THE SENATE now proceeds from its confirmation of Clarence Thomas as Supreme Court justice to its vote on Robert Gates as CIA director. In the Thomas hearings, the question was the truth of testimony. In the Gates hearings, too, the question had arisen, and also the additional question of whether anyone wanted to know the truth.
The human mind, it seems, is helplessly absorptive: If we see a car accident, whether we like it or not, that accident is imprinted in our minds. Yet there can come a time when we would prefer not to know what we have involuntarily learned. In government, in particular, it is often very inconvenient to know something, and the art of not knowing things -- of providing what people in the trade call "deniability" -- is highly developed.
For if learning things, in many cases, cannot be helped, unlearning them is a distinct skill. A story told by the former CIA official Alan Fiers shows just what a highly elaborated skill it can become. Fiers, who recently confessed to lying to Congress about aspects of the Iran-contra affair, reports that in October 1984, he attended a meeting between himself, Lt. Col. Oliver North from the White House, CIA Director William J. Casey, and the head of the agency's covert operations, Clair George. According to Fiers, at one point Casey turned to North and said "Alan tells me you're operating in Central America. Is that true?" To which North heartily replied, "No, sir."
Fiers, who knew that Casey was well aware of North's manifold activities in Central America, was amazed, and later asked George what it all meant. "What you saw going on there was a charade," George answered.
Plainly, we are deep in the hall of mirrors here: The planners of misdeeds, long before any hint of these has reached the public, play-act for their colleagues so that one day in the future those colleagues will be able, with seeming truthfulness, to tell some investigating body that the director of the CIA firmly forbade North from engaging in mischief. Deception can hardly get any more elaborate than this.
The steps Gates took to preserve deniability in some of these same matters appear almost innocent by comparison. Mostly, he just can't seem to remember much. Gates' superiors and several of his inferiors were fully apprised of North's activities. Two of them have testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that they told Gates some of what was going on, but his curiosity was not piqued. Gates denies any recollection of the conversations. Surrounded by the damning information, he managed, he claims, to remain innocent of any of it.
It's an odd boast for a candidate for director of an intelligence agency to make, yet it is consistent with some of his other behavior. There was more information, we now know, that Gates helped to head off: information suggesting that the Soviet Union was not as formidable a power as Gates was telling the world it was in his public speeches, that there was in fact no "moderate" faction in Iran that could be won over by secret deliveries of arms to Iran, that there was very little evidence of KGB implication in a plot to assassinate the pope. All of this information, which subsequent events have proved correct, was offered by analysts in the CIA but blocked, with the help of Gates, from reaching Reagan administration policy-makers. Here the apparent motive was not to cover up wrongdoing but to satisfy the political wishes of his superiors, but the pattern was the same: In each case, Gates, faced with the decision whether to know or not to know, chose the latter.
Now the Senate faces the same question on a broader scale. Spread before senators is the record of an agency that for a decade turned its back on the truth about itself and the world. Do the senators prefer not to know this recent history of the agency Gates wishes to head, or do they prefer to know it? If it is the latter, they will reject his nomination.
Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.