“Only one or two analysts
believed Iranian support for terrorism was waning,” Gates wrote in
articles that appeared in the Washington Post and Foreign Affairs
magazine. “And no CIA publication asserted these things.”
However, a month earlier,
an internal CIA review had found three reports from Nov. 22, 1985, to
May 15, 1986, claiming that Iranian-sponsored terrorism had declined,
according to a sworn statement from veteran CIA analyst Ray McGovern,
who prepared the review for senior officials in the Directorate of
“My findings uncovered an
unexplained discontinuity,” McGovern’s affidavit said. “To wit on 22
November 1985, in an abrupt departure from the longstanding analytical
line on Iranian support for terrorism, DI publications began to assert
that Iranian-sponsored terrorism had ‘dropped off substantially’ in
1985. I recall being particularly struck by the fact that no evidence
was adduced to support that important judgment.
“This new line was
repeated in at least two additional DI publications, the last of which
appeared on 15 May 1986. Again, no supporting evidence was cited. After
May 1986, the analytical line changed, just as abruptly, back to the
line that had characterized DI reporting on this subject up to November
1985 (with no mention of any substantial drop or other reduction in
Iranian support for terrorist activity).”
The timing of CIA’s
dubious reporting in 1985 about a decline in Iranian-backed terrorism is
significant because the Reagan administration was then in the midst of
secret Israeli-brokered arms shipments of U.S. weapons to Iran.
The shipments not only
were politically sensitive, but also violated federal export laws – in
part because Iran was officially designated a terrorist state. So,
playing down Iran’s hand in terrorism worked for the White House whether
supported by the facts or not.
At that time, Gates was
deputy director in charge of the DI, putting him in a key bureaucratic
position as the CIA worked to justify geopolitical openings to Iran.
Even earlier, in spring 1985, Gates had overseen the production of a
controversial National Intelligence Estimate that had warned of Soviet
inroads in Iran and conjured up supposed
moderates in the Iranian government.
That Gates, two years
later, would make exculpatory claims about the CIA’s reporting –
assertions contradicted by an internal DI report – suggests that he
remained more interested in protecting the Reagan administration’s
flanks than being straight with the American public.
In his affidavit,
McGovern wrote that after Gates’s exculpatory articles in November 1987,
“efforts to correct the record remained unsuccessful.”
[McGovern’s report to
senior DI management about the Iran-terrorism issue was dated Oct. 30,
1987; his affidavit was signed Oct. 5, 1991, during Gates’s confirmation
to be CIA director, but the sworn statement was not made public at that
The dispute about Gates’s
role in the Iran-Contra scandal and his contradicted denial about the
CIA reporting on Iranian terrorism are relevant again today as the
Senate considers Gates’s nomination to replace Donald Rumsfeld as
Gates’s honesty has long
raised concerns among CIA colleagues, members of Congress and federal
investigators who looked into the Iran-Contra scandal.
counsel Lawrence Walsh chose not to indict Gates over Iran-Contra,
Walsh’s final report didn’t endorse Gates’s credibility either. After
recounting discrepancies between Gates’s Iran-Contra recollections and
those of other CIA officials, Walsh wrote:
“The statements of Gates
often seemed scripted and less than candid. Nevertheless, given the
complex nature of the activities and Gates’s apparent lack of direct
participation, a jury could find the evidence left a reasonable doubt
that Gates either obstructed official inquiries or that his two
demonstrably incorrect statements were deliberate lies.”
For his part, Gates
denied any wrongdoing in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostage deal and
expressed only one significant regret – that he acquiesced to the
decision to withhold from Congress the Jan. 17, 1986, presidential
intelligence “finding” that gave some legal cover to the Iran arms
Beyond that one admission
Gates submitted what reads like carefully tailored denials of his
involvement in the scandal. In 1991, when he was facing confirmation
hearings to be CIA director under President George H.W. Bush, Gates
“As Deputy Director for
Intelligence, I was not informed of the full scope of the Iran
initiative until late January/early February 1986; I had no role in the
November 1985 shipment of arms; I played no part in preparing any of the
Findings; I had little knowledge of CIA’s operational role.”
Left out of that denial,
however, was what exactly did Gates know about the Iran initiative prior
to January 1986, particularly about several 1985 shipments that violated
the Arms Export Control Act. Nor did he make clear whether he exerted
any influence over the production of Iran-related intelligence reports,
including the ones that downplayed Iran’s support for terrorism.
In 1985, Israel and some
of its allies within the Reagan administration were pushing for
permission to sell arms to Iran, which was then fighting a bloody border
war with Iraq. Israel was seeking to expand its strategic influence in
Iran, while suggesting to the White House that Iran might help gain the
freedom of American hostages then held by Islamic extremists in Lebanon.
Gates’s DI set the stage
for the Iran initiative by producing a special National Intelligence
Estimate in May 1985 that laid out justifications for U.S. openings
toward Iran, including fears of Soviet inroads in Iran if the United
States did nothing.
In a Nov. 21, 2006,
article for the Los Angeles Times, former CIA analyst Jennifer
Glaudemans charged that the special NIE flipped the judgments of CIA
Soviet specialists who saw little chance of Moscow making progress with
“When we received the
draft NIE, we were shocked to find that our contribution on Soviet
relations with Iran had been completely reversed,” Glaudemans wrote.
“Rather than stating that the prospects for improved Soviet-Iranian
relations were negligible, the document indicated that Moscow assessed
those prospects as quite good.
“What’s more, the
national intelligence officer responsible for coordinating the estimate
had already sent a personal memo to the White House stating that the
race between the U.S. and USSR ‘for Tehran is on, and whoever gets there
first wins all.’
“No one in my office
believed this Cold War hyperbole. There was simply no evidence to
support the notion that Moscow was optimistic about its prospects for
improved relations with Iran. …
“We protested the
conclusions of the NIE, citing evidence such as the Iranian government’s
repression of the communist Tudeh Party, the expulsion of all Soviet
economic advisors … and a continuing public rhetoric that chastised the
‘godless’ communist regime as the ‘Second Satan’ after the United
evidence, our analysis was suppressed. At a coordinating meeting, we
were told that Gates wanted the language to stay in as it was,
presumably to help justify ‘improving’ our strained relations with
Tehran through the Iran-Contra weapons sales.” [LAT,
Nov. 21, 2006]
Bolstered by the NIE,
Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser Robert McFarlane began
circulating a draft presidential order in June 1985 proposing an
overture to Iran.
After reading the draft,
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger scribbled in the margins, “this is
almost too absurd to comment on.” The plan also contradicted President
Reagan’s public policy to “never make concessions to terrorists.”
Still, in July 1985,
Weinberger, McFarlane and Weinberger’s military assistant, Gen. Colin
Powell, met to discuss details for doing just that. Iran wanted 100
anti-tank TOW missiles that would be delivered through Israel, according
to Weinberger’s notes.
Reagan gave his approval,
but the White House wanted to keep the operation a closely held secret.
The shipments were to be handled with “maximum compartmentalization,”
the notes said. On Aug. 20, 1985, the Israelis delivered the first 96
missiles to Iran.
It was a pivotal moment.
With that missile shipment, the Reagan administration stepped over a
legal line. The transfer violated the Arms Export Control Act’s
requirement for congressional notification when U.S. weapons are
trans-shipped and a prohibition on shipping arms to nations, like Iran,
that had been designated a terrorist state.
On Sept. 14, 1985, Israel
delivered a second shipment, 408 more missiles to Iran. The next day,
one hostage, the Rev. Benjamin Weir, was released in Beirut. But other
Americans were snatched in Lebanon, undermining a key rationale for the
Word of the Iranian arms
shipments also was spreading through the U.S. intelligence community.
Top-secret intelligence intercepts in September and October 1985
revealed Iranians discussing the U.S. arms delivery.
The risk of exposure grew
worse in November 1985 when a shipment of 80 HAWK anti-aircraft missiles
ran into trouble while trying to transit through Portugal en route from
Tel Aviv to Tehran. In a panic, White House aide Oliver North pulled in
senior CIA officials and a CIA-owned airline to fly the missiles to
Tehran on Nov. 24, 1985.
But one consequence of
drawing the CIA directly into the operation was a demand from the CIA’s
legal advisers that a presidential “finding’ be signed and congressional
oversight committees be notified.
With the White House
desperately looking for ways out of its worsening dilemma, the CIA’s
Directorate of Intelligence – with Robert Gates at the helm – reported a
substantial decline in Iran’s support for terrorism, according to
By citing this alleged
Iranian moderation, the CIA created some policy space for Reagan finally
to formalize the arms shipments with an intelligence “finding,” signed
on Jan. 17, 1986. But the authorization – and the Iran arms deals – were
still kept hidden from Congress and even Pentagon officials.
A day after Reagan’s
finding, Gen. Colin Powell instructed Gen. Max Thurman, then acting Army
chief of staff, to prepare for a transfer of 4,000 TOW anti-tank
missiles, but Powell made no mention that they were headed to Iran. “I
gave him absolutely no indication of the destination of the missiles,”
Powell testified later.
Though kept in the dark,
Thurman began the process of transferring the TOWs to the CIA, the first
step of the journey. Powell’s orders “bypassed the formal [covert
procedures] on the ingress line,” Thurman acknowledged in later
As Powell’s strange
orders rippled through the top echelon of the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Vincent
M. Russo, the assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics, called
Powell to ask about the operation. Powell immediately circumvented
Russo’s inquiry. In effect, Powell pulled rank by arranging for
“executive instructions” commanding Russo to deliver the first 1,000
TOWs, no questions asked.
“It was a little
unusual,” commented then Army chief of staff, Gen. John A. Wickham Jr.
“All personal visit or secure phone call, nothing in writing – because
normally through the [covert logistics office] a procedure is
established so that records are kept in a much more formal process.”
Finally, Wickham demanded
that a memo about the need for congressional notification be sent to
Powell. “The chief wanted it in writing,” stated Army Lt. Gen. Arthur E.
Brown, who delivered the memo to Powell on March 7, 1986.
Five days later, Powell
handed that memo to President Reagan’s national security adviser John
Poindexter with the advice: “Handle it ... however you plan to do it,”
Powell later testified.
Poindexter’s plan for
“timely notification” was to tell Congress on the last day of the Reagan
presidency, Jan. 20, 1989. Poindexter stuck the Pentagon memo into a
White House safe, along with the secret “finding” on the Iran missile
When the Iran-Contra
scandal finally broke into the open in November 1986, most participants
in the operation tried to duck the consequences, especially for the 1985
shipments that violated the Arms Export Control Act, what Secretary
Weinberger once warned President Reagan might constitute an impeachable
officials, such as Gates and Powell, admitting knowledge of or
involvement in the 1985 shipments would amount to career suicide. So,
Gates, Powell and most other administration operatives insisted they
knew or recalled nothing.
claims of ignorance and innocence, however, is that his subordinates in
the DI were pushing unsupported notions about why shipping arms to Iran
made sense, according to Glaudemans and McGovern.
With Congress hoping for
a new Defense Secretary who has both the guts and the clout to stand up
to White House pressure, the senators who will evaluate Gates’s fitness
for the job may want to look back at this troubling Iran-Contra episode.
[For more on Gates’s
history, see Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Secret World of Robert Gates.”]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'