The Evil Abstraction

The Evil Abstraction

Before Bob Gates’s confirmation as CIA chief in 1991, the man now designated as Bush’s Secretary of Defense was charged with forcing intelligence reports to conform to a tough anti-Soviet line.


For decades the C.I.A. “approached the Soviet Union as a kind of abstraction–the enemy, a nuclear threat, the moral antithesis. We hadn’t really approached it as a society. And therefore, I think we were really not ready…to deal with the reactions when finally the lid did come up.” This revealing estimate was not produced by one of the agency analysts who came forward during the Robert Gates confirmation hearings to charge that Gates forced intelligence reports to conform to a tough anti-Soviet line. Rather, it was provided by Douglas MacEachin, a Gates loyalist who headed the C.I.A.’s Office of Soviet Analysis in the 1980s. For days, witnesses, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Gates himself quarreled about the intelligence-production process at the agency. Two former analysts credibly maintained that Gates blocked reports that challenged the hard-line view and that he promoted shoddy intelligence that supported the Russians-are-coming position, such as a paper that argued that the Soviet Union backed the 1981 assassination attempt against the Pope.

The hearings disclosed that within the C.I.A., analysts who strayed from the reigning dogma worried about being labeled Communist apologists. Despite this repressive atmosphere, the agency sometimes did produce material inconvenient for the Soviet-bashers of the Reagan Administration that never informed public debate. According to MacEachin, just when President Reagan was urging Congress to fund a new chemical weapons program, C.I.A. analysts reported that the Russians were unlikely to initiate chemical weapons use in a war against NATO. MacEachin also noted that the C.I.A. found that Soviet military spending in the early 1980s was leveling off–a notion contrary to the dire warnings issued by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and others. Harold Ford, a senior analyst, testified that a 1981 national Intelligence estimate, much to Director William Casey’s chagrin, said that there was no proof that Moscow was masterminding terrorism around the world. Lawrence Gershwin, another Gates defender in the C.I.A., divulged that one Reagan-era estimate concluding that Soviet missiles were not as accurate as previously thought “caused a lot of grief” since it implied a “reduced Soviet threat.”

The real politicization, though, is evidenced in the agency’s cast-in-concrete, overarching conception of the Soviet Union as an immutable (and somewhat evil) empire. In March 1986, Senator Bill Bradley asked Gates whether the C.I.A. was examining the prospects for fundamental change in the Soviet Union. Gates said there was no hint that any such transformation was occurring and that “my resources do not permit me to idly speculate.” After Bradley mentioned this at the confirmation hearings, some clerk at Langley dug up a memo written by Gates in October 1986 that noted that the agency might be overlooking “significant change” in the Soviet Union. But when Bradley then asked Gates what he had done to insure that C.I.A. reports detected such change, Gates could not recall taking any steps. And a month after penning that 1986 memo, Gates delivered a blistering speech accusing Moscow of plotting to obtain control of the oilfields of the Middle East, Panama and the canal, and the mineral wealth of Southern Africa. In response to Bradley at the recent hearings, he admitted that he had no data back up those “personal views.” Moreover, MacEachin recalled that “we never looked at the Soviet Union as a political entity” with internal elements that could spur wide reform. Had such a view existed, he confessed, “we never would have been able to publish it.”

The real sins of Gates & Company were a lack of imagination and a profound attachment to career-boosting assumptions–which, by the way, provided the justification for the spending of billions on troops and weapons that now have little use.

Trust But Verify

Complicit in this costly intellectual crime are the supposed overseers in Congress. Most telling was the way senators responded to the allegations of politicization. For some, it seemed as if they were considering the issue for the very first time. Throughout the hearings, David Boren, the windbag chair, pontificated about the relationship of trust established in recent years between the committee and the C.I.A. But not all members are confident they are fully informed of the agency’s doings. Dennis DeConcini dares to confirm the obvious: “Committees get captured by the agency they oversee. You spend so much time with them, you start believing them. You start defending them.” When he and Howard Metzenbaum inquired into the rent the agency intends to pay for a few new buildings, their effort to obtain that less-than-sensitive information turned into a battle royal. What should be done to improve oversight? “You need new independent leadership,” says Metzenbaum, without mentioning Boren.

The Gates hearings demonstrated that there is no good reason to exempt the agency from routine public scrutiny. With pride, Boren noted that the Gates sessions marked the only instances of the committee examining intelligence budget priorities and the analytical process out in the open. But why could they not have been discussed before? Life-and-death secrets were not revealed. Only intelligence estimates of the past were revealed, allowing citizens the opportunity to judge just how well their taxes are being used. Certainly, open hearings can be structured to examine at least the generalities of the agency’s performance. Perhaps Congress should hold annual public appropriations hearings for the agency.

But secrecy remains reflexive. For example, discussion of whether Gates knew about intelligence intercepts of conversations between members of Congress and Sandinista officials was referred to a closed-door session. And not all senators were pleased to see the agency probed in front of television cameras. Outside the hearing room, Warrren Rudman, with his usual bluster, roared that “a lot of people will be very happy with these hearings and none of them are America’s friends.” Who these enemies are–those who rub their hands in glee as the agency’s efficacy is evaluated–the good Senator did not say. They remain an abstraction.

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