Gates – now President George W. Bush’s nominee to
replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary – expressed his alarmist
views about Nicaragua and the need to bomb the country’s military
targets in a secret Dec. 14, 1984,
memorandum to then-CIA Director William Casey.
The memo has new relevance today because Gates’s
private advice to Casey suggests that Gates was either more of an
extremist ideologue than many in Washington believe or he was pandering
to Casey’s personal zealotry.
Either possibility raises questions about Gates’s
fitness to run the Pentagon at a time when many observers believe it
needs strong doses of realism and independence to stand up to both a
strong-willed President and influential neoconservative theorists who
promoted the invasion of Iraq.
The Iraq War – now exceeding the length of U.S.
participation in World War II – has been marked by politicized
intelligence, over-reliance on force, fear of challenging the insider
tough-guy talk, and lack of respect for international law – all
tendencies that Gates has demonstrated in his career.
In the 1980s, Gates was a Cold War hardliner prone
to exaggerate the Soviet threat, which put him in the good graces of
Reagan administration officials. They also rejected the growing evidence
of a rapid Soviet decline in order to justify a massive U.S. military
build-up and aggressive interventions in Third World conflicts.
Put in charge of the CIA’s analytical division,
which supposedly is dedicated to objective analysis, Gates instead
pleased his boss Casey by taking an over-the-top view of the danger
posed by Nicaragua, an impoverished Third World nation then ruled by
leftist Sandinista revolutionaries who had ousted right-wing dictator
Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
Though Gates opens his December 1984 memo with the
declaration that “it is time to talk absolutely straight about
Nicaragua,” he then ignores many relevant facts that get in the way of
his thesis about the need to launch air strikes against Sandinista
military targets and to overthrow the supposedly “Marxist-Leninist”
For instance, Gates makes no mention of the fact
that only a month earlier, the Sandinistas had won an election widely
praised for its fairness by European and other international observers.
But the Reagan administration had pressured pro-U.S. candidate Arturo
Cruz into withdrawing when it became clear he would lose – and then
denounced the election as a “sham.”
Without assessing whether the Sandinistas had any
real commitment to democracy, Gates adopts the Reagan administration’s
favored position – that Nicaragua’s elected president Daniel Ortega was,
in effect, a Soviet-style dictator.
“The Nicaraguan regime is steadily moving toward
consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist government and the establishment of
a permanent and well armed ally of the Soviet Union and Cuba on the
mainland of the Western Hemisphere,” Gates wrote to Casey.
The Gates assessment, however, turned out to be
wrong. Rather than building a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, the
Sandinistas competed six years later in a robust presidential election –
even allowing the United States to pour in millions of dollars to help
elect Washington’s favored candidate, Violeta Chamorro.
The Sandinistas respected the election results,
ceding power to Chamorro. The Sandinistas also have competed in
subsequent elections with Ortega finally regaining the presidency in the
latest election held in November 2006.
In the 1984 memo, Gates also promotes another
right-wing canard of the era – that Nicaragua’s procurement of weapons
was proof of its aggressive intentions, not an attempt at national
Again, Gates ignores significant facts, including a
history starting in 1980 of first the right-wing Argentine junta and
then the United States financing and training a brutal
counterrevolutionary movement, known as the contras.
By 1984, the contras had earned a reputation for
rape, torture, murder and terrorism – as they ravaged towns especially
along Nicaragua’s northern border. In 1983-84, the CIA also had used the
cover of the contra war to plant mines in Nicaragua’s harbors, an
operation later condemned by the World Court.
But Gates offers none of this context in his
five-page memo to Casey, a strong advocate of the contra cause. The memo
makes no serious analytical attempt to gauge whether Nicaragua – the
target of aggression by a nearby superpower, the United States – might
have been trying to build up forces to deter more direct U.S.
Instead, Gates tells his boss what he wants to
hear. “The Soviets and Cubans are turning Nicaragua into an armed camp
with military forces far beyond its defensive needs and in a position to
intimidate and coerce its neighbors,” Gates wrote.
Gate also paints an apocalyptic vision of what
might happen if the contras retreated to Honduras. According to Gates,
the flight of the contras would touch off a new wave of refugees and
destabilize the region.
“These unsettled political and military
circumstances in Central America would undoubtedly result in renewed
capital flight from Honduras and Guatemala and result in both new
hardship and political instability throughout the region,” Gates wrote.
This so-called “feet people” theme was another
administration rationale for continuing the contra war against
Nicaragua. But the truth was that right-wing “death squads” then
operating in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras generated far more of a
refugee flow than had followed the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua in
Bombing Is the Answer
After laying out his premises, Gates moves to his
conclusion – that there is no hope the Sandinistas will accept
democracy, even if the contras were sustained in the field, and thus
there was no choice but to oust the Sandinistas by force. Gates wrote:
“It seems to me that the only way that we can
prevent disaster in Central America is to acknowledge openly what some
have argued privately: that the existence of a Marxist-Leninist regime
in Nicaragua closely allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba is
unacceptable to the United States and that the United States will do
everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out.
“Hopes of causing the regime to reform itself for a
more pluralistic government are essentially silly and hopeless.
Moreover, few believe that all those weapons and the more to come are
only for defense purposes.”
Dressing up his recommendations as hardheaded
realism, Gates added:
“Once you accept that ridding the Continent of this
regime is important to our national interest and must be our primary
objective, the issue then becomes a stark one. You either acknowledge
that you are willing to take all necessary measures (short of military
invasion) to bring down that regime or you admit that you do not have
the will to do anything about the problem and you make the best deal you
“Casting aside all fictions, it is the latter
course we are on. … Any negotiated agreement simply will offer a cover
for the consolidation of the regime and two or three years from now we
will be in considerably worse shape than we are now.”
Gates then calls for withdrawing diplomatic
recognition of the Nicaraguan government, backing a government-in-exile,
imposing an economic embargo on exports and imports “to maximize the
economic dislocation of the regime,” and launching “air strikes to
destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua’s military buildup (focusing
particularly on the tanks and the helicopters).”
In the memo, Gates depicts those who would do less
as weaklings and fools, including some administration officials who
favored focusing on arranging new covert aid to the contras.
“These are hard measures,” Gates wrote about his
recommendations. “They probably are politically unacceptable. But it is
time to stop fooling ourselves about what is going to happen in Central
America. Putting our heads in the sand will not prevent the events that
I outlined at the beginning of this note. …
“The fact is that the Western Hemisphere is the
sphere of influence of the United States. If we have decided totally to
abandon the Monroe Doctrine, if in the 1980’s taking strong actions to
protect our interests despite the hail of criticism is too difficult,
then we ought to save political capital in Washington, acknowledge our
helplessness and stop wasting everybody’s time.”
More than two decades later, as the Senate rushes
to confirm Gates as Rumsfeld’s successor, neither the Republicans nor
Democrats are showing much inclination to review Gates’s troubling
record. [See, for example, Consortiumnews.com’s “The
Secret World of Robert Gates.”]
But the Nicaragua-bombing memo alone should give
the senators pause. One could readily imagine Gates playing into George
W. Bush’s predilections on Iraq by presenting similar dichotomies
between doing the wise but “politically unacceptable” thing by
escalating the violence or “putting our heads in the sand” to negotiate
some cowardly compromise.
What’s less clear is whether Gates actually
believed his hard-line rhetoric in 1984 or was just parroting what he
thought his boss wanted to hear.
Some longtime Gates watchers at the CIA believe
Gates is essentially a “chameleon” who adapts to the colorations of
whatever political environment he finds himself in. His mild-mannered
style also has led powerful mentors to see what they wish to see in him.
So, is Gates a closet ideologue who shares his real
views only with like-minded individuals like Casey or is he a skilled
apple-polisher who curries favor with those above him by leaving them
little presents like the Nicaragua-bombing memo for Casey?
Getting It All Wrong
Another striking aspect of the Nicaragua memo is
that it proves what many Gates critics have alleged over the years –
that he tossed aside the principles of objective analysis to position
himself as a political/policy advocate.
Gates did that in the 1984 memo even while serving
as the official responsible for protecting the integrity of the
intelligence product. But Gates not only crossed the red line against
entering the world of policy recommendations, he turned out to be wrong
in virtually all his dire predictions.
None of his predictions proved true after the
Reagan administration rejected Gates’s extreme proposals. The Reagan
administration did not create a Nicaraguan government-in-exile. Nor did
it bomb Nicaragua’s military targets. Instead, President Reagan ordered
his subordinates to continue arranging financial and military support
for the contras, an operation led by White House aide Oliver North.
Later, during George H.W. Bush’s presidency,
Secretary of State James Baker pushed a strategy of negotiations to
resolve the bloody violence raging across Central America. Then, in
1990, the Bush I administration spent millions of dollars to support the
Nicaraguan presidential candidacy of Violeta Chamorro against Daniel
The Sandinistas permitted the elections to go
forward despite the continued contra violence and despite the U.S.
intervention in Nicaragua’s internal politics. After Chamorro’s victory,
the Sandinistas accepted the outcome and went into opposition.
Despite Gates’s apocalyptic vision, Nicaragua never
hardened into a “Marxist-Leninist” dictatorship; it never used its
military buildup against neighboring states; it turned out that hoping
Nicaragua would become a pluralistic democracy wasn’t “silly and
hopeless”; Nicaragua even joined in regional peace negotiations that
halted the political violence.
As it turned out Gates had favored policies to the
right of Ronald Reagan – and was proven wrong in judgment after judgment
Yet now two decades later, after a stint as
president of Texas A&M, Gates is returning to Washington as a respected
Wise Man who will be trusted to guide the United States out of the
bloody debacle in Iraq.
Thankful that George W. Bush’s first Defense
Secretary is on his way out, the U.S. Senate seems determined to trust
in Bush’s wisdom in choosing a replacement. The Senate also appears
ready to trust in the judgment of Robert M. Gates to make the right
decisions about the Iraq War.
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.'