[Note for Tomdispatch readers: Let me recommend a book that goes nicely with Roger Morris’ series on Robert Gates and the CIA. Jim Peck’s Washington’s China: The National Security World, the Cold War, and the Origins of Globalism is a close-in, detailed study of the secret documents America’s top security managers on the National Security Council created for each other in the early years of the Cold War as they were trying to formulate ways to “isolate” China. (Rick Perlstein in the Nation magazine just called the book “brilliant, forceful and awesomely researched” and Chalmers Johnson has termed it “devastating,” which it is.) At heart, it is a reminder of how American national-security elites, ready to manipulate publics, first manipulated and essentially indoctrinated one another (and so, it is no less applicable to the Bush/Cheney neocon moment). Like Morris’ series, it is also a reminder that American provincialism and American globalism are not, in fact, opposites; that what we now think of as globalism emerged in the late 1940s out of American provincialism and out of — though it’s a word we reserve for other peoples — a fervent, near-religious brand of American nationalism. (We prefer to use the word “patriotism” or, at an extreme, “super-patriotism” when describing ourselves.) In our pride in our globalism, we forget the narrowness with which our imperial leaders viewed the world long before our recent band of armed, unilateralist isolationists decided to take the planet by storm. If you want to see where it all began, check out Peck’s book. Tom]
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has just returned from his fourth trip to American Iraq in the last seven months — basically to the heavily fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi capital where most U.S. officials huddle, and which many of them never leave during their year’s tour of duty “in” the country. In a sense, moving from Inside-the-Beltway Washington to the inside-and-being-belted-way in Baghdad catches something of both the imperial globalism and the insularity that Roger Morris indicates has been so essential to Gates’ life and career. The former CIA director is a man who, after a fashion, has never as an adult left the Green Zone of American life.
At a press briefing in Baghdad this week, a reporter made a very American observation and then lobbed an oh-so-American question at the Secretary of Defense: “In fact the Iraqi government does not exactly share America’s desired end-state. How do you, government-to-government, diplomatically convince, cajole, or force them to the proper end-state?”
Gates began his response to this question about the uses of raw imperial power in the following fashion: “I think the way I would answer your question is that I think no country can escape its history” Of course, the Secretary of Defense was only thinking about how the various embattled sectarian groups in Iraq can’t escape their histories (which we’ve had such a hand in misshaping these last years), but, as part 2 of Roger Morris’ profile of Robert Gates and American “intelligence” (that is, covert intervention and interference abroad) makes clear, there could hardly be a better epitaph for Gates himself, or for all of Washington’s wisdom about the Arab world these last decades.
Morris’ remarkable “Gates Inheritance” — a necessary history lesson for an ever grimmer world — continues below. Those who missed Part 1, “The Specialist, Robert Gates and the Tortured World of American Intelligence,” might consider doubling-back. Otherwise, onward! Tom
The CIA and the Politics of Counterrevolution
Robert Gates, The Specialist (Part 2)
By Roger Morris
Students like Bob Gates were to be something of a remedy for the CIA’s first generation of men, so uneducated about a world they manipulated with such careless and brutal abandon. In widening recruitment efforts, and requiring a gamut of substantive and psychological tests (even a psychiatric interview for its new officers), the CIA seemed to acknowledge that its ranks lacked a certain professionalism — in terms of diploma knowledge of the world as well as certifiable sanity.
By 1965, the Agency was also responding to a national mobilization of education as a Cold War weapon. This had been underway for years in the aftershock of the spectacular 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik, the orbiting little satellite neither the CIA, nor the American public had expected from their caricature Russians. Worse yet, it sat atop a prototype intercontinental ballistic missile. Much of Gates’ career would be shaped by that sobering event — a Commie rocket that could reach Wichita — when he was only 14, still parboiling cats and ardently rising in the Boy Scouts.
Sputnik’s launch began a craze in the U.S. to spur military-related science and technology from grade school to graduate school. The 1958 National Defense Education Act also allotted unprecedented millions for “foreign area training,” part of a vast effort to create well-informed specialists on the Soviet Bloc and the Third World, a know-thine-enemy vogue shared by foundations as well as Congress. Thus, the irony of government-financed graduate study to ward off the socialist menace, and Carnegie and Ford Foundation philanthropy to save capitalism by paying serious young Americans to read Marx and Lenin.
Universities like Indiana with more than the usual offerings in Russian history and Slavic languages were ready reservoirs for CIA recruiters and Bob Gates was their ideal target. It all seemed to promise a new worldliness — for Wichita as well as Washington. But lurking like a lethal gene was that old Baltic Syndrome, with its reactionary animus and blindfolds, in which America’s would-be specialists in the Soviet regime had always been schooled.
No independent American expertise on the Soviets would magically appear, despite the post-Sputnik infusions of money. In the 1960s, knowing students mordantly called bucolic little Bloomington, Indiana, “Novocherkassk” — after the Cossack town that had been the capital of the monarchist “Whites” in Russia’s Civil War. The name was sadly fitting. In 1965, Indiana’s Soviet Affairs faculty was still so dominated by émigrés, or the émigré-indoctrinated, that courses given when Gates arrived amounted to little more than the usual worn tour of Kremlin horrors.
Indiana was hardly alone. Harvard was much the same — its own prestigious and lavishly supported Russian studies program dominated by figures like historian Richard Pipes, a reactionary of East European descent whose lectures riveted undergraduates with an unrelieved demonology of the Bolshevik Revolution. “We’ll be reading Karl Marx who is not now and never has been a member of the Communist Party,” celebrated Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith would dryly announce in his course on economic development. But such irreverence was rare, and his course was not often required for “specialists.”
Other reputed centers of area studies — most prominently Columbia with young ex-Harvard Russophobe Zbigniew Brzezinski, a star lecturer in Soviet affairs — were similar bastions of Baltic Syndrome orthodoxy. The narrowness of most curricula in the 1960s moved even a timorous, still McCarthy-era-cowed State Department to react. Its cultural affairs officers recommended, albeit quietly, that U.S. graduate students heading for Moscow or Leningrad on a new exchange program with the USSR (with language prepping beforehand at Indiana) read Wright Miller’s otherwise ignored little classic Russians As People. (“What,” asked a puzzled Russian student at Moscow State University on seeing the book in 1964, “did you think we were?”)
Money now gushed into “area specialization,” not just in Soviet affairs, but in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East — all those contested areas of a contested planet where the loyalties of restless natives now seemed to be of some practical importance. Like learning math to catch the Russians in space, the logic seemed unexceptionable. To save the world from communist clutches, some knowledge of that world would obviously be helpful.
A World of “Slopes” and “Towel Heads”
In practice, none of this had much effect on root prejudice. An American Army in Vietnam lost to a foe (and defended an ally) its commanders as well as the ranks generally referred to as “gooks,” “dinks,” and “slopes,” and whose politics it never grasped. It would be much the same three decades later, when U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanded in part by erstwhile junior officers from the Vietnam War, were effectively defeated by two of history’s most momentous, if seemingly ragtag, insurgencies made up of “hajis,” “sand niggers,” and “towel heads” of similarly baffling mind and motivation.
As usual, bigotry ran bottom to top, civilian no less than military. In the Vietnam-era White House, President Nixon commonly deplored “jigs” and “Jew boys,” while Harvard’s Kissinger (with a young aide of like mentality named John Negroponte) planned savage carpet bombings of North Vietnam on the premise, as Kissinger put it, that “I can’t believe a fourth-rate power doesn’t have a breaking point.” It was typical of the quaint anthropology of the famous diplomat and many of his staff, including future secretaries of state Alexander Haig and Larry Eagleburger. (Told during the Nigerian Civil War that Biafra’s Ibos tended to appear more Negroid than northern Nigerians, Kissinger blurted out in unguarded surprise, “You always said Ibos were so gifted and accomplished. How could they be more Negroid?”)
Yet there was something more insidious than crude Eurocentric racism at work. Imbibed by a new generation of bureaucrats and analysts with winning-hearts-and-minds, career-making fervor was another kind of bigotry dressed in the clothes of scholarly authority and of knowledge in service to power. It took an eminent literary critic and expatriate from one of the most abused “areas” of the world to expose it.
A revolutionary book when it appeared in the late 1970s, Orientalism by Palestinian Edward Said revealed the intellectual hollowness of the predominant Western view of the Arab world (and, by implication, of much of the rest of the globe as well). Professor Said’s naked emperor proved to be the views of two centuries of Western academics and novelists, clerks and clerics, soldiers and tourists, diplomats and dilettantes that created a collective, stereotypical, paradoxical Muslim Orient — stagnant yet ever-roiling; childlike yet cunning; femininely weak yet no less macho-menacing for that; indolent but agitated; always prone to feudal despotism, though available for capitalist liberation; congenitally terrorist and genocidal by nature; presumptively inferior; endlessly devious; and, above all, relentlessly alien. Said’s Orient of Western mythology was what one author aptly called “the quintessential ‘Other.'”
“They’re our boys bought and paid for, but you always gotta remember that these people can’t be trusted,” said Archie Roosevelt, Kermit’s cousin and a CIA deputy for the Middle East in the later 1960s. His weary exasperation with the supposedly innate Arab traits of treachery and corruptibility — he was speaking of Iraqi Ba’ath Party officers on his payroll in the 1963 and 1968 Baghdad coups — caught an American official mood extending from the 1940s to 2007, from Iraq to Vietnam to Afghanistan and back to Iraq again. It was part of the territory, diplomats and spies understood, a cost of doing business beyond the English Channel with what many called, in the privacy of inter-agency meetings, the “rug merchants.”
Long embedded in American prejudice — from Holy Land travelogues to pulp novels and action movies, coin of the realm from foreign affairs professionals to Capitol Hill plebeians — no preconception, not even the anti-Soviet mania, shaped U.S. policy more than the now-subtle, now-brazen stereotypes of the Arab world. (This was, of course, intimately related to an unquestioning affinity for Israel, though even as that costly penchant frays, the Orientalism Express barrels on.)
As in academia or the media, government had its exceptions to Orientalism’s sway — analysts, spies, or diplomats of wider perception. There is, however, no evidence that they carried a single significant day in the last 60 years in a Washington gripped by Orientalist fervor.
Authentic intelligence was absent when needed most, which was most of the time, and knowledge scant in any guise. CIA veterans recall that there were rarely more than three to five officers ranked as Arabic-fluent “Arabists” on Agency desks at any time prior to 1991. Though there might have been more Arabists in the field, even fewer there focused on Arab politics as distinct from the CIA’s primary target worldwide: Soviet missions and their relations with host regimes. In the Islamic world as elsewhere, unrest was seen far less as legitimate grievance emerging from local or regional situations than yet more evidence of Kremlin machinations. Politics in the Arab world, as in the Third World generally, was not so much a matter of history-in-the-making as of dreary pawns being manipulated by great powers.
The colonial sociology of knowledge of the specialists, when placed alongside the cultural illiteracy of senior bureaucrats, policy-makers, and politicians — to say nothing of a blanketing pro-Israeli bias — produced a half-century of American patronage of repressive regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. There would be year after year of watery smiles as dickering over ephemera went on with ruling strata, while American officials remained oblivious to what later came to be called “the Arab Street.” Diplomatic and intelligence dispatches of the era would breathe a monotonous triviality, a climate without weather as storms billowed.
As 9/11 and the years to follow made plain, what was missed was momentous. Gathering largely beyond Washington’s ken were tides sweeping the Arab world in the latter twentieth century — a slow, sure popular mobilization, not to speak of a fundamentalist reaction to inequitable modernization by U.S.-purchased oligarchies. That mobilization was at once populist, authoritarian, and divisively sectarian.
From the 1950s on, in a fetish of “progress” and as a Cold War counter to the Russians, U.S. officials exhorted Arab regimes to headlong “development,” buttressing some, but pushing most beyond their means. With oil prices sagging in the late 1970s and the right-wing version of “free enterprise” and “supply-side economics” seizing the White House and Congress by the throat, the U.S. then began to wield the International Monetary Fund and other whips to force Arab governments to cut welfare programs throughout the Middle East.
This abdication of responsibility for their own people inevitably left ever-growing excluded populations to the socio-economic, as well as sectarian religious, rescue of the fundamentalists. Their resulting appeal — to Washington’s shock, though any old urban-machine pol could have predicted it — grew exponentially. It was an American policy in which, from Carter to Reagan to Clinton, every step was taken with indivisible neo-liberal/neo-conservative obliviousness.
Meanwhile, intelligence remained essentially blind to defining events. The mullahs’ 1978-79 revolution in Iran was built before the willfully unseeing eyes of a horde of CIA operatives on the long-rotting ruins of the Shah’s regime. Afghan Islamic atavists rose in the 1980s, thanks to the CIA and its colleagues in Pakistani intelligence, over the corpses of any democratic alternative, and then, once the Soviets were defeated, their country was blithely abandoned to congenital chaos. Finally, there was the self-betrayal of an Israel heedless of its own malignant colonial expansion, of the fierce, new Arab consciousness it stirred, and thus of the dwindling efficacy of its military power. These were successive tragedies, enabled by lobby-lashed, ever-Orientialist American patronage.
This was the world Bob Gates would soon face — and proceed to help make — as the CIA recruited him at Indiana in 1965.
“On a Lark”
In the spring of 1966 — “on a lark,” as he put it, “for a free trip to Washington” — Gates drove his new Mustang from Bloomington to CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, where he was offered an analyst’s job. It would be two more years before he began work. With his Wichita draft deferments used up, and the CIA offering none, he preempted the possibility of being swept up in expanding Vietnam call-ups by joining an Air Force officer-candidate program.
That summer, before reporting for duty, he chaperoned a Bloomington hayride with a young graduate from Washington State, attending Indiana for a Master’s Degree in “student personnel administration.” Three months later, on the way to officer training in San Antonio, he proposed. “I don’t think she was too excited to accept, but she did,” he said of quiet, steady Becky Wilkes. While raising two children, she would parallel her husband’s CIA career by spending a quarter-century as an administrator at the Alexandria branch of Northern Virginia Community College. They were, to all appearances, the perfect, modern working couple, educator and public servant — an American ideal of the sort Gates’ “All-American” hometown of Wichita was supposed to produce.
Part of his posting in his uneventful Air Force tour involved briefing nuclear missile crews on intelligence data at the Oscar-1 ICBM site at Whiteman Air Force Base in the Missouri countryside, 65 miles southeast of Kansas City. There, he first met a military strain of Cold War mania that, in years to come, would always make his own, more tactfully couched hard-line views seem mild.
“This was still Curtis LeMay’s Strategic Air Command,” Gates wrote in his memoir, referring to the famed Air Force general who had burned Japan’s cities to the ground in World War II and, by the early 1950s, was ready to do the same to the whole communist world in a nuclear first strike. (Two of his war plans were even code-named BROILER and SIZZLER.) A typical Oscar-1 commander thought it a “goddamn outrage” that warheads were targeted on Soviet missile silos instead of cities. “I want to kill some fucking Russians,” the commander told Gates, “not dig up dirt.”
Gates entered the CIA’s intelligence directorate as a Soviet affairs analyst on August 19, 1968, the day before the Russians ordered Warsaw Pact forces to roll into Czechoslovakia, crushing the “Prague Spring” along with Alexander Dubèek’s communist reform regime. That invasion marked a climactic moment in the CIA’s eventful recent history. The Agency’s Bay of Pigs debacle in the fall of Gates’ freshman year at William and Mary — the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba using armed Cuban exiles with limited, soon-routed CIA air cover — had been the Agency’s first visible setback, though that hardly caused its policy masters and covert-action operators to fall into some chastened lull.
Even as the quixotic Cuban exile invasion force was marched to prison, plots to kill Cuban leader Fidel Castro continued apace (under the vengeful eye of Attorney General Bobby Kennedy), using some of the Agency’s most thuggish hires. Meanwhile, covert action was incessant elsewhere. Stations in Cairo, Beirut, and Amman spent years plotting the February 1963 Ba’athist coup in Iraq that led to the murder of reformist Premier Abdul Karim Kassem, who was deemed too sympathetic to the left. (“The target suffered a terminal illness,” a CIA officer quipped to a Senate committee, “before a firing squad in Baghdad.”) That bloody succession led to the murder of thousands of Iraq’s educated elite, communist and non-communist alike, from lists the CIA gave Ba’ath Party death squads. When that coup faltered, the Agency staged a further one in 1968, almost a month to the day before Gates began his job, installing a Ba’athist dictator — along with his kinsman and protégé, security chief Saddam Hussein.
There were similar Agency “successes” in Brazil where a democratic government, again labeled “leftist” and presumed crypto-communist, was overthrown and a torture-ready right-wing military junta installed at mid-decade. At the same time in Indonesia, with Agency collusion, the military massacred democratic leftists, as well as known communists, by the hundreds of thousands to fix the iron tyranny of the Suharto regime. The 1967 Colonels’ Coup in Greece was but another extinction of a boisterous democracy by Langley’s clients. The Agency’s Cold War victories came steadily. “A gain for our side,” was the way a National Security Council aide put it to President John Kennedy when Iraqi Premier Kassem suffered his “terminal illness.”
By the latter 1960s, like the Pentagon, the Agency was also feeding handsomely off the Vietnam War, conducting assassinations by the thousands in the soon-to-be-notorious Phoenix Program, setting up provincial torture centers through South Vietnam — including the infamous “tiger cages,” savage precursors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo — and, not least, creating drug-running mercenary armies, supplied by the Agency’s own Air America airline, operating out of its busy regional hub in warlord-ruled Laos. The CIA also colluded with the Cambodian generals who would overthrow neutralist King Sihanouk in 1970, mindless patronage that led ineluctably to Cambodia’s major embroilment in the Vietnam War, the rise and triumph of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and the post-war genocide of “the killing fields.” All of this traced to decisions made through the customary mix of prodding advisors, Cold War institutional momentum, and presidential sanction, as well as at least implicit, sometimes explicit, approval by Congressional barons. Altogether, this summed up the bipartisan complicity that was — and remains — America’s interventionist foreign policy and the Washington consensus.
As usual, the scurrying operators almost invariably outran any intelligence analysis offered. Most of the time, in most places in the world, such “intelligence,” despite the Agency’s name, was a purely secondary matter. True, Agency analysts, reporting on Southeast Asia, did resist the perverse light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel optimism infecting the officer corps, earning the undying enmity of Pentagon intelligence and of defeat-sullen military and civilian hawks. But, like other Americans in policy-making or influential positions, CIA analysts proved largely blind to the indomitable nationalism that lay at the heart of the war. Save for one glimpse of the looming disaster that never made it to the necessary senior levels, they failed to warn of the nationwide Tet Offensive in April 1968 and then put the kind of devoted effort that hadn’t gone into intelligence-gathering into covering up their own negligence and incompetence. All in all, CIA intelligence on Vietnam was so shallow that, by 1969-1970, President Richard Nixon’s White House policy-makers had essentially stopped paying attention.
CIA estimates elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, were no less suspect in the White House and the Pentagon — except for reports passed on from CIA client regimes or kindred spy agencies. This was especially true of Israel’s Mossad, widely (and mistakenly) believed in Washington to be omniscient, if not omnipotent, and invariably imagined to be synonymous with American interests.
The continuing priority given to analysts of the USSR proved no advantage when it came to intelligence. By the late 1960s, the Agency was already alternately missing or overestimating a genuine Soviet build-up of its missile forces, a step taken by the Russian leadership to redress the massive strategic imbalance (and humiliation) that had culminated in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. (“We will honor this agreement,” a Russian envoy told his American counterpart in 1962. He was speaking of the deal President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had forged, as Moscow backed down on placing its missiles in Cuba to match U.S. bombers and warheads poised along the borders of the USSR, 30 minutes from Soviet cities and command centers. “But I want to tell you something. You’ll never do this to us again.”) Far worse, CIA analysts regularly underestimated by as much as half the mortal burden such staggering military spending placed on a corrupt, sclerotic Soviet economy.
Given the millions of dollars pouring into intelligence, some of the gaps were chilling. As the new, young analyst from Wichita reported to Washington in that leaden summer of 1968, NSC staff officers watched in dismay while the Agency simply “lost” whole Soviet tank divisions and other forces for several crucial days. These were finally located in Prague only as the Soviet ambassador was helpfully informing President Lyndon Johnson of the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
The CIA Bob Gates joined was still largely what it had been over its first two decades — a blunt instrument of covert intervention, now mostly in non-European politics — and a stagnant fund of intelligence. The Baltic Syndrome had morphed into a global variation of the same half-blind and bigoted perspective. The Agency was trapped in the remarkably narrow confines that defined imperial, yet intellectually provincial, Washington. During Gates’ opportunistic rise and sway over the next quarter century, it would remain, at horrendous cost, much the same.
Office Politics Triumphant
From 1968 to 1974, Gates rose steadily through the ranks of Langley clerkdom, serving on the CIA support group for the Strategic Arms Limitation negotiations in Vienna, and eventually as an assistant national intelligence officer for the USSR. He helped to craft the periodic National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) for the Soviet Union, a report that was, and remains, an Agency hallmark for any given area or issue.
His work in these years also focused to some extent on Moscow’s policy in the Middle East. He had no training or experience in the region itself, but given the Agency’s relatively sparse expertise in the Arab world, he soon professed specialization and authority in that as well. “Gates prided himself in being a top Middle East expert within CIA,” according to a former boss, Ray McGovern — though it was not a claim any of his colleagues in either Soviet or Middle Eastern affairs seem to have taken seriously at the time.
Those years represented a brief interval when the CIA’s analysts had rare near-parity with their covert-action brethren. Beyond meeting the usual suborning payrolls — from parliaments to palaces, cabinets to high commands worldwide — covert operations were relatively quiescent except in Vietnam, where assassinations and torture operations continued apace during the slow-motion U.S. withdrawal, as well as in Iran and Chile.
In 1969, at the behest of the Shah of Iran, and in collusion with Israel’s Mossad, the Agency secretly backed a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq. It was meant to bleed Iraq’s Ba’athist regime and deflect its attention from a border dispute with Iran, already then Washington’s favored regional proxy. It was a thoroughly sordid episode, made only more so when Washington and Tel Aviv blithely walked away from the Kurds. This betrayal and the resultant massacre of the Kurdish rebels came promptly when the Shah decided to strike a deal in 1975 with the Iraqis, signed by the already powerful Ba’athist Vice President Saddam Hussein. (“Covert action should not be confused with missionary work,” then-Secretary of State Kissinger instructed a Senate committee questioning the Kurdish sell-out.)
Then, of course, there were the Agency’s murderous Chilean intrigues that eventually triggered the 1973 coup, blotting out the elected presidency and left-center coalition of Salvador Allende — with the concentration camps and torture chambers of General Augusto Pinochet’s reactionary junta to follow. Again, a Kissinger quip would be emblematic, in this case his Latin variant on Orientalism. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people,” he admonished his colleagues on the Forty Committee, the secret group approving the covert action.
For the most part, however, the early 1970s were the zenith years of Nixon-Kissinger great-power diplomacy — the China opening, a Moscow Summit and Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), the grim Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and Kissinger’s Nobel-Prize-winning but doomed 1973 Vietnam settlement, as well as his celebrated Middle East shuttle diplomacy after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. These were the feats of a haunted president who distrusted the CIA still more than the rest of a despised bureaucracy, even as he unleashed it ruthlessly on Chile, and of a gifted, tireless, megalomaniacal National Security Advisor and Secretary of State alternately co-opting and excluding the Agency in his incessant war to maintain his own monopoly of power over the bureaucracy. By 1974, of course, Nixon was mortally stricken by Watergate, and Kissinger’s dominance was hemorrhaging away.
Looking back on this crucial take-off moment in Gates’ career, media pundits vacantly ascribed it to merit. “The brightest Soviet analyst in the shop,” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius typically wrote. Insiders knew better. “He wasn’t.” That was what his CIA superior Ray McGovern said gently, echoing the feelings of his colleagues that “something other than expertise” made for Gates’ “meteoric” climb.
It was, in fact, a triumph of office politics, not substance. “Gates’ rise did not come from knowing more about the Soviets…. than anyone else,” CIA chronicler Thomas Powers concluded. “He was young, well scrubbed, well spoken, bright, hard-working, reliable, loyal, discreet, and a bit of a hard-ass when it came to the Russians.” But his limits, too, were evident. Wrote British historian Fred Halliday: “He would not have been out of place as a small town bank manager: unfazed by questions, reticent in judgment, sure of his ground, but without either incisiveness or (it seemed) the awareness that international experience brings.” He had, Halliday concluded, “no trace [of]. any first-hand experience of foreign cultures or countries.” He was “a man of the office, the organization.” It was the candid portrait of a consummate insider as insular as the policy and politics he served.
Gates, the Soviet “specialist” and, in many ways, penultimate Cold Warrior, would not even see Moscow until May 1989, more than two decades after entering the CIA as an expert on the USSR and after 15 years in which, to one degree or another, he joined in nearly all Washington’s most consequential judgments about Russia. Nor, despite his asserted expertise in the Middle East, would Gates have personal experience with nations he dealt with fatefully from 1974 to 1993 — most notably Afghanistan and Iraq. He would not tour either until 2006-7, and then only for a few, heavily guarded days and in the most limited of ways.
As with his Baltic predecessors, however, his specialties “from afar” ushered him into history. Early in 1974, not yet thirty-one and scarcely six years in the ranks, he was chosen from among a number of CIA analysts, some with greater seniority, for a key assignment to the National Security Council staff. It would be the beginning of nearly nine years spent at the White House in pivotal roles under three presidents and the administrations of both parties.
Despite Kissinger’s preeminence as National Security Advisor, the NSC staff in 1974 had not yet grown engorged or been transformed into the shadow foreign ministry it would soon become. It was still made up mostly of non-political “professionals,” not partisans but career officers “detailed” to it, usually for two-year periods, from the State Department, the CIA or, less often, the Pentagon. As a system, the detailing process worked somewhat like traditional White House political patronage, albeit it was the politics of the bureaucracy that was at stake in what was considered a plum career assignment. In those days, you were still detailed to the NSC with, at worst, only a perfunctory ideological screening by the National Security Advisor and his personal staff.
Gates filled a staff slot that had traditionally been left for the CIA: analyst, as well as policy and intelligence liaison, for Russia. The job had singular reach. In a global Cold War made ever more intricate by the Sino-Soviet split, the rise of Communist China, and the triangular diplomacy that developed out of that, the NSC Soviet affairs officer took part in any issue involving Soviet interests. That included not just strategic arms considerations, but developing situations in regions like the Middle East and South Asia where Moscow was heavily engaged.
The post had belonged to William Hyland, a wry, scholarly, self-effacing, relatively undogmatic CIA veteran analyst, then in his mid-forties, who had readily deferred to Kissinger’s realpolitik eagerness to negotiate with Moscow. Hyland’s generally pragmatic perspective on the Kremlin informed the statesmanship behind the SALT agreement and more. His reward was to be named State Department Director of Intelligence and Research when Kissinger became Secretary of State in 1973.
“At the switch,” Hyland lightly called his NSC role. Now, Gates was to be at that “switch” for the next five-and-a-half years — through Kissinger’s dual tenure as both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Gerald Ford from mid-1974 until late 1975; then under ex-Kissinger deputy and NSC successor Air Force General Brent Scowcroft during Ford’s last year in office. Gates even remained through Jimmy Carter’s Democratic presidency, under his NSC Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. For part of that interval, he was Brzezinski’s personal assistant — with even greater scope and authority. The results of that extended tenure under Ford and Carter, across a fateful period from the mid- to late-1970s, would prove quite different from those of the Hyland years.
Shaping talking points, speeches, intelligence, and policy memos for three national security advisors and two presidents, deeply involved in the NSC staff’s privileged interplay with the bureaucracy and Congress, with significant control over who had access to what information at the pinnacle of government, Gates, like few career officials — certainly no bureaucrat of his provenance in recent memory — would have sustained influence over a consequential period of foreign policy.
He began at the Old Executive Office Building that Watergate July of 1974. Within weeks Nixon had resigned the presidency and Ford had succeeded him, bringing Donald Rumsfeld along as White House Chief of Staff and former aide Dick Cheney as Rumsfeld’s deputy outside the Oval Office. Gates’ career would be interlaced with theirs for decades — until he replaced and repudiated one, while entering into apparent battle with the other over George W. Bush’s bitter-end policies. For most of their history, however, they were allies.
The Ford presidency that launched all three was a hardly noticed turning point in American politics, the crucible upon which a slow-motion reactionary coup would be mounted that would reshape the nation’s — and the world’s — future. In those years, Rumsfeld and Cheney became public figures, while Gates, from his potent inner perch at the NSC, remained a shadowy but ever more powerful presence.
By the summer of 1974, Watergate-obsessed Washington was in the midst of a furtive revolt over foreign policy, one that had already echoed deep inside government in the special Soviet National Intelligence Estimate that Gates had stage-managed in 1973. Though there was no supporting evidence at the time to confirm his thesis (nor any subsequently when the Kremlin archives were opened after the fall of the USSR), he maneuvered through the otherwise self-protective, ambivalent committee that vetted the Estimates — NSC staff members called NIEs “National Intelligence Equivocations” — his own formulation of what he termed “a much more aggressive Soviet Union.”
Distributed across senior levels of the bureaucracy, passed on (via expected leak) to key foreign affairs figures on Capitol Hill, the document was welcome fodder for hard-liners — feeding, as it did, predictable anxieties well-lodged in government and politics. “It would sure as hell scare you,” the redoubtable Republican conservative Barry Goldwater told a Democratic Senate colleague who had not seen the NIE, “It sure scares the hell out of me.”
In fact, at that 1973 high tide of Nixon-Kissinger détente with the Soviets, Moscow was very much on the defensive, particularly in the region that Gates by then claimed to know intimately, the Middle East. Beyond the grand Cold War settlements, the milestones of the moment were two little noted events in the spring and summer of 1972: a pointed Nixon stopover in Tehran after a Moscow Summit that May and, in July, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s break with the Soviets, who had been Cairo’s longtime patron. In the midst of Washington’s ongoing Vietnam retrenchment, both events marked a new American focus on the oil-rich Middle East, and both would amount, at least in the short run, to setbacks for the Kremlin.
Nixon’s visit to Iran signaled the arrival of a veritable blank-check era when it came to patronage for his old friend the Shah (who had shrewdly treated Nixon well during his 1960s political eclipse and contributed handsomely, through SAVAK, to his 1968 presidential campaign). Iran was now to be Washington’s imposing proxy in the Persian Gulf, armed by unprecedented Pentagon weapons sales, shepherded through by some 500 ranking American officers. Grandiose trade deals would follow, along with offers to Tehran of nuclear reactors, and even more aggressive CIA collusion with SAVAK in its far-flung regional interventions as well as its domestic repression, torture, and assassinations. Meanwhile, a swarm of more than 50,000 American officials, contractors, and on-the-make expatriates would descend on the country, constructing Mafia-model casinos on the Caspian Sea and, elsewhere, the usual faux-American suburban compounds, walled islands outside Iranian cities like Isfahan. None of it could the momentarily oil profits-flush Shah long afford, politically or economically.
The orgy went typically ignored by the American media — never so much as a simple headline in those years — and by a Washington oblivious to the popular revulsion the patronage provoked or the slowly gathering forces that would, before the decade ended, fell the Shah of Shahs. (“Shahdulation” was how the cloying, pre-1979 CIA, State Department, and Pentagon reporting came to be known.) Yet it would be this venal, heavy embrace in all its forms — “a tribe that worships gold,” an Iranian poet called the Americans — that gave the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolt in 1978-1979 much of its anti-Washington, anti-colonial fervor.
Within weeks, of Nixon’s lethal 1972 bounty for Iran, Sadat suddenly expelled the throng of Soviet advisors from Egypt and cut old ties with Moscow, soon allying his country instead with a welcoming Washington. With his usual aplomb, Kissinger had helped plot the defection and the White House smugly raked in its Cold War chip — albeit the autocratic Egyptian regime would become but another U.S.-backed satrapy breeding an anti-Western fundamentalism in the Muslim Brotherhood, and destined decades down the line to lend credence and recruits to al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups.
In 1972-73, the Russians watched all this in distress but also in relative impotence and passivity — a reaction Gates clearly observed at the CIA but carefully did not register in his Estimate.
Not that these 1972 events had no eventual impact in Moscow. So vast was the American investment in Iran that, with the Shah’s fall in January 1979, Soviet policy-makers almost uniformly assumed Washington would avenge the loss of Tehran. Moscow worried about a full-scale U.S. invasion of Iran, or at least the destabilizing effects of a dramatic raid to free the American embassy hostages seized by enraged Iranian students in October 1979 (after the hated Shah and his entourage were given refuge in the U.S.). The Russian suspicions were sound. Despite President Carter’s express assurances to the Kremlin to the contrary, the Pentagon did begin planning an invasion almost immediately following the embassy takeover and, not long after — when ambitions narrowed with some appreciation of the bloodbath an invasion would mean — turned to the ill-fated hostage rescue of April 1980. That, of course, ended in a debacle of colliding helicopters at a remote Iranian desert staging area, with nary a hostage in sight.
Throughout 1979, however, the Russians were even more afraid that the U.S. was plotting with what the Russians had found to be a maddeningly independent (typically Afghan) Soviet client regime in Kabul to “do a Sadat on us,” as more than one Kremlin policy-maker put it. A multibillion-ruble investment in aid — in what Soviet leaders since the 1950s saw as a strategic borderland — Afghanistan had become all the more vital and symbolically important following the loss of Egypt. Dread of another debacle like Cairo was thus decisive in the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, meant to install a reliable puppet who would never pull “a Sadat.”
Counterrevolution on the Potomac
In 1973, however, Gates’ NIE, like so much of his “intelligence” work to come, reflected more what was happening in Washington than in the world at large. That Estimate, in fact, caught something of the tangled ancestry of twenty-first century neocon Washington whose havoc he would confront as secretary of defense.
From 1969 on, Nixon and Kissinger had faced a seething, increasingly bitter rebellion against the kind of equilibrium they sought with Moscow not just in the strategic-arms race, but in political relations in general. Their policy was encapsulated in the traditional diplomatic term “détente.” Incessant battles took place with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), whose cherished weapons systems and ideological phobia made them, like the Soviet military, the natural enemies of the process.
The ongoing struggle was aptly symbolized by the sordid 1970-71 “Admirals’ spy ring.” The JCS Chairman actually had a Navy yeoman casing Kissinger’s office, and even rifling his waste bags, in an effort to find out what the close-to-the-vest National Security Advisor (and his equally scheming President) might be up to. America’s military leadership, in other words, was spying on the White House as if it were the Politburo. (In Washington’s inner politics, of course, the real enemies are always on the Potomac.)
In a regime of hoarded secrets and power, where Kissinger gladly agreed to the wire-tapping of his own aides, and where almost no one trusted any one else — one witness simply called it “a sewer” — it was, in a sense, more of the same. Nonetheless, history has yet to come fully to grips with what that military spying signified. One Nixon aide, recalling for Kissinger biographer Walter Isaacson his horror on stumbling upon the JCS treachery, “felt as if he were in the movie Seven Days in May,” (about an attempted military coup d’état in Washington). Investigative reporters Bob Gettlin and Len Colodny similarly linked the episode to what they called, in the title of their impressively documented 1991 book, a “silent coup.” Humpty-Dumpty Nixon, they believed, had not just tumbled off that wall, thanks to his Watergate weight, but was also given a helpful push by those who wanted to kill détente.
Baltic Syndromes old and new, institutional and military-industrial interests, Congressional politics, not to speak of raging ambitions — all were part of the emerging struggle within Washington and its various domains over Soviet policy. Men like Democratic Senator Henry Jackson of Washington state (“the senator from Boeing”) and his aide Richard Perle, both midwives to the future neoconservative movement, knew that ardent anti-Soviet opposition to any arms-control agreement — like ardent backing for Israel — brought politically potent and personally lucrative support.
By the early 1970s, as the JCS spying so ominously revealed, Nixon and Kissinger were confronted with anything but ordinary, venal resistance within the bureaucracy. To their unprecedented policy of détente (and its implicit, if unconscious, challenge to the Baltic Syndrome mentality), there arose an unprecedented opposition not only in the Pentagon but also in the CIA, where some felt Cold War orthodoxy and all it denoted were being threatened as never before.
As Kissinger recounted the experience, he could hardly testify before Jackson’s Senate Armed Services Committee or other panels without facing conveniently leaked CIA or Pentagon documents that, in one way or another, armed the opponents of détente. These were often highly classified, still closely-held papers Kissinger himself had only just received — or had not yet seen at all. As Nixon sank into the Watergate miasma, leaks (and opposition) only multiplied — much of it using materials Bob Gates had ready access to, or had even helped produce, as assistant national intelligence officer.
It all served foes of the SALT II agreement, aimed at long-run nuclear “parity” between the two superpowers — what Nixon repeatedly called “a generation of peace” — which meant likely weapons budget cuts for the Pentagon as well as the Soviet military.
As Watergate neared its climax, the inner revolt rumbled more audibly. On the eve of the June 1974 Moscow Summit, Nixon’s forlorn final bow, Truman-era cold warrior Paul Nitze abruptly resigned from the SALT delegation. Having backed Nixon and readily taken his job offers, Nitze now blasted the tottering president for “dangerous trends” and rejoined the hard-liners. (In 1969, Nitze had worked with Perle and another young zealot, Paul Wolfowitz, to lobby for the Anti-Ballistic Missile, a turkey of a weapons system, junked as unworkable only to revive in recalibrated form on post-1980 R&D budget appropriations and then rise from the coffin as a full-fledged anti-missile system under George W. Bush.)
By the fall of 1974, with Nixon gone, rebellion burst into the open. Amid a cacophony of leaks, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency publicly deplored SALT II — a glaring breach with the new Ford administration, all the more remarkable because the already beleaguered new president was still pledging to pursue the treaty at a Vladivostok summit that November. Meanwhile, as never before, corporate money poured into what had, until then, been a group of marginal right-wing think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and into the campaign coffers of right-wing Republican candidates, chiefly the outgoing California governor, Ronald Reagan, whose handlers in the race to unseat Ford in 1976 urged him, above all, to attack détente as “weakening” national security.
As usual, given Washington’s ceaseless traffic in leaks, there is no hard evidence about whether Gates actually leaked into this furor, though his animus in regards to Nixon’s Soviet policy was unmistakable and the provenance of many of the leaked documents is damning. Clearly, however, in his first year on the NSC staff he waged a careful rear-guard action against what was to become known as the Helsinki Accords. Kissinger’s diplomacy nonetheless brought the Accords to fruition in July 1975. They offered official recognition of post-World War II Soviet Bloc boundaries in Europe, but within a new international context of respect for, and unprecedented monitoring of, human rights and political dissidence in the USSR and its satellites. It would be the last hurrah of détente. While Reagan and the Right attacked the “surrender” of Eastern Europe, the Accords actually opened the way for the rise of internal opposition movements like Poland’s Solidarity, leading ultimately to the decay and fall of the USSR.
Gates typically opposed Helsinki as something Moscow sought (which made it anathema automatically). As would be even more true a decade later with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he and others frozen in the Baltic Syndrome (as always, most of Washington) were oblivious to the brittleness of communist rule, cynically dismissing the Accords as “window dressing” the Kremlin and its satellites could and would ignore.
By the mid-1990s, he had accepted, though flippantly, his misreading of the evolution of a system he had supposedly pondered most of his adult life. In his memoirs, he wrote: “The Soviets desperately wanted [Helsinki], they got it and it laid the foundations for the end of their empire. We resisted it for years, went [to the Helsinki conference] grudgingly, Ford paid a terrible political price for going — perhaps reelection itself — only to discover years later that [it] yielded benefits beyond our imagination. Go figure.” In another official’s memoir, the passage might have been less embarrassing; but, for Bob Gates, to “figure” had been the point of most of his career; no epitaph could be harsher than that throwaway line.
He remained intent on the old evil. In Ford’s retinue for a presidential visit to Bucharest in 1975, he blamed the Romanian regime’s intelligence service for stealing his passport, and, in a rare lapse, flipped off the airport crowd as he left. “In a regrettable but immensely satisfying display of pique and immaturity, I bade farewell to Romania’s security police with amplified middle finger from the doorway of Air Force Two.”
Kissinger soon got the same unmistakable salute from Gates’ allies in Washington. Ford’s historic 1975 “Halloween Massacre” made Donald Rumsfeld Secretary of Defense and Dick Cheney White House Chief of Staff. George H.W. Bush replaced career man William Colby as CIA director, while the president personally stripped Kissinger of his role as National Security Advisor. Within weeks, Rumsfeld would intervene with the president to stop a Kissinger trip to Moscow — an unthinkable veto in any of the previous seven years. When arms talks resumed in 1976, to the din of Reagan attacks in a tightening race for the GOP presidential nomination, SALT II was already dead and would remain so for the duration of the Ford presidency.
1976 would offer the funeral procession that signaled the arrival of a new right-wing order and, with it, Gates’ further rise. That March, as part of Ford’s defensive response to the Reagan assault, the president brought onto the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (FIAB), a traditionally toothless CIA oversight body, the man who would be the most important patron in Gates’ career, a slightly seedy and indefatigably reactionary, Russophobic Long Island lawyer named William Casey.
It was an extraordinarily vulnerable political moment for the CIA, reeling from more than a dozen reports by Watergate-inspired Congressional committees. They had compiled a staggering (if very partial) list of the Agency’s lawless abuses: multiple covert interventions, betrayals of clients, assassinations (involving bizarre, often schoolboy-level toxin and dart technologies), and domestic spying as well as mail opening. The revelations prompted the creation of Select Committees in both the House and Senate to oversee covert action, and extracted a Ford presidential order (subsequently renewed by President Reagan) prohibiting CIA assassinations — “reforms” that would turn out to be far less than expected in both cases.
For William Casey and other members of what was already probably the most hard-line FIAB in history, the agenda was hardly to rein in the Agency’s mandate for covert action, which they thought too limited, but rather to escalate the attack on arms control and détente. Supported by Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs, Casey led the Board in pressuring Ford to promulgate a “Team B,” a group of outside “critics” who would critique and counter the CIA’s assessment of Soviet strength and intentions.
Given Kissinger’s still considerable personal prestige, the weakened CIA was obviously an easier entry point for Casey and his cohorts in the assault on détente. But there was grim irony in the charge underlying the formation of Team B — that the Agency had somehow been “soft” on the Russians or prone to underestimate Soviet strength. Though Gates’ 1973 NIE pushed conclusions well beyond the evidence, even the usual CIA assessments, including its analysis of Soviet strategic forces for the SALT talks (in which Gates participated), had not differed significantly from the Pentagon’s hawkish ones.
If anything, as it joined the wider bureaucratic revolt against SALT II, the Agency regularly overestimated overall Soviet strength and misread the burden of the arms race on the Soviet economy. Even leaked to Capitol Hill, however, the CIA’s cautions and qualifications did not lend themselves quite as readily to demagogic appeal as the counterrevolution now sought.
“Let her fly!! — OK, G.B.” was the flourish with which the new Director, George H.W. Bush, signed off on Team B, though later, when the episode became notorious, he would admit to an aide, “It wasn’t my doing.” Team B’s right-wingers, including Paul Wolfowitz, were chaired, aptly enough, by Harvard’s Richard Pipes. He had been handpicked by Richard Perle via Senator Jackson and came, like most of the others, with “little command of scientific [strategic weapons] matters,” as Gary Wills put it. The group would form what even hard-line CIA analyst Ray Cline called “a kangaroo court of outside critics all picked from one point of view.”
Predictably, their “findings” were a simplistic fantasy: The Soviet Union was intent on starting World War III and an American nuclear “window of vulnerability” made such a Russian attack plausible. This scenario required, of course, an inconceivably perfect Soviet first strike as well as actions and reactions precise beyond any war-planner’s wildest dreams.
Once the Reagan regime — filling posts with Team B members — took office in 1981, the “window of vulnerability” would mercifully disappear, just as had the budget-plumping 1940s “bomber gap” and the 1950s “missile gap” (both authored, in part, by Paul Nitze). In 1976, however, Team B opened the window wide. News of it, duly leaked by Rumsfeld and others, was imbibed by the press, pundits, and Congress with the usual shallowness, inciting a public mood that Wills termed “hysteria about the enemy as a patriotic duty.” (Much the same mood would reappear with the neoconservatives post-9/11, making Washington safe for Pentagon appropriations for generations to come.)
It was all part of an orchestrated rightward turn that Gates now took up and discreetly steered from his slot at the NSC. Some of his former colleagues thought the Team B episode a rebuke of him. “It was Gates v. Gates,” one of them said, noting that some of what Team B was countering as “inaccurate” CIA analysis had, in fact, been Gates’ own work over the previous five years.
By several accounts, though, there had been an underlying consistency to his hard-line perspective on the Soviets, even if, in the CIA years, his views had sometimes been muted or passed over when he was not yet powerful enough to impose his bias. He would never, in any case, dispute the fabrications of Team B and, at the time, he relished them. “A starker appreciation,” he called a 1976 Team-B-influenced National Intelligence Estimate on the Soviets, which reflected the tougher tone.
Meanwhile, as so often since 1917, Soviet reality and Washington’s views of it went their separate ways. While building frantically to equal and even surpass the Americans — at a real cost to its economy that was, and would continue to be, twice what the CIA estimated — the Soviet strategic system remained plagued by chronic waste, technical gaps, a lethal lag in computerization, and, not least, sheer incompetence, bureaucratic torpor, insidious politics, and pervasive corruption.
All of this, the CIA and other departments of government would have been quick to point out, if the topic had not been Soviet weaponry. After all, the inefficiencies and failures of the Soviet system were legendary (and our military-industrial complex a virtual parody of it). But as so often in American politics and foreign policy, reality was not the issue.
With Gerald Ford’s defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976 and the arrival of Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security advisor, Gates, in part because of his reputation as a “hard-ass” on Soviet issues, would be given the extraordinary opportunity to hold over to the new staff, where he would find his views even more influential.
Just ahead lay the beginning of a trillion-dollar weapons-spending orgy. Opening the way for it would be the death of arms control and the extinction of détente. The superpower rivalry would now play out in ever more exotic settings — from the mosques of Herat and Tehran to the Presidential Palace in Kabul and dusty training camps beyond the Khyber Pass. There would be a new blooding, too, in the Middle East, including CIA car bombs in Beirut, and bountiful “black” business deals on the international arms market. And Bob Gates would be a specialist in it all.
Roger Morris is an award-winning author and investigative journalist who served in the Foreign Service and on the Senior Staff of the National Security Council under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Before resigning over the invasion of Cambodia, he was one of only three officials comprising Henry Kissinger’s Special Projects Staff conducting the initial highly secret “back-channel” negotiations with Hanoi to end the Vietnam War in 1969-1970. He is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, 1913-1952, and the best-selling Partners in Power: The Clintons and Their America as well as, most recently, The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America (co-authored with historian Sally Denton). His Shadows of the Eagle, a history of U.S. covert intervention in the Middle East and South Asia since the 1940s, will be published by Knopf early in 2008. His studies and commentary on American politics and foreign policy appear regularly on the website of the Green Institute where he is Senior Fellow.
[Note: The final part of “The Specialist,” — “The Rise and Rise of Robert Gates” — will appear at Tomdispatch on Sunday night or Monday morning.]
Copyright 2007 Roger Morris