Not since 2003 when Secretary of State Colin Powell wowed Official Washington with his United Nations speech on Iraq’s WMD has there been such an awed consensus about any public figure as there has been for former CIA Director Gates, who is almost universally praised for his intelligence, experience and down-to-earth style. But there are serious unresolved questions about Gates’s past that the American people might want resolved before he is entrusted with the awesome new powers that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 puts in the hands of the Defense Secretary.
In his memoir, From the Shadows, Gates revealed why the inquiries were cut short when he thanked his friend, Sen. David Boren, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for shepherding him through the confirmation process.
“David took it as a personal challenge to get me confirmed,” Gates wrote.
Boren’s chief of staff who helped limit the investigation of Gates in 1991 was George Tenet, whose actions earned him the gratitude of then-President George H.W. Bush, who a decade later urged his son, President George W. Bush, to keep Tenet on as CIA director.
Amid all this cozy back-scratching, Gates’s alleged involvement in illicit contacts between senior Republicans and Iranian representatives during the 1980 hostage crisis was never seriously vetted. Neither was Gates’s alleged participation in arranging secret arms shipments to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s.
Though Boren promised to pursue the so-called Iraq-gate allegations against Gates, the Oklahoma senator never did.
Then, regarding a purported Gates meeting with a key Israeli intelligence officer who had linked Gates to both the 1980 Iran-hostage scandal and the later Iraq-gate operations, Gates denied that the meeting ever took place. To prove it, Gates supplied Boren and Tenet with an airtight alibi – for the wrong day.
In 1991, when I pointed out this date discrepancy to the Senate Intelligence Committee staff, they agreed that they had the wrong day but then told me that they had simply decided to take Gates at his word that he had not met the Israeli intelligence officer, Ari Ben-Menashe.
In January 1993, the Russian government sent then-Rep. Lee Hamilton a report describing what the KGB’s intelligence files revealed about the history of secret U.S. arms sales to Iran.
At the time, President Jimmy Carter was trying to gain the freedom of 52 American hostages in Iran whose continued captivity sank Carter’s hopes for reelection. The hostages weren't freed until immediately after Reagan and Bush were sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981.
Though the Russian report contradicted long-standing denials by Gates and Bush about the Paris trip, Hamilton never subjected the report to a thorough examination, nor did he release it to the public. He simply filed it away in unpublished records of a House task force he had headed. [I discovered the Russian report a couple of years later.]
In another blow to Gates’s credibility in January 1995, Howard Teicher, who had served on President Reagan’s National Security Council staff in the 1980s, submitted a sworn affidavit detailing the work of Gates and his boss, then-CIA Director Casey, in arranging arms supplies through Chilean arms dealer Carlos Cardoen for the Iraqis.
Again, the Teicher affidavit was never seriously investigated, in part because it complicated a federal prosecution of a private company, Teledyne Industries, which had supplied explosives to Cardoen.
When Justice Department lawyers couldn’t readily find documents that Teicher said should be in the Reagan archives, the lawyers questioned Teicher’s credibility, ignoring the fact that in 1986, NSC aide Oliver North conducted a massive “shredding party” of NSC records about secret policies in the Middle East and Central America.
In the years since Gates’s last confirmation hearing in 1991, other evidence has come along to buttress Ben-Menashe’s claims that Gates was an active player in covert Middle East policies and took part in clandestine operations.
Critics of Ben-Menashe have challenged his claims on the grounds that Gates was known as a Soviet – not a Middle East – expert and was an intelligence analyst who would not cross over into covert operations.
But what these critics misunderstood is that while Gates did work in the Soviet division of the CIA’s analytical section, his work there concentrated on Soviet policy toward the Middle East, according to Gates’s former boss, CIA analyst Ray McGovern. Indeed, McGovern said Gates prided himself in being a top Middle East expert within CIA.
Gates also didn’t confine himself to the cloistered world of CIA analysis, even when he was in charge of the CIA’s analytical division, the Directorate of Intelligence, in the early- to mid-1980s.
Though CIA analysts are supposed to focus on providing objective intelligence and leave setting policy to the policymakers, Gates secretly sent policy recommendations to CIA Director Casey.
For instance, in a December 1984 memo to Casey, Gates called for the bombing of military targets in Nicaragua and the overthrow of the leftist Sandinista government as the only way to prevent a permanent “Marxist-Leninist” state on the mainland of the Americas. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Trust Robert Gates on Iraq.”]
Besides crossing the bright line between analysis and policy, Gates turned out to be wrong in his assessments. After the Reagan administration rejected his plan as too extreme, the Sandinistas eventually left power peacefully when they lost an election. [For more on Gates’s history, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The Secret World of Robert Gates.”]
As Defense Secretary, Gates would handpick the military judges and set the rules for administering the system, which was established under a law passed by Congress in September and signed by President Bush on Oct. 17. The law allows the jailing of both “unlawful enemy combatants” and “any person” who allegedly helps them.
While the new law explicitly strips non-U.S. citizens of the habeas corpus right to a fair and speedy trial, the law implicitly does the same to U.S. citizens in a section that covers “any person” who “aids, abets, counsels, commands or procures” actions by “unlawful enemy combatants."
Anyone who is thrust into this parallel legal system is barred from filing any motions “whatsoever” with a civilian court, presumably preventing assertion by citizens and non-citizens alike of habeas corpus or other constitutional rights. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Who Is ‘Any Person’ in Tribunal Law.”]
Given the sweeping powers that Gates would inherent as Defense Secretary, the Senate Armed Services Committee might want to take a little more time before it rushes through his confirmation.
Currently, Gates is expected to undergo gentle questioning mostly focused on the Iraq War during pro forma confirmation hearings on Dec. 5. According to this thinking, his confirmation by the full Senate would follow quickly during the lame-duck session with the Republicans still in the majority.
But before Gates’s confirmation by acclamation, senators might want to consider posing the following questions: