CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Robert Gates says, now, that he was wrong to scoff at the possibility that the Soviet Union was changing its tune. But he belonged to an organization whose whole ethos prevented people from recognizing the possibility of peaceful accommodation anywhere on the globe. James Angleton, as the CIA's counterespionage chief, spent years crusading against the very notion that there could be a Sino-Soviet split.
It is easy to see why the CIA has a psychological stake in doomsday scenarios. If your most glamorous actions are secret missions to overthrow governments, assassinate leaders, engage in lies and deceive one's fellow citizens (including Congress), a justification for one's very existence is bound to entail beliefs and assertions that only such tactics can cope with an overwhelming threat.
The very recruitment into the CIA demanded an ideological bias. An outfit run by William Casey was bound to be anti-communist in dogmatic ways. Even in the White House, Robert McFarlane said he could not express doubts about communist perfidy for fear Casey would discredit him. If that was true of a man not even in Casey's organization, it was bound to be even more true of men like Mr. Gates who served under Casey.
The illegal nature of the CIA, which is unconstitutionally funded, encourages people to think outside the law, to become conspiratorial if not paranoid. Only that explains how a truly crazy man like Angleton could prosper in the organization for so long and how a simple-minded fool like Casey could be put in charge of it.
Casey wrote a book arguing that George Washington won the American Revolution by running a Vietnam-type guerrilla war. Every reputable historian knows that Washington abhorred irregular troops and put all his effort into getting congressional funding and conventional training for his army. But Casey's views were not subject to commonsense criticism, far less to scholarly correction.
The CIA breeds paranoia just as the FBI did under J. Edgar Hoover. Our secret police forces have been a training ground for kooks and lawbreakers such as E. Howard Hunt or G. Gordon Liddy. Anti-communist hysteria was fanned by the FBI for decades, as recent books have demonstrated. The last people on earth to know of the Sino-Soviet split were our so-called CIA experts.
There is too much emphasis on finding Robert Gates guilty of a specifically criminal act or an outright lie. This is the smoking-gun syndrome. It implies by the very heat of the pursuit for a monstrous outrage that anything less than that does not disqualify a nominee.
A man who confesses the wrongs and mistakes that Mr. Gates does should not be continued in office with all his ties to the men and procedures that made the mistakes possible. If the CIA was repeatedly wrong, as even Mr. Gates now admits, that is an argument for a fresh start, for people whose views are new enough to confront a new world situation, for men who are not tainted by past subservience to William Casey. Other rascals are not the people best sent to throw the rascals out.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.