The Cheney-Gates Cabal

(Full disclosure: Ray McGovern is indebted to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld for TV notoriety on May 4, when McGovern’s impromptu questioning after a Rumsfeld speech in Atlanta elicited denials later shown to be false after fact-checks by the TV networks. McGovern’s acquaintance with Robert Gates, whom the president has picked to succeed Rumsfeld, goes back 36 years to when Gates was a journeyman analyst in the CIA’s Soviet foreign policy branch led by McGovern.)

As the Iraq war goes from bad to worse, President George W. Bush jettisoned “stay the course” in favor of “necessary adjustments.” Yesterday he showed how quickly he can adjust to the midterm election results when he jettisoned Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, barely a week after telling reporters Rumsfeld was doing a “fantastic job” and that he wanted him to stay on for the next two years.

It had been clear for weeks that the election would be a referendum on the war in Iraq and that Republican losses would be substantial. And Rumsfeld and Bush had every intention of avoiding the embarrassment likely to come of the grilling of Rumsfeld by congressional committees chaired by Democrats. Besides, who better to try to blame for the “long, hard slog” in Iraq than the fellow who coined the expression, and then implemented it with dubious distinction?

I have the sense that Rumsfeld offered himself as scapegoat for Iraq, not only to avoid another acrimonious tangle with Sen. Hillary Clinton, but also to help Bush project an image of flexibility and decisiveness to cope with the imminent sea change in Congress.

Neoconservatives Eat Their Own

Former allies are among those now denouncing him. The abandonment is enough to pin down even an old wrestler like Rumsfeld, but perhaps the most unkindest cut of all came from long-standing supporter “Cakewalk Ken” Adelman who, like other neoconservatives, has turned mercilessly on his old, now discredited friend. In an interview for David Rose’s “Neo Culpa” in Vanity Fair, Adelman came across as feeling jilted.

“We’re losing in Iraq. … I’ve worked with [Rumsfeld] three times in my life. I’ve been to each of his houses in Chicago, Taos, Santa Fe, Santo Domingo, and Las Vegas. I’m very, very fond of him, but I’m crushed by his performance. Did he change, or were we wrong in the past? Or is it that he was never really challenged before? I don’t know. He certainly fooled me.”

As the saying goes, with friends like that, who needs Hillary? Or a pummeling by the Army-Navy-Air Force-Marine Corps Times?

I almost feel sorry for Donald Rumsfeld (and I’m not just saying that because, with the Military Commissions Act now signed into law, he can declare me – or anyone – an unlawful enemy combatant and “disappear” me into some black hole for the rest of my days). What betrayal. What disingenuousness. Et tu, Cakewalk Ken? The neoconservatives are attempting to push the blame onto Rumsfeld for the debacle they authored. Parallel attempts by administration officials to scapegoat Rumsfeld will be equally transparent and unconvincing.

The “Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal” may now be down to one. But there is every sign that Cheney will continue to be the dominant force in the White House, and he recently asserted,

“You cannot make national security policy on the basis of [elections]. It may not be popular with the public. It doesn’t matter, in the sense that we have to continue the mission [in Iraq].”

Granted, Cheney made those comments before the election. But it is virtually certain that Bush vetted with Cheney the nomination of Robert Gates to succeed Rumsfeld and, if past experience is precedent, it is a virtual certainty that Gates will continue to earn an A+ for “loyalty.” Look for a “Cheney-Gates cabal.”

Gates has been getting unduly positive press treatment since the announcement of his nomination. This is in part due to his participation in the realist-led Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel tasked with devising plans to stabilize Iraq. There’s hope that Gates will help push through the group’s recommendations.

It is always possible that Gates really will bring, in the president’s words, “a fresh perspective and new ideas on how America can achieve our goals in Iraq,” but to those of us who have watched Gates parrot and implement White House policies – not create new ones – this seems a long shot. And as noted yesterday by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who will probably chair the House International Affairs Committee,

“You can’t unscramble the omelet and the tremendous mistakes that were made after major military operations; I don’t see any magical solutions.”

It seems only fair at the outset to give Gates the benefit of the doubt. He can hardly match the disaster Rumsfeld wrought with his fancy language and fanciful ideas, but that is damning with faint praise. Unless Gates’ years outside the Beltway have wrought major behavioral change, Gates will bend to the wishes of Cheney and Bush and avoid taking stands on principle. While it is one thing to give him the benefit of the doubt; it is quite another to be oblivious to the considerable baggage he brings with him from past service.

An Intelligence “Fixer”

Those of us who had a front-row seat to watch Gates’ handling of substantive intelligence can hardly forget the manner in which he cooked it to the recipe of whomever he reported to. A protégé of William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s CIA director, Gates learned well from his mentor. In 1995, Gates told the Washington Post ‘s Walter Pincus that he watched Casey on “issue after issue sit in meetings and present intelligence framed in terms of the policy he wanted pursued.” Gates followed suit, cooking the analysis to justify policies favored by Casey and the White House. And the cooking was consequential.

I was amused to read this morning in David Ignatius’ column in the Washington Post that Gates “was the brightest Soviet analyst in the [CIA] shop, so Casey soon appointed him deputy director overseeing his fellow analysts.” He wasn’t; and Casey had something other than expertise in mind. Talk to anyone who was there at the time – except the sycophants Gates co-opted to do his bidding – and they will explain that Gates’ meteoric career had most to do with his uncanny ability to see a Russian under every rock turned over by Casey. Those of Gates’ subordinates willing to see two Russians became branch chiefs; three won you a division. I exaggerate only a little.

To Casey, the Communists could never change and Gorbachev was simply cleverer than his predecessors. With his earlier training in our branch, and with his doctorate in Soviet affairs, Gates clearly knew better. Yet he carried Casey’s water and stifled all dissent. One result was that the CIA as an institution missed the implosion of the Soviet Union – no small oversight. Another result was a complete loss of confidence in CIA analysis on the part of then-Secretary of State George Shultz and others who smelled the cooking. In July 1987, in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair, he told Congress, “I had come to have grave doubts about the objectivity and reliability of some of the intelligence I was getting.”


And well he might. For example, in the fall of 1985 there was an abrupt departure from CIA’s analytical line that Iran was supporting terrorism. On Nov. 22, 1985, the agency reported that Iranian-sponsored terrorism had “dropped off substantially” in 1985, but no evidence was adduced to support that key judgment. Oddly, a few months later CIA’s analysis reverted back to pre-November 1985 with no further mention of any drop-off in Iranian support for terrorism.

The U.S. illegally shipped Hawk missiles to Iran in late November 1985. When questions were raised about this in the summer of 1987, Stephen Engelberg of the New York Times quoted senior CIA official Clair George: “There was an example of a desperate attempt to try to sort of prove something was happening to make the policy [arms Iran for hostages] look good, and it wasn’t.”

Also in 1985 Gates commissioned and warped a National Intelligence Estimate suggesting that Soviet influence in Iran could soon grow and pose a danger to U.S. interests. This also formed part of the backdrop for the illegal arms-for-hostages deal with Iran.

More serious still was Gates’ denial of awareness of Oliver North’s illegal activities in support of the Contra attacks in Nicaragua, despite the fact that senior CIA officials claimed they had informed Gates that North had diverted funds from the Iranian arms sales for the benefit of the Contras. The independent counsel for the Iran-Contra investigation (1986-93), Lawrence Walsh, later wrote in frustration that Gates “denied recollection of facts 33 times.”

In 1991, when President George H. W. Bush nominated Robert Gates for the post of director of Central Intelligence, there was a virtual insurrection among CIA analysts who had suffered under his penchant for cooking intelligence. The stakes for integrity of analysis were so high that many still employed at the agency summoned the courage to testify against the nomination. But the fix was in, thanks to then-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee David Boren and his staff director, George Tenet. The issue was considered so important, however, that 31 senators voted against Gates when the committee forwarded his nomination. Never before or since has a CIA director nominee received so many nay votes.

Gates is the one most responsible for institutionalizing the politicization of intelligence analysis by setting the example and promoting malleable managers more interested in career advancement than in the ethos of speaking truth to power. In 2002, it was those managers who then-CIA Director George Tenet ordered to prepare what has become known as the “Whore of Babylon” – the Oct. 1 National Intelligence Mis-Estimate on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He instructed them to adhere to the guidelines set by Vice President Dick Cheney in his infamous, preemptive speech of Aug. 26, 2002, and complete it in three weeks – in order to force a congressional vote before the midterm election. To their discredit, the managers complied and issued the worst NIE in the history of American intelligence.

All those quoted in the press yesterday and this morning regarding the Gates nomination seem blissfully unaware of this history – all, that is, but Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. Pointing out Gates’ reputation for putting pressure on analysts to shape their conclusions to fit administration policies, Holt told the press yesterday that the nomination is “deeply troubling,” and stressed that the confirmation hearings “should be thorough and probing.”

Reprinted courtesy of

Author: Ray McGovern

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. In the Sixties he served as an infantry/intelligence officer and then became a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).