerings in Russian history
and Slavic languages were ready reservoirs for CIA recruiters and Bob Gates
was their ideal target. It all seemed to promise a new worldliness – for Wichita
as well as Washington. But lurking like a lethal gene was that old Baltic Syndrome,
with its reactionary animus and blindfolds, in which America's would-be specialists
in the Soviet regime had always been schooled.
No independent American expertise on the Soviets would magically appear, despite
the post-Sputnik infusions of money. In the 1960s, knowing students mordantly
called bucolic little Bloomington, Indiana, "Novocherkassk" – after the Cossack
town that had been the capital of the monarchist "Whites" in Russia's Civil
War. The name was sadly fitting. In 1965, Indiana's Soviet Affairs faculty was
still so dominated by émigrés, or the émigré-indoctrinated,
that courses given when Gates arrived amounted to little more than the usual
worn tour of Kremlin horrors.
Indiana was hardly alone. Harvard was much the same – its own prestigious and
lavishly supported Russian studies program dominated by figures like historian
Richard Pipes, a reactionary of East European descent whose lectures riveted
undergraduates with an unrelieved demonology of the Bolshevik Revolution. "We'll
be reading Karl Marx who is not now and never has been a member of the Communist
Party," celebrated Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith would dryly announce
in his course on economic development. But such irreverence was rare, and his
course was not often required for "specialists."
Other reputed centers of area studies – most prominently Columbia with young
ex-Harvard Russophobe Zbigniew Brzezinski, a star lecturer in Soviet affairs
– were similar bastions of Baltic Syndrome orthodoxy. The narrowness of most
curricula in the 1960s moved even a timorous, still McCarthy-era-cowed State
Department to react. Its cultural affairs officers recommended, albeit quietly,
that U.S. graduate students heading for Moscow or Leningrad on a new exchange
program with the USSR (with language prepping beforehand at Indiana) read Wright
Miller's otherwise ignored little classic Russians As People. ("What,"
asked a puzzled Russian student at Moscow State University on seeing the book
in 1964, "did you think we were?")
Money now gushed into "area specialization," not just in Soviet affairs, but
in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – all those contested areas of a contested
planet where the loyalties of restless natives now seemed to be of some practical
importance. Like learning math to catch the Russians in space, the logic seemed
unexceptionable. To save the world from communist clutches, some knowledge of
that world would obviously be helpful.
A World of "Slopes" and "Towel Heads"
In practice, none of this had much effect on root
prejudice. An American Army in Vietnam lost to a foe (and defended an ally)
its commanders as well as the ranks generally referred to as "gooks," "dinks,"
and "slopes," and whose politics it never grasped. It would be much the same
three decades later, when U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanded in
part by erstwhile junior officers from the Vietnam War, were effectively defeated
by two of history's most momentous, if seemingly ragtag, insurgencies made up
of "hajis," "sand niggers," and "towel heads" of similarly baffling mind and
As usual, bigotry ran bottom to top, civilian no less than military. In the
Vietnam-era White House, President Nixon commonly deplored "jigs" and "Jew boys,"
while Harvard's Kissinger (with a young aide of like mentality named John Negroponte)
planned savage carpet bombings of North Vietnam on the premise, as Kissinger
put it, that "I can't believe a fourth-rate power doesn't have a breaking point."
It was typical of the quaint anthropology of the famous diplomat and many of
his staff, including future secretaries of state Alexander Haig and Larry Eagleburger.
(Told during the Nigerian Civil War that Biafra's Ibos tended to appear more
Negroid than northern Nigerians, Kissinger blurted out in unguarded surprise,
"You always said Ibos were so gifted and accomplished. How could they be more
Yet there was something more insidious than crude Eurocentric racism at work.
Imbibed by a new generation of bureaucrats and analysts with winning-hearts-and-minds,
career-making fervor was another kind of bigotry dressed in the clothes of scholarly
authority and of knowledge in service to power. It took an eminent literary
critic and expatriate from one of the most abused "areas" of the world to expose
A revolutionary book when it appeared in the late 1970s, Orientalism
by Palestinian Edward Said revealed the intellectual hollowness of the predominant
Western view of the Arab world (and, by implication, of much of the rest of
the globe as well). Professor Said's naked emperor proved to be the views of
two centuries of Western academics and novelists, clerks and clerics, soldiers
and tourists, diplomats and dilettantes that created a collective, stereotypical,
paradoxical Muslim Orient – stagnant yet ever-roiling; childlike yet cunning;
femininely weak yet no less macho-menacing for that; indolent but agitated;
always prone to feudal despotism, though available for capitalist liberation;
congenitally terrorist and genocidal by nature; presumptively inferior; endlessly
devious; and, above all, relentlessly alien. Said's Orient of Western mythology
was what one author aptly called "the quintessential 'Other.'"
"They're our boys bought and paid for, but you always gotta remember that these
people can't be trusted," said Archie Roosevelt, Kermit's cousin and a CIA deputy
for the Middle East in the later 1960s. His weary exasperation with the supposedly
innate Arab traits of treachery and corruptibility – he was speaking of Iraqi
Ba'ath Party officers on his payroll in the 1963 and 1968 Baghdad coups – caught
an American official mood extending from the 1940s to 2007, from Iraq to Vietnam
to Afghanistan and back to Iraq again. It was part of the territory, diplomats
and spies understood, a cost of doing business beyond the English Channel with
what many called, in the privacy of inter-agency meetings, the "rug merchants."
Long embedded in American prejudice – from Holy Land travelogues to pulp novels
and action movies, coin of the realm from foreign affairs professionals to Capitol
Hill plebeians – no preconception, not even the anti-Soviet mania, shaped U.S.
policy more than the now-subtle, now-brazen stereotypes of the Arab world. (This
was, of course, intimately related to an unquestioning affinity for Israel,
though even as that costly penchant frays, the Orientalism Express barrels on.)
As in academia or the media, government had its exceptions to Orientalism's
sway – analysts, spies, or diplomats of wider perception. There is, however,
no evidence that they carried a single significant day in the last 60 years
in a Washington gripped by Orientalist fervor.
Authentic intelligence was absent when needed most, which was most of the time,
and knowledge scant in any guise. CIA veterans recall that there were rarely
more than three to five officers ranked as Arabic-fluent "Arabists" on Agency
desks at any time prior to 1991. Though there might have been more Arabists
in the field, even fewer there focused on Arab politics as distinct from the
CIA's primary target worldwide: Soviet missions and their relations with host
regimes. In the Islamic world as elsewhere, unrest was seen far less as legitimate
grievance emerging from local or regional situations than yet more evidence
of Kremlin machinations. Politics in the Arab world, as in the Third World generally,
was not so much a matter of history-in-the-making as of dreary pawns being manipulated
by great powers.
The colonial sociology of knowledge of the specialists, when placed alongside
the cultural illiteracy of senior bureaucrats, policy-makers, and politicians
– to say nothing of a blanketing pro-Israeli bias – produced a half-century
of American patronage of repressive regimes in North Africa and the Middle East.
There would be year after year of watery smiles as dickering over ephemera went
on with ruling strata, while American officials remained oblivious to what later
came to be called "the Arab Street." Diplomatic and intelligence dispatches
of the era would breathe a monotonous triviality, a climate without weather
as storms billowed.
As 9/11 and the years to follow made plain, what was missed was momentous.
Gathering largely beyond Washington's ken were tides sweeping the Arab world
in the latter twentieth century – a slow, sure popular mobilization, not to
speak of a fundamentalist reaction to inequitable modernization by U.S.-purchased
oligarchies. That mobilization was at once populist, authoritarian, and divisively
From the 1950s on, in a fetish of "progress" and as a Cold War counter to the
Russians, U.S. officials exhorted Arab regimes to headlong "development," buttressing
some, but pushing most beyond their means. With oil prices sagging in the late
1970s and the right-wing version of "free enterprise" and "supply-side economics"
seizing the White House and Congress by the throat, the U.S. then began to wield
the International Monetary Fund and other whips to force Arab governments to
cut welfare programs throughout the Middle East.
This abdication of responsibility for their own people inevitably left ever-growing
excluded populations to the socio-economic, as well as sectarian religious,
rescue of the fundamentalists. Their resulting appeal – to Washington's shock,
though any old urban-machine pol could have predicted it – grew exponentially.
It was an American policy in which, from Carter to Reagan to Clinton, every
step was taken with indivisible neo-liberal/neoconservative obliviousness.
Meanwhile, intelligence remained essentially blind to defining events. The
mullahs' 1978-79 revolution in Iran was built before the willfully unseeing
eyes of a horde of CIA operatives on the long-rotting ruins of the Shah's regime.
Afghan Islamic atavists rose in the 1980s, thanks to the CIA and its colleagues
in Pakistani intelligence, over the corpses of any democratic alternative, and
then, once the Soviets were defeated, their country was blithely abandoned to
congenital chaos. Finally, there was the self-betrayal of an Israel heedless
of its own malignant colonial expansion, of the fierce, new Arab consciousness
it stirred, and thus of the dwindling efficacy of its military power. These
were successive tragedies, enabled by lobby-lashed, ever-Orientialist American
This was the world Bob Gates would soon face – and proceed to help make – as
the CIA recruited him at Indiana in 1965.
"On a Lark"
In the spring of 1966 – "on a lark," as he put
it, "for a free trip to Washington" – Gates drove his new Mustang from Bloomington
to CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, where he was offered an analyst's
job. It would be two more years before he began work. With his Wichita draft
deferments used up, and the CIA offering none, he preempted the possibility
of being swept up in expanding Vietnam call-ups by joining an Air Force officer-candidate
That summer, before reporting for duty, he chaperoned a Bloomington hayride
with a young graduate from Washington State, attending Indiana for a Master's
Degree in "student personnel administration." Three months later, on the way
to officer training in San Antonio, he proposed. "I don't think she was too
excited to accept, but she did," he said of quiet, steady Becky Wilkes. While
raising two children, she would parallel her husband's CIA career by spending
a quarter-century as an administrator at the Alexandria branch of Northern Virginia
Community College. They were, to all appearances, the perfect, modern working
couple, educator and public servant – an American ideal of the sort Gates' "All-American"
hometown of Wichita was supposed to produce.
Part of his posting in his uneventful Air Force tour involved briefing nuclear
missile crews on intelligence data at the Oscar-1 ICBM site at Whiteman Air
Force Base in the Missouri countryside, 65 miles southeast of Kansas City. There,
he first met a military strain of Cold War mania that, in years to come, would
always make his own, more tactfully couched hard-line views seem mild.
"This was still Curtis LeMay's Strategic Air Command," Gates wrote in his memoir,
referring to the famed Air Force general who had burned Japan's cities to the
ground in World War II and, by the early 1950s, was ready to do the same to
the whole communist world in a nuclear first strike. (Two of his war plans were
even code-named BROILER and SIZZLER.) A typical Oscar-1 commander thought it
a "goddamn outrage" that warheads were targeted on Soviet missile silos instead
of cities. "I want to kill some fucking Russians," the commander told Gates,
"not dig up dirt."
Gates entered the CIA's intelligence directorate as a Soviet affairs analyst
on August 19, 1968, the day before the Russians ordered Warsaw Pact forces to
roll into Czechoslovakia, crushing the "Prague Spring" along with Alexander
Dubèek's communist reform regime. That invasion marked a climactic moment
in the CIA's eventful recent history. The Agency's Bay of Pigs debacle in the
fall of Gates' freshman year at William and Mary – the failed 1961 invasion
of Cuba using armed Cuban exiles with limited, soon-routed CIA air cover – had
been the Agency's first visible setback, though that hardly caused its policy
masters and covert-action operators to fall into some chastened lull.
Even as the quixotic Cuban exile invasion force was marched to prison, plots
to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro continued apace (under the vengeful eye of
Attorney General Bobby Kennedy), using some of the Agency's most thuggish hires.
Meanwhile, covert action was incessant elsewhere. Stations in Cairo, Beirut,
and Amman spent years plotting the February 1963 Ba'athist coup in Iraq that
led to the murder of reformist Premier Abdul Karim Kassem, who was deemed too
sympathetic to the left. ("The target suffered a terminal illness," a CIA officer
quipped to a Senate committee, "before a firing squad in Baghdad.") That bloody
succession led to the murder of thousands of Iraq's educated elite, communist
and non-communist alike, from lists the CIA gave Ba'ath Party death squads.
When that coup faltered, the Agency staged a further one in 1968, almost a month
to the day before Gates began his job, installing a Ba'athist dictator – along
with his kinsman and protégé, security chief Saddam Hussein.
There were similar Agency "successes" in Brazil where a democratic government,
again labeled "leftist" and presumed crypto-communist, was overthrown and a
torture-ready right-wing military junta installed at mid-decade. At the same
time in Indonesia, with Agency collusion, the military massacred democratic
leftists, as well as known communists, by the hundreds of thousands to fix the
iron tyranny of the Suharto regime. The 1967 Colonels' Coup in Greece was but
another extinction of a boisterous democracy by Langley's clients. The Agency's
Cold War victories came steadily. "A gain for our side," was the way a National
Security Council aide put it to President John Kennedy when Iraqi Premier Kassem
suffered his "terminal illness."
By the latter 1960s, like the Pentagon, the Agency was also feeding handsomely
off the Vietnam War, conducting assassinations by the thousands in the soon-to-be-notorious
Phoenix Program, setting up provincial torture centers through South Vietnam
– including the infamous "tiger cages," savage precursors of Abu Ghraib and
Guantanamo – and, not least, creating drug-running mercenary armies, supplied
by the Agency's own Air America airline, operating out of its busy regional
hub in warlord-ruled Laos. The CIA also colluded with the Cambodian generals
who would overthrow neutralist King Sihanouk in 1970, mindless patronage that
led ineluctably to Cambodia's major embroilment in the Vietnam War, the rise
and triumph of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, and the postwar genocide of "the killing
fields." All of this traced to decisions made through the customary mix of prodding
advisors, Cold War institutional momentum, and presidential sanction, as well
as at least implicit, sometimes explicit, approval by Congressional barons.
Altogether, this summed up the bipartisan complicity that was – and remains
– America's interventionist foreign policy and the Washington consensus.
As usual, the scurrying operators almost invariably outran any intelligence
analysis offered. Most of the time, in most places in the world, such "intelligence,"
despite the Agency's name, was a purely secondary matter. True, Agency analysts,
reporting on Southeast Asia, did resist the perverse light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel
optimism infecting the officer corps, earning the undying enmity of Pentagon
intelligence and of defeat-sullen military and civilian hawks. But, like other
Americans in policy-making or influential positions, CIA analysts proved largely
blind to the indomitable nationalism that lay at the heart of the war. Save
for one glimpse of the looming disaster that never made it to the necessary
senior levels, they failed to warn of the nationwide Tet Offensive in April
1968 and then put the kind of devoted effort that hadn't gone into intelligence-gathering
into covering up their own negligence and incompetence. All in all, CIA intelligence
on Vietnam was so shallow that, by 1969-1970, President Richard Nixon's White
House policy-makers had essentially stopped paying attention.
CIA estimates elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East after
the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, were no less suspect in the White House and
the Pentagon – except for reports passed on from CIA client regimes or kindred
spy agencies. This was especially true of Israel's Mossad, widely (and mistakenly)
believed in Washington to be omniscient, if not omnipotent, and invariably imagined
to be synonymous with American interests.
The continuing priority given to analysts of the USSR proved no advantage when
it came to intelligence. By the late 1960s, the Agency was already alternately
missing or overestimating a genuine Soviet buildup of its missile forces, a
step taken by the Russian leadership to redress the massive strategic imbalance
(and humiliation) that had culminated in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. ("We
will honor this agreement," a Russian envoy told his American counterpart in
1962. He was speaking of the deal President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita
Khrushchev had forged, as Moscow backed down on placing its missiles in Cuba
to match U.S. bombers and warheads poised along the borders of the USSR, 30
minutes from Soviet cities and command centers. "But I want to tell you something.
You'll never do this to us again.") Far worse, CIA analysts regularly underestimated
by as much as half the mortal burden such staggering military spending placed
on a corrupt, sclerotic Soviet economy.
Given the millions of dollars pouring into intelligence, some of the gaps were
chilling. As the new, young analyst from Wichita reported to Washington in that
leaden summer of 1968, NSC staff officers watched in dismay while the Agency
simply "lost" whole Soviet tank divisions and other forces for several crucial
days. These were finally located in Prague only as the Soviet ambassador was
helpfully informing President Lyndon Johnson of the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
The CIA Bob Gates joined was still largely what it had been over its first
two decades – a blunt instrument of covert intervention, now mostly in non-European
politics – and a stagnant fund of intelligence. The Baltic Syndrome had morphed
into a global variation of the same half-blind and bigoted perspective. The
Agency was trapped in the remarkably narrow confines that defined imperial,
yet intellectually provincial, Washington. During Gates' opportunistic rise
and sway over the next quarter century, it would remain, at horrendous cost,
much the same.
Office Politics Triumphant
From 1968 to 1974, Gates rose steadily through
the ranks of Langley clerkdom, serving on the CIA support group for the Strategic
Arms Limitation negotiations in Vienna, and eventually as an assistant national
intelligence officer for the USSR. He helped to craft the periodic National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for the Soviet Union, a report that was, and remains,
an Agency hallmark for any given area or issue.
His work in these years also focused to some extent on Moscow's policy in the
Middle East. He had no training or experience in the region itself, but given
the Agency's relatively sparse expertise in the Arab world, he soon professed
specialization and authority in that as well. "Gates prided himself in being
a top Middle East expert within CIA," according to a former boss, Ray McGovern
– though it was not a claim any of his colleagues in either Soviet or Middle
Eastern affairs seem to have taken seriously at the time.
Those years represented a brief interval when the CIA's analysts had rare near-parity
with their covert-action brethren. Beyond meeting the usual suborning payrolls
– from parliaments to palaces, cabinets to high commands worldwide – covert
operations were relatively quiescent except in Vietnam, where assassinations
and torture operations continued apace during the slow-motion U.S. withdrawal,
as well as in Iran and Chile.
In 1969, at the behest of the Shah of Iran, and in collusion with Israel's
Mossad, the Agency secretly backed a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq. It was
meant to bleed Iraq's Ba'athist regime and deflect its attention from a border
dispute with Iran, already then Washington's favored regional proxy. It was
a thoroughly sordid episode, made only more so when Washington and Tel Aviv
blithely walked away from the Kurds. This betrayal and the resultant massacre
of the Kurdish rebels came promptly when the Shah decided to strike a deal in
1975 with the Iraqis, signed by the already powerful Ba'athist Vice President
Saddam Hussein. ("Covert action should not be confused with missionary work,"
then-Secretary of State Kissinger instructed a Senate committee questioning
the Kurdish sellout.)
Then, of course, there were the Agency's murderous Chilean intrigues that eventually
triggered the 1973 coup, blotting out the elected presidency and left-center
coalition of Salvador Allende – with the concentration camps and torture chambers
of General Augusto Pinochet's reactionary junta to follow. Again, a Kissinger
quip would be emblematic, in this case his Latin variant on Orientalism. "I
don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of
the irresponsibility of its own people," he admonished his colleagues on the
Forty Committee, the secret group approving the covert action.
For the most part, however, the early 1970s were the zenith years of Nixon-Kissinger
great-power diplomacy – the China opening, a Moscow Summit and Strategic Arms
Limitation Treaty (SALT I), the grim Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and Kissinger's
Nobel-Prize-winning but doomed 1973 Vietnam settlement, as well as his celebrated
Middle East shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. These were the
feats of a haunted president who distrusted the CIA still more than the rest
of a despised bureaucracy, even as he unleashed it ruthlessly on Chile, and
of a gifted, tireless, megalomaniacal National Security Advisor and Secretary
of State alternately co-opting and excluding the Agency in his incessant war
to maintain his own monopoly of power over the bureaucracy. By 1974, of course,
Nixon was mortally stricken by Watergate, and Kissinger's dominance was hemorrhaging
Looking back on this crucial takeoff moment in Gates' career, media pundits
vacantly ascribed it to merit. "The brightest Soviet analyst in the shop," Washington
Post columnist David Ignatius typically wrote. Insiders knew better. "He
wasn't." That was what his CIA superior Ray McGovern said gently, echoing the
feelings of his colleagues that "something other than expertise" made for Gates'
It was, in fact, a triumph of office politics, not substance. "Gates' rise
did not come from knowing more about the Soviets.... than anyone else," CIA
chronicler Thomas Powers concluded. "He was young, well scrubbed, well spoken,
bright, hardworking, reliable, loyal, discreet, and a bit of a hard-ass when
it came to the Russians." But his limits, too, were evident. Wrote British historian
Fred Halliday: "He would not have been out of place as a small town bank manager:
unfazed by questions, reticent in judgment, sure of his ground, but without
either incisiveness or (it seemed) the awareness that international experience
brings." He had, Halliday concluded, "no trace [of]…. any firsthand experience
of foreign cultures or countries." He was "a man of the office, the organization."
It was the candid portrait of a consummate insider as insular as the policy
and politics he served.
Gates, the Soviet "specialist" and, in many ways, penultimate Cold Warrior,
would not even see Moscow until May 1989, more than two decades after entering
the CIA as an expert on the USSR and after 15 years in which, to one degree
or another, he joined in nearly all Washington's most consequential judgments
about Russia. Nor, despite his asserted expertise in the Middle East, would
Gates have personal experience with nations he dealt with fatefully from 1974
to 1993 – most notably Afghanistan and Iraq. He would not tour either until
2006-7, and then only for a few, heavily guarded days and in the most limited
As with his Baltic predecessors, however, his specialties "from afar" ushered
him into history. Early in 1974, not yet thirty-one and scarcely six years in
the ranks, he was chosen from among a number of CIA analysts, some with greater
seniority, for a key assignment to the National Security Council staff. It would
be the beginning of nearly nine years spent at the White House in pivotal roles
under three presidents and the administrations of both parties.
Despite Kissinger's preeminence as National Security Advisor, the NSC staff
in 1974 had not yet grown engorged or been transformed into the shadow foreign
ministry it would soon become. It was still made up mostly of non-political
"professionals," not partisans but career officers "detailed" to it, usually
for two-year periods, from the State Department, the CIA or, less often, the
Pentagon. As a system, the detailing process worked somewhat like traditional
White House political patronage, albeit it was the politics of the bureaucracy
that was at stake in what was considered a plum career assignment. In those
days, you were still detailed to the NSC with, at worst, only a perfunctory
ideological screening by the National Security Advisor and his personal staff.
Gates filled a staff slot that had traditionally been left for the CIA: analyst,
as well as policy and intelligence liaison, for Russia. The job had singular
reach. In a global Cold War made ever more intricate by the Sino-Soviet split,
the rise of Communist China, and the triangular diplomacy that developed out
of that, the NSC Soviet affairs officer took part in any issue involving Soviet
interests. That included not just strategic arms considerations, but developing
situations in regions like the Middle East and South Asia where Moscow was heavily
The post had belonged to William Hyland, a wry, scholarly, self-effacing, relatively
undogmatic CIA veteran analyst, then in his mid-forties, who had readily deferred
to Kissinger's realpolitik eagerness to negotiate with Moscow. Hyland's
generally pragmatic perspective on the Kremlin informed the statesmanship behind
the SALT agreement and more. His reward was to be named State Department Director
of Intelligence and Research when Kissinger became Secretary of State in 1973.
"At the switch," Hyland lightly called his NSC role. Now, Gates was to be at
that "switch" for the next five-and-a-half years – through Kissinger's dual
tenure as both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Gerald
Ford from mid-1974 until late 1975; then under ex-Kissinger deputy and NSC successor
Air Force General Brent Scowcroft during Ford's last year in office. Gates even
remained through Jimmy Carter's Democratic presidency, under his NSC Advisor
Zbigniew Brzezinski. For part of that interval, he was Brzezinski's personal
assistant – with even greater scope and authority. The results of that extended
tenure under Ford and Carter, across a fateful period from the mid- to late-1970s,
would prove quite different from those of the Hyland years.
Shaping talking points, speeches, intelligence, and policy memos for three
national security advisors and two presidents, deeply involved in the NSC staff's
privileged interplay with the bureaucracy and Congress, with significant control
over who had access to what information at the pinnacle of government, Gates,
like few career officials – certainly no bureaucrat of his provenance in recent
memory – would have sustained influence over a consequential period of foreign
He began at the Old Executive Office Building that Watergate July of 1974.
Within weeks Nixon had resigned the presidency and Ford had succeeded him, bringing
Donald Rumsfeld along as White House Chief of Staff and former aide Dick Cheney
as Rumsfeld's deputy outside the Oval Office. Gates' career would be interlaced
with theirs for decades – until he replaced and repudiated one, while entering
into apparent battle with the other over George W. Bush's bitter-end policies.
For most of their history, however, they were allies.
The Ford presidency that launched all three was a hardly noticed turning point
in American politics, the crucible upon which a slow-motion reactionary coup
would be mounted that would reshape the nation's – and the world's – future.
In those years, Rumsfeld and Cheney became public figures, while Gates, from
his potent inner perch at the NSC, remained a shadowy but ever more powerful
By the summer of 1974, Watergate-obsessed Washington
was in the midst of a furtive revolt over foreign policy, one that had already
echoed deep inside government in the special Soviet National Intelligence Estimate
that Gates had stage-managed in 1973. Though there was no supporting evidence
at the time to confirm his thesis (nor any subsequently when the Kremlin archives
were opened after the fall of the USSR), he maneuvered through the otherwise
self-protective, ambivalent committee that vetted the Estimates – NSC staff
members called NIEs "National Intelligence Equivocations" – his own formulation
of what he termed "a much more aggressive Soviet Union."
Distributed across senior levels of the bureaucracy, passed on (via expected
leak) to key foreign affairs figures on Capitol Hill, the document was welcome
fodder for hard-liners – feeding, as it did, predictable anxieties well-lodged
in government and politics. "It would sure as hell scare you," the redoubtable
Republican conservative Barry Goldwater told a Democratic Senate colleague who
had not seen the NIE. "It sure scares the hell out of me."
In fact, at that 1973 high tide of Nixon-Kissinger détente with
the Soviets, Moscow was very much on the defensive, particularly in the region
that Gates by then claimed to know intimately, the Middle East. Beyond the grand
Cold War settlements, the milestones of the moment were two little noted events
in the spring and summer of 1972: a pointed Nixon stopover in Tehran after a
Moscow Summit that May and, in July, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's break
with the Soviets, who had been Cairo's longtime patron. In the midst of Washington's
ongoing Vietnam retrenchment, both events marked a new American focus on the
oil-rich Middle East, and both would amount, at least in the short run, to setbacks
for the Kremlin.
Nixon's visit to Iran signaled the arrival of a veritable blank-check era when
it came to patronage for his old friend the Shah (who had shrewdly treated Nixon
well during his 1960s political eclipse and contributed handsomely, through
SAVAK, to his 1968 presidential campaign). Iran was now to be Washington's imposing
proxy in the Persian Gulf, armed by unprecedented Pentagon weapons sales, shepherded
through by some 500 ranking American officers. Grandiose trade deals would follow,
along with offers to Tehran of nuclear reactors, and even more aggressive CIA
collusion with SAVAK in its far-flung regional interventions as well as its
domestic repression, torture, and assassinations. Meanwhile, a swarm of more
than 50,000 American officials, contractors, and on-the-make expatriates would
descend on the country, constructing Mafia-model casinos on the Caspian Sea
and, elsewhere, the usual faux-American suburban compounds, walled islands outside
Iranian cities like Isfahan. None of it could the momentarily oil profits-flush
Shah long afford, politically or economically.
The orgy went typically ignored by the American media – never so much as a
simple headline in those years – and by a Washington oblivious to the popular
revulsion the patronage provoked or the slowly gathering forces that would,
before the decade ended, fell the Shah of Shahs. ("Shahdulation" was how the
cloying, pre-1979 CIA, State Department, and Pentagon reporting came to be known.)
Yet it would be this venal, heavy embrace in all its forms – "a tribe that worships
gold," an Iranian poet called the Americans – that gave the Ayatollah Khomeini's
revolt in 1978-1979 much of its anti-Washington, anti-colonial fervor.
Within weeks, of Nixon's lethal 1972 bounty for Iran, Sadat suddenly expelled
the throng of Soviet advisors from Egypt and cut old ties with Moscow, soon
allying his country instead with a welcoming Washington. With his usual aplomb,
Kissinger had helped plot the defection and the White House smugly raked in
its Cold War chip – albeit the autocratic Egyptian regime would become but another
U.S.-backed satrapy breeding an anti-Western fundamentalism in the Muslim Brotherhood,
and destined decades down the line to lend credence and recruits to al-Qaeda
and other jihadist groups.
In 1972-73, the Russians watched all this in distress but also in relative
impotence and passivity – a reaction Gates clearly observed at the CIA but carefully
did not register in his Estimate.
Not that these 1972 events had no eventual impact in Moscow. So vast was the
American investment in Iran that, with the Shah's fall in January 1979, Soviet
policy-makers almost uniformly assumed Washington would avenge the loss of Tehran.
Moscow worried about a full-scale U.S. invasion of Iran, or at least the destabilizing
effects of a dramatic raid to free the American embassy hostages seized by enraged
Iranian students in October 1979 (after the hated Shah and his entourage were
given refuge in the U.S.). The Russian suspicions were sound. Despite President
Carter's express assurances to the Kremlin to the contrary, the Pentagon did
begin planning an invasion almost immediately following the embassy takeover
and, not long after – when ambitions narrowed with some appreciation of the
bloodbath an invasion would mean – turned to the ill-fated hostage rescue of
April 1980. That, of course, ended in a debacle of colliding helicopters at
a remote Iranian desert staging area, with nary a hostage in sight.
Throughout 1979, however, the Russians were even more afraid that the U.S.
was plotting with what the Russians had found to be a maddeningly independent
(typically Afghan) Soviet client regime in Kabul to "do a Sadat on us," as more
than one Kremlin policy-maker put it. A multibillion-ruble investment in aid
– in what Soviet leaders since the 1950s saw as a strategic borderland – Afghanistan
had become all the more vital and symbolically important following the loss
of Egypt. Dread of another debacle like Cairo was thus decisive in the December
1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, meant to install a reliable puppet who
would never pull "a Sadat."
Counterrevolution on the Potomac
In 1973, however, Gates' NIE, like so much of
his "intelligence" work to come, reflected more what was happening in Washington
than in the world at large. That Estimate, in fact, caught something of the
tangled ancestry of twenty-first century neocon Washington whose havoc he would
confront as secretary of defense.
From 1969 on, Nixon and Kissinger had faced a seething, increasingly bitter
rebellion against the kind of equilibrium they sought with Moscow not just in
the strategic-arms race, but in political relations in general. Their policy
was encapsulated in the traditional diplomatic term "détente." Incessant
battles took place with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), whose cherished weapons
systems and ideological phobia made them, like the Soviet military, the natural
enemies of the process.
The ongoing struggle was aptly symbolized by the sordid 1970-71 "Admirals'
spy ring." The JCS Chairman actually had a Navy yeoman casing Kissinger's office,
and even rifling his waste bags, in an effort to find out what the close-to-the-vest
National Security Advisor (and his equally scheming President) might be up to.
America's military leadership, in other words, was spying on the White House
as if it were the Politburo. (In Washington's inner politics, of course, the
real enemies are always on the Potomac.)
In a regime of hoarded secrets and power, where Kissinger gladly agreed to
the wiretapping of his own aides, and where almost no one trusted any one else
– one witness simply called it "a sewer" – it was, in a sense, more of the same.
Nonetheless, history has yet to come fully to grips with what that military
spying signified. One Nixon aide, recalling for Kissinger biographer Walter
Isaacson his horror on stumbling upon the JCS treachery, "felt as if he were
in the movie Seven Days in May," (about an attempted military coup
d'état in Washington). Investigative reporters Bob Gettlin and Len
Colodny similarly linked the episode to what they called, in the title of their
impressively documented 1991 book, a "silent coup." Humpty-Dumpty Nixon, they
believed, had not just tumbled off that wall, thanks to his Watergate weight,
but was also given a helpful push by those who wanted to kill détente.
Baltic Syndromes old and new, institutional and military-industrial interests,
Congressional politics, not to speak of raging ambitions – all were part of
the emerging struggle within Washington and its various domains over Soviet
policy. Men like Democratic Senator Henry Jackson of Washington state ("the
senator from Boeing") and his aide Richard Perle, both midwives to the future
neoconservative movement, knew that ardent anti-Soviet opposition to any arms-control
agreement – like ardent backing for Israel – brought politically potent and
personally lucrative support.
By the early 1970s, as the JCS spying so ominously revealed, Nixon and Kissinger
were confronted with anything but ordinary, venal resistance within the bureaucracy.
To their unprecedented policy of détente (and its implicit, if unconscious,
challenge to the Baltic Syndrome mentality), there arose an unprecedented opposition
not only in the Pentagon but also in the CIA, where some felt Cold War orthodoxy
and all it denoted were being threatened as never before.
As Kissinger recounted the experience, he could hardly testify before Jackson's
Senate Armed Services Committee or other panels without facing conveniently
leaked CIA or Pentagon documents that, in one way or another, armed the opponents
of détente. These were often highly classified, still closely-held papers
Kissinger himself had only just received – or had not yet seen at all. As Nixon
sank into the Watergate miasma, leaks (and opposition) only multiplied – much
of it using materials Bob Gates had ready access to, or had even helped produce,
as assistant national intelligence officer.
It all served foes of the SALT II agreement, aimed at long-run nuclear "parity"
between the two superpowers – what Nixon repeatedly called "a generation of
peace" – which meant likely weapons budget cuts for the Pentagon as well as
the Soviet military.
As Watergate neared its climax, the inner revolt rumbled more audibly. On the
eve of the June 1974 Moscow Summit, Nixon's forlorn final bow, Truman-era cold
warrior Paul Nitze abruptly resigned from the SALT delegation. Having backed
Nixon and readily taken his job offers, Nitze now blasted the tottering president
for "dangerous trends" and rejoined the hard-liners. (In 1969, Nitze had worked
with Perle and another young zealot, Paul Wolfowitz, to lobby for the Anti-Ballistic
Missile, a turkey of a weapons system, junked as unworkable only to revive in
recalibrated form on post-1980 R&D budget appropriations and then rise from
the coffin as a full-fledged anti-missile system under George W. Bush.)
By the fall of 1974, with Nixon gone, rebellion burst into the open. Amid a
cacophony of leaks, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency publicly deplored
SALT II – a glaring breach with the new Ford administration, all the more remarkable
because the already beleaguered new president was still pledging to pursue the
treaty at a Vladivostok summit that November. Meanwhile, as never before, corporate
money poured into what had, until then, been a group of marginal right-wing
think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and into the campaign
coffers of right-wing Republican candidates, chiefly the outgoing California
governor, Ronald Reagan, whose handlers in the race to unseat Ford in 1976 urged
him, above all, to attack détente as "weakening" national security.
As usual, given Washington's ceaseless traffic in leaks, there is no hard evidence
about whether Gates actually leaked into this furor, though his animus in regards
to Nixon's Soviet policy was unmistakable and the provenance of many of the
leaked documents is damning. Clearly, however, in his first year on the NSC
staff he waged a careful rearguard action against what was to become known as
the Helsinki Accords. Kissinger's diplomacy nonetheless brought the Accords
to fruition in July 1975. They offered official recognition of post-World War
II Soviet Bloc boundaries in Europe, but within a new international context
of respect for, and unprecedented monitoring of, human rights and political
dissidence in the USSR and its satellites. It would be the last hurrah of détente.
While Reagan and the Right attacked the "surrender" of Eastern Europe, the Accords
actually opened the way for the rise of internal opposition movements like Poland's
Solidarity, leading ultimately to the decay and fall of the USSR.
Gates typically opposed Helsinki as something Moscow sought (which made it
anathema automatically). As would be even more true a decade later with Soviet
leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he and others frozen in the Baltic Syndrome (as always,
most of Washington) were oblivious to the brittleness of communist rule, cynically
dismissing the Accords as "window dressing" the Kremlin and its satellites could
and would ignore.
By the mid-1990s, he had accepted, though flippantly, his misreading of the
evolution of a system he had supposedly pondered most of his adult life. In
his memoirs, he wrote: "The Soviets desperately wanted [Helsinki], they got
it and it laid the foundations for the end of their empire. We resisted it for
years, went [to the Helsinki conference] grudgingly, Ford paid a terrible political
price for going – perhaps reelection itself – only to discover years later that
[it] yielded benefits beyond our imagination. Go figure." In another official's
memoir, the passage might have been less embarrassing; but, for Bob Gates, to
"figure" had been the point of most of his career; no epitaph could be harsher
than that throwaway line.
He remained intent on the old evil. In Ford's retinue for a presidential visit
to Bucharest in 1975, he blamed the Romanian regime's intelligence service for
stealing his passport, and, in a rare lapse, flipped off the airport crowd as
he left. "In a regrettable but immensely satisfying display of pique and immaturity,
I bade farewell to Romania's security police with amplified middle finger from
the doorway of Air Force Two."
Kissinger soon got the same unmistakable salute from Gates' allies in Washington.
Ford's historic 1975 "Halloween Massacre" made Donald Rumsfeld Secretary of
Defense and Dick Cheney White House Chief of Staff. George H.W. Bush replaced
career man William Colby as CIA director, while the president personally stripped
Kissinger of his role as National Security Advisor. Within weeks, Rumsfeld would
intervene with the president to stop a Kissinger trip to Moscow – an unthinkable
veto in any of the previous seven years. When arms talks resumed in 1976, to
the din of Reagan attacks in a tightening race for the GOP presidential nomination,
SALT II was already dead and would remain so for the duration of the Ford presidency.
1976 would offer the funeral procession that signaled the arrival of a new
right-wing order and, with it, Gates' further rise. That March, as part of Ford's
defensive response to the Reagan assault, the president brought onto the Foreign
Intelligence Advisory Board (FIAB), a traditionally toothless CIA oversight
body, the man who would be the most important patron in Gates' career, a slightly
seedy and indefatigably reactionary, Russophobic Long Island lawyer named William
It was an extraordinarily vulnerable political moment for the CIA, reeling
from more than a dozen reports by Watergate-inspired Congressional committees.
They had compiled a staggering (if very partial) list of the Agency's lawless
abuses: multiple covert interventions, betrayals of clients, assassinations
(involving bizarre, often schoolboy-level toxin and dart technologies), and
domestic spying as well as mail opening. The revelations prompted the creation
of Select Committees in both the House and Senate to oversee covert action,
and extracted a Ford presidential order (subsequently renewed by President Reagan)
prohibiting CIA assassinations – "reforms" that would turn out to be far less
than expected in both cases.
For William Casey and other members of what was already probably the most hard-line
FIAB in history, the agenda was hardly to rein in the Agency's mandate for covert
action, which they thought too limited, but rather to escalate the attack on
arms control and détente. Supported by Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs,
Casey led the Board in pressuring Ford to promulgate a "Team B," a group of
outside "critics" who would critique and counter the CIA's assessment of Soviet
strength and intentions.
Given Kissinger's still considerable personal prestige, the weakened CIA was
obviously an easier entry point for Casey and his cohorts in the assault on
détente. But there was grim irony in the charge underlying the formation
of Team B – that the Agency had somehow been "soft" on the Russians or prone
to underestimate Soviet strength. Though Gates' 1973 NIE pushed conclusions
well beyond the evidence, even the usual CIA assessments, including its analysis
of Soviet strategic forces for the SALT talks (in which Gates participated),
had not differed significantly from the Pentagon's hawkish ones.
If anything, as it joined the wider bureaucratic revolt against SALT II, the
Agency regularly overestimated overall Soviet strength and misread the burden
of the arms race on the Soviet economy. Even leaked to Capitol Hill, however,
the CIA's cautions and qualifications did not lend themselves quite as readily
to demagogic appeal as the counterrevolution now sought.
"Let her fly!! – OK, G.B." was the flourish with which the new Director, George
H.W. Bush, signed off on Team B, though later, when the episode became notorious,
he would admit to an aide, "It wasn't my doing." Team B's right-wingers, including
Paul Wolfowitz, were chaired, aptly enough, by Harvard's Richard Pipes. He had
been handpicked by Richard Perle via Senator Jackson and came, like most of
the others, with "little command of scientific [strategic weapons] matters,"
as Gary Wills put it. The group would form what even hard-line CIA analyst Ray
Cline called "a kangaroo court of outside critics all picked from one point
Predictably, their "findings" were a simplistic fantasy: The Soviet Union was
intent on starting World War III and an American nuclear "window of vulnerability"
made such a Russian attack plausible. This scenario required, of course, an
inconceivably perfect Soviet first strike as well as actions and reactions precise
beyond any war-planner's wildest dreams.
Once the Reagan regime – filling posts with Team B members – took office in
1981, the "window of vulnerability" would mercifully disappear, just as had
the budget-plumping 1940s "bomber gap" and the 1950s "missile gap" (both authored,
in part, by Paul Nitze). In 1976, however, Team B opened the window wide. News
of it, duly leaked by Rumsfeld and others, was imbibed by the press, pundits,
and Congress with the usual shallowness, inciting a public mood that Wills termed
"hysteria about the enemy as a patriotic duty." (Much the same mood would reappear
with the neoconservatives post-9/11, making Washington safe for Pentagon appropriations
for generations to come.)
It was all part of an orchestrated rightward turn that Gates now took up and
discreetly steered from his slot at the NSC. Some of his former colleagues thought
the Team B episode a rebuke of him. "It was Gates v. Gates," one of them said,
noting that some of what Team B was countering as "inaccurate" CIA analysis
had, in fact, been Gates' own work over the previous five years.
By several accounts, though, there had been an underlying consistency to his
hard-line perspective on the Soviets, even if, in the CIA years, his views had
sometimes been muted or passed over when he was not yet powerful enough to impose
his bias. He would never, in any case, dispute the fabrications of Team B and,
at the time, he relished them. "A starker appreciation," he called a 1976 Team-B-influenced
National Intelligence Estimate on the Soviets, which reflected the tougher tone.
Meanwhile, as so often since 1917, Soviet reality and Washington's views of
it went their separate ways. While building frantically to equal and even surpass
the Americans – at a real cost to its economy that was, and would continue to
be, twice what the CIA estimated – the Soviet strategic system remained plagued
by chronic waste, technical gaps, a lethal lag in computerization, and, not
least, sheer incompetence, bureaucratic torpor, insidious politics, and pervasive
All of this, the CIA and other departments of government would have been quick
to point out, if the topic had not been Soviet weaponry. After all, the inefficiencies
and failures of the Soviet system were legendary (and our military-industrial
complex a virtual parody of it). But as so often in American politics and foreign
policy, reality was not the issue.
With Gerald Ford's defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976 and the arrival of Zbigniew
Brzezinski as national security advisor, Gates, in part because of his reputation
as a "hard-ass" on Soviet issues, would be given the extraordinary opportunity
to hold over to the new staff, where he would find his views even more influential.
Just ahead lay the beginning of a trillion-dollar weapons-spending orgy. Opening
the way for it would be the death of arms control and the extinction of détente.
The superpower rivalry would now play out in ever more exotic settings – from
the mosques of Herat and Tehran to the Presidential Palace in Kabul and dusty
training camps beyond the Khyber Pass. There would be a new blooding, too, in
the Middle East, including CIA car bombs in Beirut, and bountiful "black" business
deals on the international arms market. And Bob Gates would be a specialist
in it all.
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
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
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
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
"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: Sheik
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
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 nonexistent 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 buildup 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 buildup 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
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
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
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
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
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
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 drugstore 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
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
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
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
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
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
In 1985, the CIA first notices "significant" numbers of "Arab nationals" coming
to Pakistan to fight with the U.S.-backed Afghan mujahedeen 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
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
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
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 mujahedeen
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 Web site of
the Green Institute,
where he is senior fellow.
Copyright Roger Morris 2007