Robert Gates and Those ‘Transfer Cases’

My longtime colleague at CIA, Mel Goodman, has written an instructive article about our decades-ago co-worker Robert Gates, whom Mel labels the “Poster Child for Bureaucratic Deceit.” Sadly, I can vouch for the correctness of Mel’s findings.

Gates’s case is emblematic of how it is that ambitious, brown-nose functionaries (as well as rising four-stars) can ooze themselves into top positions and do irreparable harm. The only hope of preventing this in the future is to expose how the system now works, so I feel bound to add my two cents (plus a confession for having been Gates’s branch chief 50 years ago).

Goodman’s piece was occasioned by Gates’s key role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have followed Gates particularly closely since he took the job as defense secretary in late 2006 as Donald Rumsfeld finally heeded his generals’ advice that the Iraq war was hopeless, and that “surging” still more troops into Iraq in 2007 would simply compound a long list of errors.

Enter Robert Gates and “wing-man” Gen. David Petraeus who said they thought the surge a great idea. Its main purpose, actually, was to allow Cheney and Bush to leave office without losing a war. The cost? “Only” 1,000 additional U.S. troops delivered to Dover in “transfer cases.” Writing in November 2008 I reviewed the play by play and posed a question: “Robert Gates: As Bad as Rumsfeld?” Few of those watching closely thought the question in that title as off the wall as it had first sounded.

Goodman: Guts and Integrity

Mel Goodman was a very professional analyst of impeccable integrity. With an acute sense of horror, he watched Gates and his mentor William Casey (Ronald Reagan’s CIA Director) squander what had been CIA’s coin of the realm – its reputation for independent, unvarnished (Truman called it “untreated”) intelligence analysis. For example, Gates appointed sycophants like John McLaughlin, who had zero experience in Soviet affairs, to lead Soviet analysis and to warn loudly that Mikhail Gorbachev was merely a clever Commie and that the Communist Party would never give up power in the USSR.

Gates had quickly learned that parroting his avuncular, Russophobe patron Casey (and preventing objective analysis of the USSR) was a super-quick way to climb the career ladder. And Gates closely followed Casey’s example. In an unguarded moment on March 15, 1995, Gates admitted to Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus that he had watched Casey on “issue after issue sit in meetings and present intelligence framed in terms of the policy he wanted pursued.”

Whether Gates truly believed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union would never fall is an open question. What is clear is that he was a windsock – the perfect word for him (courtesy Mel Goodman).

It bears mention that Gates’s surrogates – like McLaughlin and his ilk – bubbled quickly to the top. McLaughlin and the other malleable managers promoted under Gates were the same ones who “loyally” saluted Gates’s Doppleganger George Tenet, when “bureaucratic deceit” was needed to “justify” launching a war of aggression on Iraq in 2003.

Nuclear Exchange Barely Avoided in 1983

As for Goodman, we have him and a couple other gutsy analysts of Russia to thank for being alive today.  In Nov. 1983, they put their careers at risk, when they tried to warn the White House that the Soviets were interpreting a large US nuclear exercise named “Able Archer” as preparations for the real thing – actual war.

CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates brushed them off. So they made an end-run around Gates to Director William Casey, despite knowing full well that Casey himself was normally reluctant to believe that the Russians could actually be afraid of the US Thankfully, Mel et al. succeeded in convincing Casey this time. Whew!

The release earlier this year of documents on the Nov. 1983 Able Archer exercise prompted Mel Goodman to send this letter to The Washington Post; it was published on Feb. 22, 2021. Here is the text:

Opinion: The ‘war scare’ and the CIA

The Feb. 18 news article “Newly released documents shed light on 1983 nuclear scare with Soviets” was an important reminder of the dangers of any military exercise that involves nuclear weapons, but it omitted a very important detail. KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky, who reported to British intelligence, was a source of the intelligence alert and the “war scare.” A group of CIA analysts convinced CIA Director William Casey that the “war scare” was real, and Casey ignored his deputy director for intelligence, Robert Gates, who argued that the Soviets were merely crying wolf. Because of our efforts, Casey convinced President Ronald Reagan that the “war scare” was real and our nuclear weapons command exercise was made less threatening. Then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used the “war scare” to persuade Reagan to pursue disarmament talks with the Soviet Union. 

Melvin A. Goodman, Bethesda

The writer, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, was a Soviet foreign policy analyst at the CIA from 1966 to 1990. 

Mel Goodman and I have the book on Gates, so to speak. So did the late Robert Parry, who published much of his own analysis of Gates, as well as ours, on Consortium News, the website Parry founded on 1995 for independent investigative reporting. To supplement what Mel writes in his recent article, let me quote from a piece I wrote in 2011 when Gates joined some of the rats leaving the sinking ship of the Iraq and Afghan war policies.  I focused on Gates’s uncanny ability to schmooze – not only with pundits like the adoring David Ignatius, but in this particular case with the editor of The Boston Globe. In March 2011 I posted “How to Read Gates’s Shift on the Wars.” Excerpts below:

The Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) is always ready with fulsome praise for Gates’s “candor” and “leadership” – and even for his belated recognition that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were nuts.

Certain kinds of public candor are so unexpected that they have the shock value of a gunshot at theopera,” purred a Boston Globe editorial on March 1, 2011 about Gates’s belated admission that only a crazy person would commit US ground forces to wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The editorial then lamented Gates’s planned retirement later in the year and urged President Barack Obama “to look hard for a successor with some of Gates’s unusual leadership qualities.”

Unusual leadership qualities, indeed.  Without doubt, it was surprising when Gates inserted the following comment into his speech on Feb. 25, 2011 at West Point:

“But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it.”

Those of us who have known Gates for many years couldn’t help but wonder what he was up to, what was the ulterior motive behind his decision to put distance between himself and these two misbegotten wars

Having overseen two wars, was Gates signaling that he knew the conflicts would come to a “no good end,” and thus was he creating a public record for himself as something of a war skeptic, a Washington Establishment savant? Gates noted that 80 young West Point cadets had fallen in battle since 9/11 (and surely some in his audience would join them in filling future “transfer cases” from the feckless wars that Gates now says should qualify any supporter for a visit to the local psychiatrist.

The Final Straw

Gates finished his “Farewell Address” at West Point with these words:

As some of you have heard me say before, you need to know that I feel personally responsible for each and every one of you, as if you were my own sons and daughters; for as long as I am secretary of defense that will remain true. … I bid you farewell and ask God to bless every one of you.

Additional reading:

This originally appeared at

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

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).