Put more crudely, the 63-year-old Gates could
become the target of pressure or even blackmail unless some of the
troubling questions about his past are answered conclusively, not just
In the 1980s and 1990s, Gates benefited from
half-hearted probes by the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch into
these mysteries. The investigators – some of whom were Gates’s friends –
acted as if their goal was more to sweep incriminating evidence under
the rug than to expose the facts to public scrutiny.
While giving Gates another pass might work for
Official Washington, which always has had a soft spot for the polite
mild-mannered Gates, it won’t solve the potential for a problem if other
countries have incriminating evidence about him. So, before the U.S.
Senate waves Gates’s through – as happened in 1991 when he was confirmed
as CIA director – it would make sense to resolve two issues in
--Did Gates participate in secret and possibly
illegal contacts with Iranian leaders from the 1980 election campaign
through the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986?
--Did Gates oversee a clandestine pipeline of
weapons and other military equipment to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq
starting in 1982?
Gates has denied allegations linking him to these
operations, but evidence that has emerged since 1991 has buttressed
claims about Gates’s involvement. Other new documents, such as papers
recovered from Iraqi government files after the U.S. invasion in 2003,
also could shed light on the mysteries.
On the question of Gates and the Iraqi arms
shipments, former National Security Council aide Howard Teicher swore
out an affidavit in 1995 detailing Gates’s secret role in shepherding
military equipment via third countries to Iraq.
Teicher said the secret arming of Iraq was approved
by President Ronald Reagan in June 1982 as part of a National Security
Decision Directive. Under it, CIA Director William Casey and his
then-deputy, Robert Gates, “authorized, approved and assisted” delivery
of cluster bombs and other materiel to Iraq, Teicher said.
Teicher’s affidavit corroborated earlier public
statements by former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe and
Iranian-born businessman Richard Babayan, who claimed first-hand
knowledge of Gates’s central role in the secret Iraq operations.
In 1995, however, Teicher’s affidavit embarrassed
President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department, which had just tried to
dispose of the so-called Iraqgate scandal with a report that found no
evidence to support allegations that the Reagan-Bush administration had
illegally armed Saddam Hussein.
Clinton’s Justice Department apparently wanted to
clear the decks of these complicated historical scandals from the
Reagan-Bush years. Clinton found those old controversies a distraction
from his goal of focusing on the nation’s domestic needs.
The Clinton administration’s debunking report about
Iraqgate had been so determined to see no evil that the Clinton lawyers
didn’t even object to the discovery that the CIA had been hiding
evidence from them.
“In the course of our work, we learned of
‘sensitive compartments’ of information not normally retrievable and of
specialized offices that previously were unknown to the CIA personnel
who were assisting us,” wrote John M. Hogan, counselor to Attorney
General Janet Reno.
Without further skepticism or curiosity, Hogan
added, “I do not believe this uncertainty severely undermined our
In other words, the CIA had withheld “sensitive
compartments” of information from the Justice Department and – rather
than conclude that this concealed evidence might be worth seeing – the
Clinton investigators assumed that the hidden “compartments” must not be
A rookie detective would be kicked off a small town
police force if he had applied such logic to the search of a drug
suspect’s house – “look anywhere you want, except in the closet” – but
that was the way Reagan-Bush investigations were handled in that period.
Then, two weeks later, to the chagrin of the
Clinton investigators, Teicher filed his affidavit as part of the
defense by Teledyne Industries and one of its salesmen, Edward Johnson.
Teledyne and Johnson were accused of shipping explosives to Chilean arms
dealer Carlos Cardoen, who then used the material to manufacture cluster
bombs for Iraq.
With the unveiling of Teicher’s affidavit, the
Clinton prosecutors exploded. Not only did Teicher’s affidavit
complicate their prosecution of Teledyne, it made Clinton’s Justice
Department look foolish for having failed to check out the CIA’s
“sensitive compartments.” The lawyers lashed out at Teicher.
First, the Clinton administration classified
Teicher’s affidavit a secret. Then, when he pointed toward relevant
records in the files of Ronald Reagan’s White House, the Clinton lawyers
insisted that they could find nothing to support Teicher's claims. Next,
they threatened Teicher with prosecution for revealing state secrets.
Though this intimidation of a witness had the look
of prosecutorial misconduct – if not outright obstruction of justice –
the tactics worked. Teicher backed away. The Clinton lawyers claimed
Teicher had recanted, though he told me that he hadn’t retracted a
Having blocked the testimony from Teicher and other
witnesses who planned to describe the U.S. government’s Iraqgate
secrets, the Clinton administration won its prosecution of Teledyne.
Salesman Johnson, who earned about $30,000 a year, was sentenced to a 3
½-year prison term.
If the Senate intends to review Gates’s nomination
seriously, it now has a fresh opportunity to ascertain the truth about
Gates and his role in the Iraqgate case.
A source at the United Nations told me that some of
the captured Iraqi documents shed light on the Cardoen arms pipeline; a
new Chilean government less sympathetic to the old Pinochet regime might
finally be willing to hand over Cardoen who remains under indictment in
the United States; and Teicher and other witnesses finally could be
given a forum to testify under oath about what they know.
Other potential witnesses include Israeli
intelligence officer Ben-Menashe.
In his 1992 book Profits of War, Ben-Menashe
wrote that Israeli Mossad director Nachum Admoni approached Gates in
1985 seeking help in shutting down unconventional weapons moving through
the arms pipeline to Iraq.
Ben-Menashe wrote that Gates attended a meeting in
Chile in 1986 with Cardoen present at which Gates tried to calm down the
Israelis by assuring them that U.S. policy was simply to ensure a
channel of conventional weapons for Iraq. Gates has denied that the
For his part, Cardoen has insisted in press
interviews that American officials knew about and supported his weapons
sales to Iraq in the 1980s. He said he was targeted for punishment only
after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and U.S. officials scrambled to
distance themselves from the covert policy of aiding Saddam Hussein.
On the question of Gates’s illicit contacts with
senior Iranians, other new opportunities have presented themselves for
evaluating those controversial charges.
In a secret 1993 report to the U.S. Congress, the
Russian government claimed that its intelligence files listed Gates as
participating in hostage negotiations with Iranian officials in Paris in
October 1980 behind President Jimmy Carter’s back.
At the time, Iran was holding 52 American hostages
and Carter was desperately trying to secure their release before the
November 1980 elections, what became known as the October Surprise case.
[For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s recent three-part series, “The
Original October Surprise” –
and Part Three.]
who was born to Iraqi Jewish parents and grew up in Iran,
worked for Israeli military intelligence from 1977-87, according to
Israeli government records. He first fingered Gates as an operative in
the secret Iraq
arms pipeline in August 1990 during an interview that I conducted with
him for PBS Frontline.
At the time, Ben-Menashe was in jail in New York on
charges of trying to sell cargo planes to Iran (charges that were later
dismissed). When the interview took place, Gates was in a relatively
obscure position, as deputy national security adviser to President
George H.W. Bush and not yet a candidate for the top CIA job.
In that interview and later under oath to Congress, Ben-Menashe said
Gates joined in meetings between Republicans and senior Iranians in
October 1980. Ben-Menashe said he also arranged Gates’s personal help in
bringing a suitcase full of cash into Miami in early 1981 to pay off
some of the participants in the hostage gambit.
Gates has denied the claims from Ben-Menashe,
Babayan and others.
“I was accused on television and in the print media
by people I had never spoken to or met of selling weapons to Iraq, or
walking through the Miami airport with suitcases full of cash, of being
with Bush in Paris in October 1980 to meet with Iranians, and on and
on,” Gates wrote in his memoir, From the Shadows., in brushing
aside the claims.
But the Russian report, which was sent to an
investigative House task force in January 1993 but never officially
released, represents another chance to judge competing claims of
credibility between Ben-Menashe and Gates.
The Russian report stated that “R[obert] Gates, at
that time a staffer of the National Security Council in the
administration of Jimmy Carter, and former CIA Director George Bush also
took part” in a meeting with Iranians in Paris in October 1980.
(Actually, Gates had left the NSC staff by then; he was working as the
executive assistant to CIA Director Stansfield Turner in October 1980.)
If nothing else, questions could be posed to Russian officials about the
quality of their intelligence reporting. [For the text of the Russian
report which I discovered in the task force's unpublished files, click
here. To view the actual U.S.
embassy cable that includes the Russian report, click
Once in office, the Reagan administration did
permit weapons to flow to Iran via Israel. One of the planes carrying an
arms shipment was shot down over the Soviet Union on July 18, 1981,
after straying off course, but the incident drew little attention at the
time. [For details on the October Surprise dispute, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege.]
In his memoir,
Gates claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee decisively knocked
down the suspicions about him during the 1991 confirmation process for
him to become CIA director.
of meetings with me around the world were easily disproved for the
committee by my travel records, calendars, and countless witnesses,”
But none of Gates’s supposedly supportive evidence was ever made public
by either the Senate Intelligence Committee or the later inquiries into
either the Iran hostage initiative or Iraqgate.
Not one of Gates’s
who could vouch for Gates’s whereabouts was identified. Though Senate
Intelligence Committee chairman David Boren had pledged publicly to have
his investigators question Iranian businessman Babayan about the
arms shipments, they never did.
Perhaps most galling for those of us who were trying to assess Ben-Menashe’s
credibility was the Intelligence Committee’s failure to test Ben-Menashe’s
claim that he met with Gates in Paramus, New Jersey, on the afternoon of
April 20, 1989.
The date was
pinned down by the fact that Ben-Menashe had been under Customs
surveillance in the morning. So it was a perfect test for whether Ben-Menashe
– or Gates – was lying.
When I first asked
about this claim, congressional investigators told me that Gates had a
perfect alibi for that day. They said Gates had been with Senator Boren
at a speech in Oklahoma. But when we checked that out, we discovered
speech had been on April 19, a day earlier. Gates also had not been with
Boren and had returned to Washington by that evening.
So where was Gates the next day? Could he have taken a quick trip to
northern New Jersey? Since senior White House national security advisers
keep detailed notes on their daily meetings, it should have been easy
for Boren’s investigators to interview someone who could vouch for
Gates’s whereabouts on the afternoon of April 20.
But the committee
chose not to nail down an alibi for Gates. The committee said further
investigation wasn’t needed because Gates denied going to New Jersey and
his personal calendar made no reference to the trip.
investigators couldn’t tell me where Gates was that afternoon or with
whom he may have met. They interviewed no alibi witnesses. Essentially,
the alibi came down to Gates’s word.
In his memoir,
Gates thanked his friend, David Boren, for pushing through the CIA
“David took it as a personal challenge to get me confirmed,” Gates
Boren’s top aide
who helped limit the investigation of Gates was George Tenet, whose
behind-the-scenes maneuvering on Gates’s behalf won the personal
appreciation of then-President George H.W. Bush.
Tenet later became
President Bill Clinton’s last CIA director and was kept on in 2001 by
the younger George Bush partly on his father’s advice.
As difficult as it might be for Congress to run down some of these
Iran-Iraq leads before voting on Gates’s nomination to replace Donald
Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, the risks to the United States would be
much greater if hard evidence surfaces later showing that Gates did
participate in these dubious schemes.
It could even be worse if U.S. adversaries are in a position to hold
undisclosed evidence of Gates’s guilt over the Defense Secretary’s head.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'