CIA Veteran: How Robert Gates Cooked the Intelligence

An interview with the most interesting witness senators won't hear from this week.

Intelligence cherry-picked for ideological purposes; the claims of a single, unreliable source treated as fact and stovepiped straight up to the White House; a National Intelligence Estimate riddled with dubious claims; efforts made to connect an enemy regime with international terrorism. Echoing the prelude to the Iraq War, these are, in fact, a sampling of the allegations directed at Robert Gates 15 years ago, when the Senate Intelligence Committee considered Gates' nomination to be the director of Central Intelligence.

Back then, the Senate hearings on Gates — who is now President Bush's nominee for secretary of defense, and who is expected to be confirmed as early as next week — were lively, controversial, and went on for a full month. Senators heard from a variety of witnesses, including a handful of Gates' former colleagues at the CIA, who painted a damaging portrait of the nominee.

Among them was 24-year CIA veteran Melvin Goodman, a friend and fellow Soviet buff who came up with Gates at the agency during the height of the Cold War. Goodman told the senators that Gates had helped manipulate intelligence to fit the hawkish perspective advanced by officials in the Reagan administration — in particular by seeking to link the Soviet Union with acts of terrorism, including the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. "Frankly, I worry about the signal that would be sent by returning Gates to the environment he created," Goodman testified on October 1, 1991. "I worry about the effect this would have on the standards of others back at the Central Intelligence Agency to be led by someone so lacking in vision, integrity, and courage."

When Gates appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, he's unlikely to face the level of scrutiny he did in 1991 — when 31 Democratic Senators voted against him — or, for that matter, in 1987, when lingering questions about his role in Iran-Contra forced him to withdraw from the confirmation process altogether. Nor will senators hear from Goodman, who is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for International Policy and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University. When I caught up with Goodman recently, I asked him why he decided to testify against his boss — and friend — back in '91.

Melvin Goodman: The issue was politicization for me — that is, the way that Bob Gates was taking intelligence and spinning it towards a policy purpose. My direct experience was on matters dealing with the Soviet Union and particularly the papal plot assessment of 1985, but actually intelligence was being politicized on a variety of issues dealing with Iran, Central America, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.

Mother Jones: What was the impetus for this, in your view?

MG: It was in part the Reagan Administration and in part Bill Casey, who was the CIA director — his views on covert action and his views on policy. For Gates his master was Bill Casey, and Casey was an extremist on various issues and went further than the administration. I think Iran-Contra was part of that.

MJ: What kinds of incidents specifically were you concerned about?

MG: The key, the thing that really drove me away, was the assessment on the papal plot in which Bill Casey, four years after the assassination attempt on the pope, came across a raw operational report from a Bulgarian source that was thirdhand — it referred to Soviet involvement in the papal plot. On the basis of that one raw report Casey wanted a sensitive assessment prepared that would be given only to about a half-dozen senior leaders, including the president and the vice president, and he turned to Gates, who was the DDI [deputy director for intelligence], and said, "Get this done." Gates was the one to pick the three people to do it. He had them work in secret. It was this memo that I found on the desk of one of the authors, her name was Kay Oliver. I took the memo, I Xeroxed it, and I went to my boss, Douglas MacEachin. And then I went to Gates and confronted him.

MJ: What happened?

MG: It got ugly. He wanted to know how I found out about it, and I told him. I admitted that I didn't have direct access to it, that I found it on someone's desk and I Xeroxed it. I admitted I was skulking around. There were rumors that things were being prepared that weren't being processed through the Office of Soviet Affairs, and I knew who the people would have been because Gates engaged in what I call "judge shopping in the courthouse." If you want something done — and that's how politicization is done — you go to someone who you think will agree with you. It's not that you order someone to do something. That's not how politicization works in an organization like the CIA, or probably any other organization for that matter. They knew who to pick.

He said I had no right to have access to this document, it was a sensitive matter at the direction of the CIA director. I reminded him that he had testified in 1983 that the Soviets were not involved in the papal plot. He said things had changed, the evidence had changed, and he said that anyway this memo was going to be hypothetical. Of course, Gates then put a cover note on all of these memos, and his cover note made it clear that this assessment, was based on the best intelligence we'd ever collected on this subject. So much for hypothetical.

MJ: And it was based on one source?

MG: It was one report from one source. It was a Bulgarian source. What is really important and why the director of operations had no plan to put out this report in a piece of finished intelligence collection was because he was a GRU source — that is, [Russian] military intelligence. Of course, if the Soviets had been involved it would have been with the KGB, certainly not military intelligence. So this was a bad source, it was thirdhand, and GRU was not even the right channel. So no one took the report seriously, but Casey was in the habit of reading raw traffic. He liked to do that, and people would just gather up reports, particularly the most provocative reports because this is always what Casey was looking for.

MJ: Why did Casey want this memo drawn up in the first place?

MG: He wanted something to sort of undercut the détente policy of George Shultz. Secretary of State Shultz, by this point, 1985, had sort of won a bureaucratic battle within the Reagan administration. This was the first year of Reagan's second term, and Reagan was convinced that his tactics toward the Soviet Union was going nowhere and needed to be changed. This is what Shultz and people like Jack Matlock, who eventually became the ambassador to the Soviet Union, were arguing. Of course, he was coming up against the opponents, the neocons of their day, people like Casper Weinberger, the secretary of defense, and Bill Casey. With this assessment that only went to the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the head of the National Security Council — I think this was Casey's way of undercutting détente policy. And if you go to the Shultz memoir, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, it shows his contempt for the CIA, his contempt for Bill Casey, his contempt for Bob Gates, and his confrontation with Bob Gates over the matter of flawed intelligence, corrupted intelligence, and the fact that they were misinforming the president. It is some of the strongest language I've ever seen between a policymaker and a senior CIA official.

MJ: He basically said, "I don't trust the intelligence coming out of the agency."

MG: "I don't trust what you do." Yeah. Something like, "If this were a business and you were part of the business, I'd go somewhere else." He made it clear that what Gates was doing, what he was responsible for, was totally objectionable.

MJ: James Baker also had problems with Gates, if I'm not mistaken.

MG: There is a passage in the Baker memoir that deals with the speeches Gates was giving in 1989 undercutting his policies of détente. Baker was engaged at that time at trying to engage Bush to get him back on the arms control track. Gates was trying to undercut this, with the support of his boss, General [Brent] Scowcroft, who was really far more conservative than people give him credit for. Gates was Scowcroft's deputy at this time in 1989.

MJ: Was the papal plot memo an isolated case, would you say, or did spinning intelligence become more common at the agency?

MG: I definitely think it did, There was the plot memo and one other very important document. This was a National Intelligence Estimate on Iran in which Gates essentially prepared the intelligence case on Iran-Contra. This was to argue that the Soviet Union was trying to put a great deal of pressure on Iran, to bring Iran into the Soviet orbit, and that there were moderates in Iran who were interested in doing business with the United States and that Iran was getting out of the business of terrorism. All these issues, all these charges and conclusions, were false. There was no evidence to support any one of them. But Gates had sort of conspired with the national intelligence officer for the Middle East, Graham Fuller, to try and prepare a memo that would justify Iran-Contra. And, of course, this gets into the whole issue of what Gates knew about Iran-Contra and the fact that no one on the intelligence committee believed him in 1987 when he said he knew nothing about it.

MJ: As you mentioned, Gates has denied having knowledge of Iran-Contra. You were at the agency during that period. Is that plausible?

MG: Now, fortunately, we have documented evidence about what he knew and who told him what and what meetings he sat in on. He was briefed by about three different CIA officers.

Gates denied the meetings he had with [National Security Advisor John] Poindexter, which we know he had. He met regularly with Poindexter, he met regularly with [Oliver] North, he sat in on meetings with North and Casey. I myself think the reason why Casey made Bob Gates his deputy in 1986 is he needed someone who was involved in all the operational matters of Iran-Contra as some security fence within the bureaucracy, someone who knew all of this stuff and could protect it.

In '87 that's why Gates never got to a vote, because no one believed he was telling the truth when he said that he wasn't part of this operation and he knew nothing about it. In '91, they were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, but there were still 31 votes against Bob Gates, which is more than all of the negative votes against all of the CIA directors going back over a 59-year period.

MJ: Back in '91, did you call the Senate Intelligence Committee, or did they call you?

MG: I was on the verge of calling them, but before I could call them they called me and asked me to come over, which led to three separate meetings with staff. There were about 12 to 15 people in the room, including the staff director, George Tenet.

MJ: Some of Gates' former colleagues at the agency seemed to regard him as an intimidating presence. Was that your take as well?

MG: No, you've got to remember I knew him for 20 years. I knew him from his first day in the building. I took him to lunch that day. Our families knew each other, our children were involved in socializing. [But] there was an arrogance about him, the kind of thing you see in the bureaucracy of people who, you know, kiss up and kick down. Bob Gates was certainly one of those people.

MJ: After Gates was confirmed in '91, did his performance at the agency do anything to change your view of him?

MG: No, no. The issues for me were the way he exercised control over the intelligence output of the CIA. He virtually killed the Foreign Broadcasting Intelligence Service, FBIS, which was very independent-minded and sort of off the range on some issues. And Gates wanted to bring a halt to that, and he did. He didn't want controversy with the military, so he started sending areas of tactical military intelligence over to the Pentagon, got the CIA out of the business of order of battle intelligence, which is really an unfortunate setback. He weakened the research bureaus of political, military, and economic reporting. He sent a lot of imagery analysis the CIA used to do over to the Pentagon, a process that [John] Deutch completed when he came in as CIA director several years later. The military, remember, during this period was quite angry about what they considered the inept performance of the CIA around the time of Desert Storm, the intelligence failure with regard to Iraqi strategic capabilities and then the weakness of intelligence support during the war. They had been blasted by [General Norman] Schwarzkopf, and Gates called Colin Powell, the chairman of the joint chiefs, to try to get a two- and three-star general to come over to the CIA as a deputy director to further form links between the military, the Pentagon, and the CIA on intelligence matters. Of course the reason why the CIA was formed was to be independent of policy organizations. But Gates wanted to avoid these disputes. I considered him a rather weak CIA director.

MJ: So essentially you're saying that Gates handles bureaucracy well.

MG: I think Bob in many ways is the consummate bureaucrat, but without any ethical or moral compass. He's cautious; he knows how to protect himself; he knows which documents not to sign; he knows when to appear uninformed, whether it's with colleagues bringing him information which he sort of pretends not to know anything about, or when he goes before the Senate Intelligence Committee in '91 and says, "I don't recollect." That was about 33 different questions. He's not an innovator. He's not strategic minded. He has a very good memory. He's a workaholic. No one is going to work longer hours than Bob Gates, even at the Pentagon where it's legendary what some of these careerist colonels and generals do. Bob Gates will be in there from morning until night. He will serve his master. But his master is George W. Bush, not George Herbert Walker Bush and General Scowcroft.

MJ: What are your specific concerns about Gates taking over as secretary of defense?

MG: My major concerns are issues of integrity. For me, basically, the test of character is what you do when no one's looking. I don't think Bob Gates can be trusted when no one's looking. When military officers keep the Pentagon informed about how bad the situation is in Iraq, what will Gates do with this information? Is he willing to tell the president? Is he willing to give this story to the president, keeping in mind that the White House still wants to win this war and still feels in many ways that the U.S. is doing very well in Iraq? I don't think he can be trusted to encourage the Pentagon to report on all sides of the operation inside of Iraq.

In terms of fitness, he doesn't have the skill sets that you would want for a secretary of defense. He's the kind of micromanager in the same way that Bob McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld were. And I don't think you can be a micromanager in the Pentagon, where you're talking about a $450 billion budget. I think he'll be swallowed up. He's temperamentally unsuited to delegate responsibility, which of course he's going to have to do. I think it's going to be difficult for him to solve disputes between the various services over weapons acquisition. To give Rumsfeld some credit, he was trying to reform the acquisitions process and make that more methodical. Gates doesn't have those kinds of skills.

MJ: And then there's the issue of politicization.

MG: Well, politicization of course would be the key issue in all of this. You know, the day he entered the CIA he was what I considered to be a realist and a centrist. And I think the longer he stayed, the more tours he took down at the White House for various National Security Council advisors to the president, the more hard-line he became. By the time he came back to be deputy director for intelligence under Casey, he was writing memos encouraging the use of military force and warning about the Soviet threat in ways that went way beyond the intelligence record. Now, of course, he'll be in a policy position. But I'd worry about his Cold War instincts. And of course the classic case of the memo he wrote to Casey encouraging the use of military force, air power against Nicaragua, which was written after the Boland Amendment [outlawing assistance to the Contras] was passed [in 1982]. He wrote this memo in December 1984 encouraging military action. This was using air power against Nicaragua. Here Gates was not only encouraging Casey in this direction, but he didn't even provide him with any warning about the fact that these laws had been passed.

MJ: So do you think that means Gates, if confirmed, is going take a hard line on Iran and North Korea?

MG: I'm not anticipating that. And frankly from a policy standpoint, this country is so deeply embedded in Iraq that it doesn't have options for worsening relations in any other areas. That's one of the problems with Iraq.

MJ: Some are saying that the president's selection of Gates indicates that he is moving toward some sort of policy shift on Iraq. But you've written that the president is simply circling the wagons.

MG: I look at this more as damage limitation than anything else, until I see some evidence. The president is still talking victory, and the vice president is still talking full-court press. I don't see any sign of a real change in policy. The incredible thing about this administration is why they did nothing for a full year while the situation worsened, certainly since February when I think you had the beginning of a civil war, which we've been in ever since.

MJ: What do you think of the Iraq Study Group?

MG: I think it's smoke and mirrors. [Co-chair Lee] Hamilton has never had a reputation for looking very deeply at any of the issues he's been involved in. That would be true for Iran-Contra and the 9/11 commission for that matter, where I think he did a really poor job. [Co-chair James] Baker is there to protect the reputation of the Bush family, the Bush legacy, and the president. I don't consider this operation any different from going down to Florida when he did in 2000 to secure an election victory for the president.

MJ: Since the politicization of intelligence also became an issue during this war, do you expect Gates to face some tough questions on his role in skewing intelligence back in the '80s?

MG: I guess I don't. I expect a few people to bring it up again for the record to make it clear. And there is sort of a delicious irony here that we went to war based on politicized intelligence and now one of the major players in terms of that world of politicization is now going to be running the Pentagon. I don't see how you can not point out his role in the past. But I don't expect many senators to go down that road. I expect a few Democrats to do it. I hope Carl Levin is one of them. I expect Dianne Feinstein to be one of them. But I don't think it will become a major issue. I expect there will probably be five or six votes against him.

Bob is the morning-after pill. He's the one who's going to be responsible for aborting Donald Rumsfeld, and people are anxious to get him over to the Pentagon. And the people at the Pentagon are anxious to see him arrive, so he's got all that on his side.