Barack Obama’s Pentagon transition team is sitting down with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a move that some Beltway observers believe signals that the President-elect does plan to keep Gates on despite protests from Iraq War opponents.
Another sign that Obama may be close to retaining Gates has been the lack of chatter from transition officials about alternative candidates – beyond cursory references to names like former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel and Democratic Sen. Jack Reed.
It was Danzig, chief of the Navy under President Bill Clinton and a senior Obama adviser, who prominently praised Gates during the campaign. He said Gates “is a very good Secretary of Defense and would be an even better one in an Obama administration.”
In citing reasons for keeping Gates, Danzig noted that Gates’s desire to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan was in line with Obama’s campaign statements, but Danzig brushed past Gates’s opposition to Obama’s call for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
Ivo Daalder, a Brookings Institution fellow and another foreign policy adviser to Obama, echoed Danzig’s pro-Gates comments, calling Gates “one of the best Defense secretaries we have had in a long time and it makes a lot of sense to keep him.”
Besides Danzig and Daalder, another Gates promoter inside Obama’s camp is former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who worked with Gates on the Iraq Study Group before Gates stepped down to become George W. Bush’s new Defense Secretary in late 2006, replacing the controversial Donald Rumsfeld.
Because of Rumsfeld’s unpopularity with Congress, Gates – a career CIA bureaucrat and former CIA director – got an easy ride through his confirmation hearing on Dec. 5, 2006. At the time, there also was a widespread belief that Gates was a “realist” who would persuade Bush to wind down the Iraq War.
Instead, Gates emerged as Bush’s personable front man for increasing U.S. troop levels in Iraq, the so-called “surge” of some 30,000 more soldiers. Gates then benefited from the conventional wisdom in Washington that the “surge” quelled the violence in Iraq.
Many military experts dispute the claim of the “successful surge,” citing other more important factors in reducing violence, such as the pre-surge decision by Sunni tribal leaders to stop their insurgency and the unilateral cease-fire by Shiite radical Moqtada al-Sadr.
In his new book, The War Within, Bob Woodward talked to military sources who also credited new classified programs for identifying and killing Iraqi insurgent leaders. Nevertheless, as Woodward writes, “In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked.”
Gates now stands as possibly the greatest beneficiary of that conventional wisdom, if Obama decides to reappoint him as Defense Secretary.
Dismayed Obama Backers
Beyond keeping Gates, Obama appears headed toward staffing much of his foreign policy team with people tied to the Clinton administration, including many who were strong supporters of the Iraq War, most notably Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.
That trend has raised concerns among Obama supporters who had hoped Obama meant what he said when he declared during the campaign that “I don’t want to just end the [Iraq] war, but I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place.”
“Obama ran his campaign around the idea the war was not legitimate, but it sends a very different message when you bring in people who supported the war from the beginning,” said Kelly Dougherty, executive director of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
But the prospect of keeping Gates has raised the strongest doubts about Obama’s commitment to real change. Even some of Gates’s former CIA colleagues have spoken up against the opportunism that has defined Gates’s career.
When Gates was appointed CIA director by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, there was an unprecedented revolt by former CIA colleagues who described Gates’s role in the 1980s as the Reagan administration’s henchman for destroying the CIA’s analytical division’s commitment to objectivity, the so-called “politicization” of intelligence reporting.
In Oct. 1, 1991, testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Harold P. Ford, former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, described an aspect of Gates’s personality that mirrors many of the top officials in the Bush administration today.
“Bob Gates has often depended too much on his own individual analytic judgments and has ignored or scorned the views of others whose assessments did not accord with his own. This would be okay if he were uniquely all-seeing. He has not been,” Ford said.
At the hearing, other CIA analysts said Gates forced them to twist intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by the Soviet Union, thus justifying the Reagan administration’s policy decisions.
Jennifer Glaudemans, a former CIA analyst, said she and her colleagues at the CIA believed “Mr. Gates and his influence have led to a prostitution of [Soviet] analysis.”
The Iran-Contra Mess
Analysts also alleged that a report approved by Gates overstated Soviet influence in Iran, paving the way for President Ronald Reagan’s actions in the Iran-Contra scandal.
During the hearings, senators learned about a Dec. 2, 1986, 10-page classified memo written by Thomas Barksdale, the CIA analyst for Iran. The memo claimed that covert arms sales to the country demonstrated “a perversion of the intelligence process” that is staggering in its proportions.
Barksdale said he and other Iran analysts “were never consulted or asked to provide an intelligence input to the covert actions and secret contacts that have occurred.”
Barksdale added that Gates was the pipeline for providing “exclusive reports to the White House,” intelligence that was “at odds with the overwhelming bulk of intelligence reporting, both from U.S. sources and foreign intelligence services.”
At the 1991 hearings, Melvin Goodman, who had been one of the CIA’s top Soviet analysts, said that under Gates, the CIA was “trying to provide the intelligence analysis … that would support the operational decision to sell arms to Iran.”
Gates’s critics note how eerily reminiscent Gates’s behavior in the 1980s was to the way that Vice President Dick Cheney treated CIA analysts during the run-up to the Iraq War six years ago when they faced pressure to hype the threat from Iraq.
At his October 1991 confirmation hearings, Gates testified that he was aware the United States was selling arms to Iran in exchange for hostages. But he denied knowing that Oliver North, a National Security Council aide inside Reagan’s White House, was diverting money from Iranian arms sales to secretly fund the Nicaraguan contra rebels.
White House memos released at the time showed that North and National Security Adviser John Poindexter engaged in classified briefings with Gates on numerous occasions about Iran-Contra-related operations.
Poindexter said he discussed the situation with Gates, but Gates said he had “no recollection” about those conversations.
Alan Fiers, who headed the CIA’s Central America task force in the mid-1980s, testified at Gates’s confirmation hearings that he had filled Gates in about the extraordinary covert operation supporting the contras.
“Bob Gates understood the universe, understood the structure, understood that there was an operational – that there was a support operation being run out of the White House,” and “that Ollie North was the quarterback,” Fiers said. “I had no reason to think he had great detail, but I do think there was a baseline knowledge there.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also raised questions about Gates’s role in helping Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
“I also have doubts and questions about Mr. Gates’s role in the secret intelligence sharing operation with Iraq,” Harkin said. “Robert Gates … helped develop options in dealing with the Iran-Iraq War, which eventually evolved into a secret intelligence liaison relationship with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
“Gates was in charge of the directorate that prepared the intelligence information that was passed on to Iraq. He testified that he was also an active participant in the operation during 1986.
“The secret intelligence sharing operation with Iraq was not only a highly questionable and possibly illegal operation, but also may have jeopardized American lives and our national interests. The photo reconnaissance, highly sensitive electronic eavesdropping, and narrative texts provided to Saddam may not only have helped him in Iraq’s war against Iran, but also in the recent Gulf War.”
Despite the concerns about Gates’s role in politicizing U.S. intelligence and engaging in questionable operations, he was confirmed as CIA director with the help of his friend, Sen. David Boren, D-Oklahoma, who was then chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and is now another Obama adviser.
“David took it as a personal challenge to get me confirmed,” Gates wrote in his memoir, From the Shadows.
When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Gates had hoped that his tenure at the CIA would be extended, but it wasn’t. Gates went into a period of political exile from Washington, eventually landing a job as president of Texas A&M with the help of former President George H.W. Bush.
But Gates continued to build his network of friends and admirers in the Washington insider community. He also jumped when he had a chance to get back on the Washington stage, first as a member of the Iraq Study Group in 2006 and then as Bush’s new Defense Secretary.
Gates now has high hopes that his many influential friends will assure him a place in the new Obama administration.