A contempt for law at the CIA

Anthony Lewis

October 07, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

Louisville, Ky. -- THE SENATE hearings on Robert Gates' nomination to be director of Central Intelligence have served history in a particular and important way. They have opened a new window on the Reagan administration's corruption of our governmental process.

The issue is of course not financial corruption. It is something more internal and more menacing. That is the deliberate distortion, by those sworn to tell the truth, of the facts on which the president of the United States must make fundamental foreign-policy decisions.

William Casey, President Reagan's DCI, was a man who would not let facts get in the way of preconceived ideas -- or rules get in the way of what he wanted to do. He had contempt for law as a constraint on those who hold power.

Casey was a true believer in the Soviet Union as the omnipresent Evil Empire -- far truer than Ronald Reagan. For one thing, he bought the theory that the world's terrorism was directed by the U.S.S.R. When his CIA did not support such notions, he insisted that it do so.

"Gates pandered to Casey's agenda," Melvin A. Goodman, a former ranking intelligence analyst at the agency, testified. Harold P. Ford, an honored veteran of the CIA and a reluctant witness, said he felt obligated to testify that Gates had "skewed intelligence."

The critical witnesses said certain matters had been "politicized" in the Casey-Gates era. They included estimates of Soviet strength, Nicaragua, Iran and the assassination attempt on the pope.

"Gates' role was to corrupt the process and the ethics of $H intelligence on all of these issues," Goodman said. "He was Casey's filter in the directorate of intelligence."

Gates dismissed those charges as "ridiculous." But there really is no question -- on the public record -- that their essence is correct.

A memorandum written by Gates in 1984 attacked the Reagan administration's policy on Central America as too soft. The only right answer, it said, was direct military action to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

Was that an intelligence officer's factual report? Of course not. It was a policy argument from a strong ideological position.

Or think about the CIA's intelligence findings on Iran, made under Gates' direction. They told Reagan that the Soviet Union was in a position to take over Iran -- that our only chance was to forge ties with moderate forces inside the Islamic Republic's regime.

Those "findings" went against the facts available to the CIA. There were no "moderates" in the Iranian regime. The purpose of the findings, indeed, was to provide Reagan with an excuse to trade arms to the mythical moderates in exchange for hostages.

On the Soviet Union, Gates dismissed any idea that Mikhail Gorbachev was a serious reformer or was reducing the Soviet threat to us. He took that position not in subtle memorandums but in blunt -- and totally wrong -- public speeches.

On the papal assassination, Gates denied that he had pushed the theory of Soviet involvement in the shooting by Mehmet Ali Agca. But a 1985 memorandum from Gates' directorate of intelligence was headed, "Agca's Attempt to Kill the Pope: The Case for Soviet Involvement."

Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., charged angrily that the testimony against Gates was based on "innuendo and hearsay." But the testimony came from men and women who had experienced the very corruption they described. It took courage, and patriotic concern, for them to speak out.

The real question, I think, is why someone as intelligent as Rudman -- and ordinarily as fair-minded -- should want to protect Robert Gates from the consequences of his known record. Or why Republicans on the Intelligence Committee, usually nonpartisan, should press so hard to confirm a man who they know has distorted intelligence reports and lied to the committee.

Stansfield Turner, a former director, argued on the op-ed page of the New York Times that Gates should be confirmed if he "unequivocally rejects the Casey period at the CIA as a model." Far from doing that, Gates brazened it out. He is asking the Senate to wink at the corruption of power.

Anthony Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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