From the Archives:
Our Unheeded Warnings to Obama
Editor’s Note: In the days after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, we published a three-part series warning him of dangers ahead. However, the new President chose to ignore all our warnings. So nearly two years later, it might be a good time to assess whether our concerns were valid or not.
The first story argued that the Republicans remained wedded to “slash-and-burn” politics and therefore Obama’s desire for bipartisanship would go unrequited.
The second reminded Obama that Bill Clinton’s decision in 1993 to shelve investigations of Reagan-Bush-41 wrongdoing earned him no reciprocity from the Republicans and that doing the same regarding Bush-43 would bring similar results.
The third challenged the advice from Establishment Democrats who were urging Obama to keep Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a gesture of bipartisanship. Our article suggested that Gates, a devious careerist with longstanding ties to the Bush Family, was not to be trusted.
[For the latest on how Gates joined in manipulating Obama in 2009 regarding the Afghan War escalation, see Consortiumnews.com’s “How Bush Holdovers Trapped Obama.”]
We invite readers to comment on the three articles by Robert Parry that are reprinted below:
--Can the Republicans Change? (Nov. 9, 2008)
Amid the global euphoria surrounding Barack Obama’s victory – and the hopeful talk about a new bipartisanship in Washington – the Democrats are forgetting a powerful truth: modern Republicans are tied inextricably to slash-and-burn politics.
Even if some Republicans did want to shift toward a more bipartisan approach – after more than three decades of successfully using "wedge" tactics and armed with a right-wing media infrastructure built to destroy opponents – such a change might be impossible.
The idea of transforming modern Republicanism into some less partisan form might be like trying to train a boa constrictor which fork to use at the dinner table.
In recent years, whenever Republicans have talked about repudiating “partisan rancor” – as John McCain did at the Republican National Convention – it is followed by another binge of partisan rancor, like Sarah Palin’s ugly rhetoric about Obama “palling around with terrorists” or McCain’s own smearing of Obama as a “socialist.”
Think back, too, on George W. Bush’s sweet talk in Campaign 2000 about his "compassionate conservatism” that would respect opponents. That was followed by the bare-knuckled suppression of Florida’s votes and then – despite his tainted victory as a popular-vote loser – Bush’s hard-ball determination to enact a right-wing agenda.
After the 9/11 attacks, when Democrats and many other Americans swore off partisanship in the cause of national unity, Bush seized the moment to arrogate unprecedented powers to himself. Then, in fall 2002, he exploited America’s fear and anger to push through a pre-election Iraq War authorization and still branded the Democrats as soft on terror.
In 2004, Bush and his political guru Karl Rove set their sights on a “permanent Republican majority” that would relegate the Democrats to a cosmetic appendage to what would really be a one-party state, with the Republicans controlling all levers of government power and backed by an intimidating right-wing news media.
For Bush, the notion of bipartisanship became: Do whatever I say. Otherwise, you get billed as unpatriotic and un-American – deserving of abuse and even physical threats, like those meted out to the Dixie Chicks for daring to criticize Bush at a pre-Iraq-invasion concert.
Similarly, anyone who threatened Republican electoral dominance could expect steady doses of smears, like the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry’s Vietnam War heroism. At Bush’s 2004 convention, some GOP delegates wore Purple Heart Band-Aids to mock the severity of Kerry’s war wounds.
After Election 2004, with Bush gaining a second term and the Republicans again owning both houses of Congress, Rove ally Grover Norquist mused that Democrats should learn to get along in Washington by becoming like castrated pets to their Republican masters.
Fawning Press Corps
It may seem odd today with Bush’s approval ratings in the 20th percentiles, but it’s worth looking back on Bush’s triumphalism after he got that second term.
Not only did the potent right-wing news media gush about his innate brilliance, but so did much of the mainstream press. Pundits were enthralled by Bush’s grandiose Second Inaugural Address – with its repetitious use of the words “freedom” and “liberty” even as Bush was trampling on the Founders’ concepts of “unalienable rights” for all.
Only a series of Bush failures – from his attempts to partially privatize Social Security to the worsening Iraq War to his bungled response to Hurricane Katrina – began to wash away the veneer of Bush’s infallibility.
Small news outlets mostly on the Internet and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” gave voice to a popular awakening about the phoniness of Bush’s tough-guy rhetoric and the obsequiousness of the major news media.
That critical narrative of Bush and the press gained traction through Campaign 2006 as Democrats rediscovered some long-lost courage and Bush sounded increasingly hysterical in his attempts to revive an excessive fear of terrorism. [For details, see our book Neck Deep.]
The result in November 2006 was a surprising electoral drubbing for Republicans, as Democrats erased GOP majorities and gained narrow control of Congress. However, in the wake of their victory, Democrats reverted to form, putting wishful thinking about bipartisanship ahead of hardheaded analysis.
Democrats hoped that Bush finally would take some bipartisan advice, like that from the Iraq Study Group – headed by longtime Bush Family lawyer James Baker – to begin drawing down U.S. troop levels in Iraq.
So, these Democrats widely misinterpreted the meaning of Bush’s day-after-the-election firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the appointment ISG member (and former CIA Director) Robert Gates as Rumsfeld’s successor.
The Democrats wanted to believe that the Rumsfeld-to-Gates shift meant that Bush was taking to heart the ISG’s drawdown recommendations, when the personnel change actually marked the opposite course.
The behind-the-scenes reality was that the arrogant-but-humbled Rumsfeld had evolved into a relative dove on the Iraq War, favoring the position of field commanders Generals George Casey and John Abizaid on keeping the U.S. footprint small and beginning a gradual withdrawal of combat forces.
By contrast, Gates, who had been a controversial figure at the CIA and was banished from the national stage after Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, was eager to reestablish his Washington credentials. Thus, Gates was willing to play the “yes man” to Bush’s more hawkish desires, such as the escalation of U.S. forces in Iraq, the so-called “surge.”
Although much of this reality was known before Gates’s confirmation hearing in December 2006 – the New York Times had obtained and published Rumsfeld’s pre-election drawdown memo on Dec. 3 – the Democrats ignored it during what amounted to a unanimous love-fest at Gates’s hearing on Dec. 5.
As it turned out, the dreamy-eyed Democrats got blindsided. The Bush administration sent 30,000 more combat troops to Iraq and then argued that the “surge” led to a decline in overall violence – even as 1,000 more American soldiers died. Republicans said Democrats advocated “defeat,” “a white flag” and “surrender.”
Even though many U.S. military experts considered the proclaimed “surge success” a myth – crediting the drop in violence to other factors such as the pre-surge Anbar Awakening and new high-tech methods for tracking and killing insurgent leaders – the Republicans continued to beat Democrats over the head with the “surge.”
Now, in the wake of Obama’s solid victory and an expanded Democratic control of Congress, some Republicans are having second thoughts about the wisdom of the GOP’s nasty political style.
Dov. S. Zakheim, a foreign policy adviser to Bush’s 2000 campaign and a Pentagon official during the first term, lamented in a Washington Post opinion article that Bush dropped his “compassionate conservative” mask soon after taking office.
“We came to a bitterly divided Washington and poured salt on partisan wounds, culminating in an ugly divide-and-rule style of politics,” Zakheim acknowledged.
That style continued through Election 2008 with the McCain campaign’s endless references to Obama’s tenuous connection to Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers and Sarah Palin’s attempts to pit “real America” against supposedly less patriotic parts of the country.
Yet, despite the failure of that political approach on Nov. 4, the current question must be whether the Republican Party can change its stripes. With fewer moderate Republicans left in Congress, the residue is even more concentrated with radical right-wingers who know little beyond the “ugly divide-and-rule” politics.
Plus, there is the powerful right-wing media infrastructure that runs on the high-octane fuel of hate and anti-liberal conspiracy theories. This machinery faces a business imperative to find new attack lines that can be used to tear down Obama and build up audience share.
Only two days after the election, right-wing leaders gathered at the Shenandoah Valley country home of liberal-hating media critic Brent Bozell to plot a route back to power.
Meanwhile, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh – who played a key role in rallying Republicans after Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 – declared war on two targets: the “country-club” Republicans and the Obama administration.
"We're going to be taking on two things here [over] the next four years: Obama, and our own party establishment," Limbaugh vowed.
So, while many in the national news media are waiting to see how Obama will live up to his pledge of seeking to end partisan bickering in Washington, the more relevant point of observation might be to watch what the Republicans do.
It might finally be time to suggest that the Republicans go first.
--Obama: Beware the Lessons of ’93 (Nov. 11, 2008)
Barack Obama seeks a new era of bipartisanship, but he should take heed of what happened to the last Democrat in the White House – Bill Clinton – in 1993 when he sought to appease Republicans by shelving pending investigations into Reagan-Bush-I-era wrongdoing and hoped for some reciprocity.
Instead the Republicans pocketed the Democratic concessions and pressed ahead with possibly the most partisan assault ever directed against a sitting President. The war on Clinton included attacks on his past life in Arkansas, on his wife Hillary, on personnel decisions at the White House, and on key members of his administration.
The Republicans also took the offensive against Clinton’s reformist agenda, denying him even one GOP vote for his first budget and then sabotaging Hillary Clinton’s plan for universal health insurance.
The desperately-seeking-bipartisanship Clinton allowed Republican loyalists to stay burrowed inside the government, and he bowed to the appointment of right-wing special prosecutors (appointed by a Republican-dominated judicial panel) to investigate him and his administration.
In the first two years of the Clinton presidency, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh emerged as a national phenomenon, regaling his huge audience with three hours a day of mocking attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton.
At one downtown Washington restaurant, Blackie’s House of Beef, a special area was set aside so Clinton haters could listen to Rush Limbaugh’s show while eating lunch. Limbaugh’s success inspired a new generation of radio talk show hosts who got rich dishing anti-Clinton dirt.
In February 1994, when I covered the annual Conservative Political Action Conference – a kind of trade show for the Right – I was stunned by the volume and variety of hate-Clinton paraphernalia. Never had I seen anything like this well-organized, well-funded determination to destroy a political figure.
In November 1994, a resurgent Republican Party – energized by its hatred of the Clintons – wrested control of Congress from the Democrats. But rather than sating the Right’s anti-Clinton obsession, the success only fed a desire for more.
Behind a relentless investigation by right-wing special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the Republicans pressed ahead with what became a multi-year drive to impeach President Clinton, exploiting suspicions over Clinton’s old Whitewater real-estate investment as payback for Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
Finally, in 1998 after Starr (with the help of a Reagan-Bush stay-behind named Linda Tripp) disclosed Clinton’s sexual dalliance with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the Republican-controlled House impeached Clinton, though he survived a Senate trial in 1999.
With President Clinton humiliated, the stage was set for a new Republican/media war on Vice President Al Gore, whose presidential candidacy in 1999-2000 became a whipping boy for Clinton’s enemies frustrated at their inability to drive Clinton from office.
Though Gore managed to claw his way to a narrow popular-vote victory in November 2000, the race was close enough for George W. Bush – with the help of five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court – to claim the White House.
Now, after eight years of Bush’s catastrophic presidency, another Democrat has been elected to the nation’s highest office and – like Clinton 16 years ago – Barack Obama is being advised by Washington insiders to reach out to the Republicans with an open hand of bipartisanship.
Most significantly, Obama is being urged to forget about holding Bush and other top officials accountable for torture, war crimes, violations of the Constitution and other serious offenses. Obama’s even getting advice that he should leave some senior Bush officials in place as a bipartisan gesture.
Ironically, some of this advice is coming from the same people who were part of Clinton’s decisions in early 1993 to set aside investigations into Reagan-Bush-I wrongdoing and thus to allow a false history of that era to become cemented as a faux reality.
For instance, Lee Hamilton, who in 1993 was an accommodating Democratic congressman, helped sink key investigations into covert Republican relationships with Iran and Iraq. Now, as a senior foreign policy adviser to Obama, Hamilton has spoken favorably of retaining Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
I’ve heard other rumblings around Washington that influential Democrats, including some who are under consideration for top national security jobs, oppose pursuing war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the Bush administration on the grounds that the 2008 electoral repudiation should be punishment enough.
Obama also is sure to hear plenty of counsel about “looking to the future, not the past,” about the need to focus on the nation’s pressing problems, not expend energy and political capital “to settle scores” from the last eight years.
Some Washington Democrats should know better. John Podesta, a co-chair of Obama’s transition team (who accompanied Obama to his Monday meeting with President Bush), was a senior member of Clinton’s White House staff in the 1990s.
Early in the Clinton presidency, I met with Podesta at the White House to ask why historical questions about serious wrongdoing by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush weren’t being pursued. Podesta told me that those issues simply weren’t “on the radar.”
I learned later that President Clinton himself was an advocate for looking past the scandals of the 1980s and for following the advice of his Fleetwood Mac campaign song, “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.”
As I wrote in the opening chapter of Secrecy & Privilege, two old acquaintances of mine – Stuart Sender and his wife, Julie Bergman Sender – encountered Clinton in May 1994 at a social event at the White House.
Clinton started talking like one might chat with neighbors about troubles at work. He complained about how rancorous Washington had become, how beleaguered he felt, how horribly the press was treating him.
“He was unburdening himself,” recalled Stuart Sender, a documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles.
Sixteen months into his Presidency, Clinton was getting clobbered by the Republicans – and by the news media – over his Whitewater real-estate deal. There had been a firestorm, too, over allegations from Arkansas state troopers about Clinton’s philandering as governor.
A woman named Paula Jones had emerged from that controversy with claims that Clinton had crudely propositioned her. He also was taking flak over the firing of employees in the White House Travel Office.
Then, there were bizarre suspicions circulating about the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster, who had come with the Clintons from Arkansas. Foster shot himself in the head after growing despondent over the harsh press criticism he had received for his role in the Travel Office affair, but some conservatives were spreading rumors of a deeper mystery.
Clinton felt besieged not only by aggressive Republicans but by the national press corps. Since the last Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, left office in 1981, a powerful right-wing media had come into its own, built in part as a defense mechanism to shield Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from criticism.
Besides Limbaugh and the bevy of other talk radio hosts, right-wing print outlets had grown in number and in influence, the likes of the American Spectator and The Washington Times, not to mention The Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages and conservative columnists in newspapers across the country.
Many of the commentators also appeared on TV political chat shows to reprise their opinions for millions of more Americans nationwide.
Mainstream journalists at outlets such as NBC News and The New York Times also joined in the Clinton bashing, seemingly eager to prove that they could be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican. They were determined to show they weren’t the “liberal media” that the conservatives long had railed against.
Indeed, it was The Washington Post, the newspaper credited with unraveling Richard Nixon’s Watergate mystery, which had led the charge on the Whitewater case with front-page stories that put Clinton in a public relations corner and forced him to acquiesce to a special prosecutor.
So, during a social event on May 28, 1994, in the ornate East Room of the White House, Clinton was making the rounds of his guests and looking for a sympathetic hearing. “All of a sudden we looked up and there was President Clinton,” Stuart Sender recalled.
The chitchat soon turned to Clinton’s complaints about his ill treatment at the hands of the news media.
“He started the conversation by saying how horrible the press is being to him,” said Julie Bergman Sender, a movie producer and the daughter of songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman. “I was looking around at the planters. I was thinking, ‘you’re not standing in your living room, really.’”
But Stuart Sender, who had worked as a journalist on the Reagan-Bush-I-era Iran-Contra and Iraqgate scandals, had a different reaction. He wondered why Clinton had never pursued those investigations of Republican wrongdoing after becoming President in January 1993.
After all, Sender thought, those were real scandals, involving secret dealings with unsavory regimes. Top Republicans allegedly had helped arm Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as well as the radical Islamic mullahs of Iran, violations of law, constitutional principles – and common sense.
Those actions had then been surrounded by stout defenses from Republicans and their media allies. The protection had taken on the look of systematic cover-ups, sometimes even obstruction of justice, to spare the top echelons of the Reagan-Bush-I administrations from accountability.
Indeed, as Clinton was heading into office at the start of 1993, four investigations were underway that implicated senior Republicans in potential criminal wrongdoing.
The Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages case was still alive, with special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh furious over new evidence that President George H.W. Bush may have obstructed justice by withholding his own notes from investigators and ducking an interview that Walsh had put off until after the 1992 elections.
Bush also had sabotaged the investigation by pardoning six Iran-Contra defendants on Christmas Eve 1992, possibly the first presidential pardon ever issued to protect the same President from criminal exposure.
In late 1992, Congress also was investigating Bush’s alleged role in secretly aiding Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during and after his eight-year-long war with Iran. Representative Henry Gonzalez, the aging chairman of the House Banking Committee, had led the charge in exposing intricate financial schemes that the Reagan-Bush-I administrations had employed to assist Hussein.
There also were allegations of indirect U.S. military aid through third countries, claims that Bush and other Republicans emphatically denied.
Lesser known investigations were examining two other sets of alleged wrongdoing: the so-called October Surprise issue (accusations that Bush and other Republicans had interfered with Jimmy Carter’s hostage negotiations with Iran during the 1980 campaign) and the Passportgate affair (evidence that Bush operatives had improperly searched Clinton’s passport file in 1992, looking for dirt that could be used to discredit his patriotism and secure reelection for Bush).
All told, the four sets of allegations, if true, would paint an unflattering portrait of the 12-year Republican rule: two illegal dirty tricks (October Surprise and Passportgate) book-ending ill-conceived national security schemes in the Middle East (Iran-Contra and Iraqgate).
Had the full stories been told the American people might have perceived the legacies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush quite differently than they do today.
But the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats dropped all four investigations beginning in early 1993, either through benign neglect – by failing to hold hearings and keeping the issues alive in the news media – or by actively closing the door on investigative leads. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Clinton’s disinterest in these scandals had mystified some activists in the Democratic base and some investigators who, like Stuart Sender, had watched as the rug was pulled from under these historic probes.
After the investigations died, some Democrats in Congress, who had participated in the aborted probes, came under nasty Republican attacks as did journalists who had pursued the stories.
Gonzalez had raised the ire of the first Bush administration by revealing that Bush and other senior Republicans had followed an ill-fated covert policy of coddling Saddam Hussein, disclosures that had rained on Bush’s parade after the U.S. military victory over Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Now, Gonzalez was left looking like a foolish old man, a kind of modern-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
The same could be said of Lawrence Walsh, a lifelong Republican who crossed his own party by challenging the cover stories that had shielded top Republicans caught up in the Iran-Contra Affair.
In pressing investigations into alleged obstructions of justice, Walsh had found his reputation under ad hominem attacks from The Washington Times and other parts of the conservative news media for petty matters such as ordering room-service meals and flying first class.
Walsh was so stunned by the ferocity of the Republican defensive strategy that he entitled his memoirs Firewall in recognition of the impenetrable barrier that was built to keep the Iran-Contra scandal away from Reagan and Bush.
Walsh, too, was dismissed as a foolish old man, though the literary metaphor for him was Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab, obsessively pursuing the white whale.
But letting the outgoing Reagan-Bush-I team off the hook hadn’t earned the Democrats any measure of bipartisan protection. By spring 1994, Clinton had begun to sense the rising tide of political danger that the non-stop attacks against him represented. He was looking for allies and some sympathy.
So, as waiters poured coffee at the East Room reception and Clinton was voicing his frustrations to some of his guests, Stuart Sender saw his chance to ask Clinton why he hadn’t pursued leads about the Reagan-Bush-I secret initiatives in the Middle East.
“I had this moment to say to him, ‘What are you going to do about this? Why aren’t you going after them about Iran-Contra and Iraqgate?’” Sender said. “If the shoe were on the other foot, they’d sure be going after our side. … Why don’t you go back after them, their high crimes and misdemeanors?”
But Clinton brushed aside the suggestion.
“It was very clear that that wasn’t what he had in mind at all,” Sender said. “He said he felt that Judge Walsh had been too strident and had probably been a bit too extreme in how he had pursued Iran-Contra. He didn’t feel that it was a good idea to pursue these investigations because he was going to have to work with these people.
“To me what was amazingly telling was his dig at Walsh, this patrician Republican jurist who had been put in charge of this but even the Democratic President had decided that this was somewhere that he couldn’t go. He was going to try to work with these guys, compromise, build working relationships.”
Clinton "really did have this idea that he’d be able to work with these guys,” Sender recalled with a touch of amazement in his voice. “It seemed even at the time terribly naïve that these same Republicans were going to work with him if he backed off on congressional hearings or possible independent prosecutor investigations.
“How ironic that he decides he’s not going to pursue this when later on they impeach him for the Monica Lewinsky scandal.”
Sender, like others who had been in the trenches of the national security scandals of the 1980s, thought the retreat on the investigations by Clinton and the Democrats after they won the 1992 elections was wrong for a host of other reasons, too.
Most importantly, it allowed an incomplete, even false history to be written about the Reagan-Bush-I era, glossing over many of the worst mistakes. The bogus history denied the American people the knowledge needed to assess how relationships had evolved between the United States and Middle East leaders, including Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the Saudi royal family and the Iranian mullahs.
Though the Middle East crises had receded by the time Clinton took office in 1993, the troubles had not gone away and were sure to worsen again. When that time came, the American people would have a sanitized version of how the country got where it was.
Even government officials responsible for Middle East policies would have only a partial history of how these entangling alliances crisscrossed through the deals and betrayals of the prior two decades.
The Democratic retreat from the investigative battles in 1993 would have another profound effect on the future of American politics.
By letting George H.W. Bush leave the White House with his reputation intact – and even helping him fend off accusations of serious wrongdoing – the Democrats unwittingly cleared the way for a restoration of the Bush political dynasty eight years later.
If investigators had dug out the full truth about alleged secret operations involving George H.W. Bush, the family’s reputation would have been badly tarnished, if not destroyed.
Since that reputation served as the foundation for George W. Bush’s political career, it’s unlikely that he ever would have gained the momentum to propel him to the Republican presidential nomination, let alone to the White House in Election 2000.
Now, eight years later – with Barack Obama’s victory and with solid Democratic majorities again in the House and Senate – the Democrats are back to a spot very similar to where they were at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
They have all the power they need to initiate serious investigations into the widespread criminality of George W. Bush’s presidency, from torture and other war crimes to war profiteering and other lucrative influence peddling.
But President-elect Obama is receiving nearly the identical advice that greeted Bill Clinton after his election 16 years ago: In the name of bipartisanship, let bygones be bygones.
--The Danger of Keeping Robert Gates, Nov. 13, 2008
Press reports say Barack Obama may retain George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a gesture to war-time continuity, bipartisanship and respect for the Washington insider community, which has embraced Gates as something of a new Wise Man.
However, if Obama does keep Gates on, the new President will be employing someone who embodies many of the worst elements of U.S. national security policy over the past three decades, including responsibility for what Obama himself has fingered as a chief concern, “politicized intelligence.”
During a campaign interview with the Washington Post, Obama said, “I have been troubled by … the politicization of intelligence in this administration.” But it was Gates – as a senior CIA official in the 1980s – who broke the back of the CIA analytical division’s commitment to objective intelligence.
In a recent book, Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA, former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman identifies Gates as the chief action officer for the Reagan administration’s drive to tailor intelligence reporting to White House political desires. A top “Kremlinologist,” Goodman describes how Gates reversed a CIA tradition of delivering tough-minded intelligence reports with “the bark on.”
That ethos began to erode in 1973 – with President Richard Nixon’s appointment of James Schlesinger as CIA director and Gerald Ford’s choice of George H.W. Bush in 1976 – but the principle of objectivity wasn’t swept away until 1981 when Ronald Reagan put in his campaign chief, William Casey, as CIA director.
Casey then chose the young and ambitious Robert Gates to run the analytical division. Rather than respect the old mandate for “bark on” intelligence, “Bob Gates turned that approach on its head in the 1980s and tried hard to anticipate the views of policymakers in order to pander to their needs,” Goodman wrote.
“Gates consistently told his analysts to make sure never to ‘stick your finger in the eye of the policymaker.’”
It didn’t take long for the winds of politicization to blow through the halls of CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia.
“Bill Casey and Bob Gates guided the first institutionalized ‘cooking of the books’ at the CIA in the 1980s, with a particular emphasis on tailoring intelligence dealing with the Soviet Union, Central America, and Southwest Asia,” Goodman wrote.
“Casey’s first NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] as CIA director, dealing with the Soviet Union and international terrorism, became an exercise in politicization. Casey and Gates pushed this line in order to justify more U.S. covert action in the Third World.
“In 1985, they ordered an intelligence assessment of a supposed Soviet plot against the Pope, hoping to produce a document that would undermine Secretary of State [George] Shultz’s efforts to improve relations with Moscow. The CIA also produced an NIE in 1985 that was designed to produce an intelligence rationale for arms sales to Iran.”
Hyping Soviet Power
One of the key distortions pushed by Casey and Gates was the notion that the Soviet Union was a military behemoth with a robust economy – rather than a decaying power with a shriveling GNP. The logic of the Casey-Gates position was that exaggerating the Soviet menace justified higher U.S. military spending and U.S. support for bloody brush-fire wars – central elements of Reagan’s foreign policy.
Since the mid-1970s, the CIA’s analytical division had been noting cracks in the Soviet empire as well as signs of its economic-technological decline. But that analysis was unwelcome among Reagan’s true-believers.
So, in 1983 when CIA analysts sought to correct over-estimations of Soviet military spending – to 1 percent a year, down from 4 to 5 percent – Gates blocked the revision, according to Goodman.
From his front-row seat at CIA headquarters, Goodman watched in dismay as Gates used his bureaucratic skills to consolidate the agency’s new role underpinning favored White House policies.
“While serving as deputy director for intelligence from 1982 to 1986, Gates wrote the manual for manipulating and centralizing the intelligence process to get the desired intelligence product,” Goodman stated.
Gates promoted pliable CIA careerists to top positions, while analysts with an independent streak were sidelined or pushed out of the agency.
“In the mid-1980s, the three senior [Soviet division] office managers who actually anticipated the decline of the Soviet Union and Moscow’s interest in closer relations with the United States were demoted,” Goodman wrote, noting that he was one of them.
“The Reagan administration would not accept any sign of Soviet weakness or constraint, and CIA director Casey and deputy director Gates made sure intelligence analysis presented the Russian Bear as threatening and warlike,” Goodman wrote.
These institutional blinders remained in place for the rest of the 1980s.
“As a result, the CIA missed the radical change that Mikhail Gorbachev represented to Soviet politics and Soviet-American relations, and missed the challenges to his rule and his ultimate demise in 1991,” Goodman wrote.
When the Soviet Union – the CIA’s principal intelligence target – collapsed without any timely warning to the U.S. government, the CIA analytical division was derided for “missing” this historic moment. But the CIA didn’t as much “miss” the Soviet collapse as it was blinded by Gates and other ideological taskmasters to the reality playing out in plain sight.
Goodman was not alone in identifying Gates as the chief culprit in the politicization of the CIA’s intelligence product. Indeed, Gates’s 1991 confirmation hearing to be George H.W. Bush’s CIA director marked an extraordinary outpouring of career CIA officers going public with inside stories about how Gates had corrupted the intelligence product.
There also were concerns about Gates’s role in misleading Congress regarding the secret Iran-Contra operations in the mid-1980s, an obstacle that had prevented Gates from getting the top CIA job when Casey died in 1987.
Plus, in 1991, Gates faced accusations that he had greased his rapid bureaucratic rise by participating in illicit or dubious clandestine operations, including helping Republicans sabotage President Jimmy Carter’s Iran hostage negotiations in 1980 (the so-called October Surprise case) and collaborating on a secret plan to aid Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein (the Iraqgate scandal).
Despite significant evidence implicating Gates in these scandals, he always managed to slip past relying on his personal charm and Boy Scout looks. For his 1991 confirmation, influential friends like Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren, D-Oklahoma, and Boren’s chief of staff George Tenet made sure Gates got the votes he needed.
In his memoir, From the Shadows, Gates credited his friend, Boren, with clearing away the obstacles. “David took it as a personal challenge to get me confirmed,” Gates wrote. (Tenet’s help on Gates also earned him some chits with the Bush Family, which paid off in 2001 when Tenet was Bill Clinton’s last CIA director and was kept on by George W. Bush, whom he served loyally, if incompetently.)
After getting confirmed in 1991, Gates remained CIA director until the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency. However, even after Bill Clinton removed him in 1993, Gates never wandered far from the Bush Family orbit, getting help from George H.W. Bush in landing a job as president of Texas A&M.
During the Clinton years, documents surfaced implicating Gates in questionable actions from the 1980s, but the new evidence got little notice.
For instance, the Russian government sent an extraordinary intelligence report to a House investigative task force in early 1993 stating that Gates had participated in secret contacts with Iranian officials in 1980 to delay release of 52 U.S. hostages then held in Iran, a move that undercut President Carter.
“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 in Paris in October 1980, the classified Russian report said.
In the 1980s, Moscow was very interested in the U.S. dealings with the new Islamic government of Iran, a neighboring country to the Soviet Union.
In July 1981, the Soviets even shot down an Argentine-registered plane that strayed into Soviet airspace while delivering a supply of weapons from Israel to Iran, a secret shipment that had the Reagan administration’s blessing.
The Russian allegation about Gates and the Paris meeting in October 1980 also didn’t stand alone. The House task force had other evidence from French and Israeli intelligence officials, as well as witnesses from the arms-trafficking field, corroborating reports of Reagan-Bush contacts with Iranian officials in Europe during Campaign 1980.
However, the House task force never followed up on the Russian report because when it arrived – on Jan. 11, 1993 – the chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, had already decided to get rid of the October Surprise case as part of a sweeping clean of investigations into alleged Reagan-Bush wrongdoing.
Years later, Lawrence Barcella, the task force’s chief counsel, told me that in late 1992 evidence implicating the Republicans in the October Surprise caper had begun pouring in, so much so that he urged Hamilton to extend the investigation several months.
Instead, Hamilton ordered the inquiry wrapped up – and the October Surprise allegations rejected – all the better to start the new Clinton administration with a bipartisan gesture to the Republicans.
Like much of the other incriminating evidence, the Russian report was shoved into a box and stuck in a remote Capitol Hill storage room. I discovered it in late 1994 after gaining access to the task force's documents.
By then, however, there was almost no media interest in the “old” scandals of the Reagan-Bush years. Not only were those stories dated, but many of the central players were either dead or – like Gates – out of government.
[For details on the October Surprise case, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege. For the text of the Russian report, click here. To view the actual U.S. embassy cable that includes the Russian report, click here.]
Gates also was implicated in a secret operation to funnel military assistance to Iraq in the 1980s, as the Reagan administration played off Iran and Iraq battling each other in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War.
Middle Eastern witnesses alleged that Gates worked on the secret Iraqi initiative, which included Saddam Hussein’s procurement of cluster bombs and chemicals used to produce chemical weapons for the war against Iran.
Gates denied all the Iran-Iraq accusations in 1991, and Boren’s Senate Intelligence Committee never pressed too hard to check them out.
However, four years later – in early January 1995 – Howard Teicher, one of Reagan’s National Security Council officials, added more details about Gates’s alleged role in the Iraq shipments.
In a sworn affidavit submitted in a Florida criminal case, Teicher stated that the covert arming of Iraq dated back to spring 1982 when Iran had gained the upper hand in the war, leading President Reagan to authorize a U.S. tilt toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The effort to arm the Iraqis was “spearheaded” by CIA Director William Casey and involved his deputy, Robert Gates, according to Teicher’s affidavit.
“The CIA, including both CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, knew of, approved of, and assisted in the sale of non-U.S. origin military weapons, ammunition and vehicles to Iraq,” Teicher wrote.
Ironically, this same pro-Iraq initiative involved Donald Rumsfeld, then Reagan’s special emissary to the Middle East. An infamous photograph from 1983 shows a smiling Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.
Teicher described Gates’s role as far more substantive than Rumsfeld’s. "Under CIA Director [William] Casey and Deputy Director Gates, the CIA authorized, approved and assisted [Chilean arms dealer Carlos] Cardoen in the manufacture and sale of cluster bombs and other munitions to Iraq,” Teicher wrote.
However, like the Russian report, the Teicher affidavit was never seriously examined or explained.
After Teicher submitted it to a federal court in Miami, the affidavit was classified and then attacked by Clinton administration prosecutors. They saw Teicher’s account as disruptive to their prosecution of a private company, Teledyne Industries, and one of its salesmen, Ed Johnson.
Gates benefited, too, from Official Washington’s boredom with – and even hostility toward – Reagan-Bush-I-era scandals.
Instead, the polite and personable Gates continued to enjoy influential protectors on both sides of the aisle, from Republicans around George H.W. Bush to Democrats like David Boren and Lee Hamilton.
Plus, some of Gates's CIA protégés, such as former Deputy Director John McLaughlin, were liked by Democrats as well as Republicans. (McLaughlin was a member of Obama’s intelligence advisory group during Campaign 2008.)
Gates’s connections – and his timing – served him well when he was placed on the Iraq Study Group in 2006 along with its co-chairs, Lee Hamilton and Bush Family lawyer James Baker. By fall 2006, the ISG was moving toward recommending a drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush found himself in need of a new Defense Secretary to replace Donald Rumsfeld, who had grown disillusioned with the Iraq War.
Though Rumsfeld was viewed publicly as a hardliner, privately he sided with his field commanders, Generals George Casey and John Abizaid, in favoring a smaller U.S. “footprint” in Iraq and a phased withdrawal. Rumsfeld put his views in writing on Nov. 6, 2006, the day before congressional elections.
With Rumsfeld going wobbly, Bush turned to Gates and – after getting Gates’s assurance that he would support Bush’s intent to escalate the war, not wind it down – Bush offered him the job.
Rumsfeld’s firing and Gates’s hiring were announced the day after the Nov. 7 elections and were widely misinterpreted as signs that Bush was throwing in the towel on Iraq.
Rumsfeld’s memo was disclosed by the New York Times on Dec. 3, 2006, two days before Gates was scheduled for his confirmation hearing. [See Consortiumnews.com’s "Gates Hearing Has New Urgency."]
But Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee were so enthralled by the false narrative of Bush tossing over the ideologue (Rumsfeld) in favor of the realist (Gates) that they took no note of what the real sequence of events suggested, that Bush was determined to send more troops.
Gates was whisked through to confirmation with no questions about the Rumsfeld memo and with unanimous Democratic support. Sen. Hillary Clinton and other senior Democrats praised Gates for his “candor.”
Within a few weeks, however, it became clear that Bush – with Gates’s help – had bamboozled the Democrats.
Not only did Bush dash the Democrats’ hopes for a bipartisan strategy on Iraq by junking the ISG recommendations, but he chose to escalate by adding 30,000 new troops. Instead of negotiating with Iran and Syria as the ISG wanted, Bush sent aircraft carrier strike groups to the region.
For his part, Gates joined in pummeling the Democrats by suggesting that their legislation opposing the "surge" was aiding and abetting the enemy.
“Any indication of flagging will in the United States gives encouragement to those folks,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon on Jan. 26, 2007. “I’m sure that that’s not the intent behind the resolutions, but I think it may be the effect.”
During Campaign 2008, Gates also opposed Obama’s plan to set a 16-month timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq.
Nevertheless, Gates remains a favorite of the Washington insiders, many of whom – like Lee Hamilton – have expressed warm support for the idea of keeping him on at least for the early part of the Obama presidency.
If the President-elect is serious about taking that advice, he first might want to review the extensive evidence of Gates’s devious behavior and consider whether Gates deserves the trust of the American people – and their newly elected government.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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