The Problem with Gates at the CIA


September 30, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- The problem with Robert M. Gates as head of the CIA is not solved by discovering what he knew, and when he knew it, about Irangate. He has made it evident that he understood at the time that not knowing was the prudent course for an ambitious bureaucrat.

An ambitious CIA official at his level certainly knew enough about what was going on to also know that not-knowing was the way to go. This was an understandable stance for a career official in an administration whose president was obsessed with Nicaragua, and whose White House harbored a buccaneering operation very likely to end in fiasco. Mr. Gates played it safe, as did other career officers. One must ask, however, if bureaucratic careerism is the quality we need today in the head of the CIA.

The CIA in the beginning was a band of brothers, out to save America and the world from the Soviet Union and the Comintern/Cominform. It included idealists and adventurers. It had learned how to spy from the British secret service, and did it very well -- employing much greater resources.

The CIA turned the political-warfare techniques of the Comintern and Popular Front against the communists, with great success. It sponsored free magazines to counter the tied publications of the communists. Of course it expected the books and magazines and radio systems it underwrote to defend the liberal intellectual and political values of the West, but took it for granted that free writers and editors would do that automatically, given the resources.

The CIA of that day did not expect propaganda as such, nor slavish support for American foreign policies. That came later, becoming a serious matter in the Vietnam years, when the American public itself was seriously divided on policy. In the beginning the CIA was where the free-thinkers and iconoclasts went while the McCarthyites and other American-idiot patriots were demolishing the U.S. Information Agency and assaulting the State Department for alleged infestation with communism.

Bands of brothers in government service inevitably tend to become bands of bureaucrats, if only in self-protection, and that is what happened to the CIA. This transition to an extent explains William Casey, whom Ronald Reagan brought back after three decades in the private sector to head the CIA. Mr. Casey had been a highly successful OSS buccaneer during the war. When President Reagan gave him the CIA he found that he was dealing with what had become a gray bureaucracy dominated by people like Robert Gates.

Buccaneers are happier at the end of a parachute's risers, a knife grasped between their teeth; and when they are older and have acquired a paunch, as had Mr. Casey by 1981, the idea can become irresistible to leave the Robert Gateses to their boring work and to try to create that free-standing, self-supporting secret apparatus in the private service of the president which Mr. Casey and Lt. Col. Oliver North attempted -- with funds begged from the Sultan of Brunei, various Saudi Arabian princes and Iranian arms purchasers.

It was a difficult time for the gray men at the CIA, and it is interesting that Mr. Gates was the man who most successfully survived the Casey storm, knowing as little as possible about the things that might one day prove dangerous knowledge, and might be used against him.

The substantial accusation made against Mr. Gates, however, is not that he is a bureaucratic survivor but that he cooked intelligence estimates to suit his superiors' policy commitments. Gates was never a spy. He was a professional analyst of political information gathered more often from open sources than from clandestine ones. As an analyst he seems actually not to have been very good.

On all of the issues which have been brought out in these hearings, he was wrong: on the seriousness and depth of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms (he thought them superficial, of little lasting consequence), on Soviet progress in laser space-defense weapons (he considered it vastly more advanced that in fact it was), on Soviet influence in Iran in the mid-1980s (he thought it enormous), and on the threat to security represented by Nicaragua (''If we have decided totally to abandon the Monroe Doctrine . . . then we ought to save political capital in Washington [and] acknowledge our helplessness. . . .'').

An analyst is expected to be wrong sometimes, but not this often on the major issues, and certainly he is not expected to be wrong in a manner that consistently supports the policy preconceptions of the administration for which he works. The Director of Central Intelligence is supposed to be an independent adviser to the president, presenting information as objective as it is possible to make it, or providing a menu of competitive interpretations of objective information. He is not expected to tell a president what that president wants to hear.

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