Hooray for Robert Gates. Well, almost.
At first glance, the appropriate reaction to George W. Bush’s decision to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Gates might be, here’s more of the same: another retread from the Bush I clan with a problematic past. Gates served as CIA director for the first President Bush in the early 1990s–and did so after contentious nomination hearings aired accusations that Gates had skewed intelligence analysis when he was a senior CIA manager. The allegations were quite serious. Several CIA analysts testified he had “politicized” intelligence reporting by making certain that estimates conformed to the conservative political viewpoints favored by the Reagan White House–most notably, that the Soviet Union was a more threatening adversary.
Gates’ accusers, including former CIA division chief Mel Goodman, presented a strong case against him, detailing several instances when Gates pushed Soviet-related intelligence in an ideological direction. Larry Johnson, a onetime CIA analyst, recently recalled,
I remember talking to the South African analyst back in 1988, who told me about the time Bob Gates tried to change the lede on an intelligence piece, which argued that Nelson Mandela was NOT a communist. Gates wanted the lede to say that Mandela was a communist. The analyst kicked back hard and ultimately prevailed, but this behavior was consistent with his reputation as a political animal willing to curry favor with the political masters downtown and sacrifice sound analysis.
After the confirmation hearings, Senator Ernest Hollings, a Democrat, concluded that the “cancer of politicization” had spread in the CIA during the period when Gates was a top deputy to CIA chief William Casey.
Gates’ nomination to be CIA head was imperiled by other controversies. He had directly engaged in secret intelligence sharing with Iraq in 1986 that critics claimed was illegal. Gates, who apparently possesses a photographic memory, testified that he could not recall key aspects of the Iran-contra affair. Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat, accused Gates, a career Soviet analyst, of having ignored the changes under way in that country in the late 1980s. “Mr. Gates got it dead wrong,” Bradley complained in 1991. Bradley also charged that when Gates was the deputy CIA chief he had neglected the important task of collecting intelligence on Iraq. Despite all this, the Democratic-controlled Senate approved the Gates nomination, and he served as CIA director for fourteen months. (In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Gates to be CIA chief, and then the White House pulled his nomination in the midst of the Iran-contra scandal.)
Considering that he launched a war justified by fraudulent intelligence misrepresented by the White House, the current President Bush might have thought twice before installing at the Pentagon a former intelligence official once accused of cooking intelligence for political reasons. Critics of the administration quickly denounced the Gates-for-Rumsfeld swap, resurrecting the old charges (which I covered extensively at the time). But allow me to offer a limited cheer for Gates.