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CIA Veteran: How Robert Gates Cooked the Intelligence

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

| Mon Dec. 4, 2006 3:00 AM EST

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.

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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.

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