The Consortium

By Robert Parry

At CIA's campus-like headquarters amid the leafy woods ofLangley, Va., a Biblical quote stands out as an ironic motto. Itreads, "And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make youfree." Near the door that William Casey shuffled past for sixyears in the 1980s, the Lord's advice could be read as awarning, too, a kind of marker for a descent into a netherworldthat crosses Dante with Orwell.

One of the paradoxical figures from that realm was Robert M.Gates, a compact man with the looks of a choirboy and ahigh-pitched Midwest twang that enhanced his image of innocence.Gates was technically an intelligence analyst dedicated to anobjective rendering of fact so top U.S. government officialswould have sound information upon which to base decisions.

But Gates was also a savvy political player, who moved throughkey intelligence jobs at a young age. He was tapped by powerfulmentors, especially by CIA directors Bush and Casey who saw inGates a malleable protege and a reliable subordinate. At anumber of crucial turns from 1970s to the early 1990s, Gates wasthere along the historical path, blending in with his easy smileand soft voice, unthreatening, disarming, but somehow sinister.

Gates's new memoirs, From the Shadows, are an eerie mix ofstartling admissions blended with dubious history andself-serving explanations. The book recounts the final phase ofthe Cold War and is a work of the period, rendered by a mindwhich saw social unrest in the Third World as nothing more thanMoscow and Washington sliding expendable pawns across a bloodychess board.

Gates's accounts of upheavals from southern Africa to the NearEast, from Central America to Southeast Asia are draped inlanguage about Moscow's reckless stratagems versus Washington'sbold counter-moves. The book is devoid of any recognition thatlocal grievances, far more than Soviet instruction, drovepeasants into rebellion against corrupt rulers.

Gates Flips the Bird

What drove Gates included a personal animus toward the Communistenemy. In 1975, for instance, he blamed Romanian authoritiesfor stealing his passport while he was on a diplomatic mission."In a regrettable but immensely satisfying display of pique andimmaturity, I bade farewell to Romania's security police with anuplifted middle finger from the doorway of Air Force Two," Gateswrites.

Gates offers some other candid insights into CIA operations ofthe era. He acknowledges that from the late 1970s, the spyagency launched covert operations to subsidize anti-Communistpublications in Eastern Europe and to smuggle anti-Russianliterature into the ethnic regions of the Soviet Union.

In another confirmation of a long-denied covert activity, Gatesadmits that the CIA did funnel money through Nicaragua'sCatholic Church to finance anti-Sandinista political operations.When I broke that story for Newsweek in June 1987, Nicaragua'sCatholic bishops angrily denied its accuracy, and Reagan-Bushallies in the conservative press denounced me. Accuracy in Media demanded that Newsweek conduct an internal investigation, andadministration officials lobbied Newsweek editors to silence myreporting.

Yet, in a offhand comment about why Casey's lost credibilitywith Congress, Gates writes that Casey "did, apparently, crossthe line on several occasions, such as continuing to providecovert funding for the Catholic Church in Nicaragua after hepromised Congress he would stop." In such brief asides, historyoccasionally slips out.

Half-Hearted Investigations

Gates also correctly criticizes congressional Democrats fortheir failure to investigate press accounts in 1984-85 hintingat Oliver North's secret operations (a number of which I hadwritten at The Associated Press ).

"Efforts on the Hill to find out more were halfhearted and notpursued with vigor or commitment," Gates states. "Administrationdenials to inquiries were taken at face value with none of theintrusive inquiry and investigation Congress often brings tobear on Executive activities it wants to know more about."

Still, Gates had no complaint when he got protection from thesee-no-evil Democrats. In 1991, he was confirmed as GeorgeBush's CIA director after another "half-hearted" congressionalinquiry which took his denials at "face value."

Key senators had blocked Gates's nomination to replace Casey asCIA director in 1987 because of suspicions that Gates, as deputydirector, had misled Congress about the Iran-contra scandal. By1991, witnesses also had linked Gates to alleged Republicanefforts to sabotage President Carter's Iran hostage negotiationsin 1980 -- the so-called October Surprise story -- and to secretCIA-sanctioned arms shipments to Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the1980s -- known as Iraqgate.

Gates denied all the charges and was helped immensely by hisfriend, Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., chairman of the SenateIntelligence Committee. "David took it as a personal challengeto get me confirmed," Gates writes in his memoirs.

Troubling Witnesses

Much as the Congress had rejected witnesses and failed to followobvious leads in the mid-1980s as the Iran-contra scandal wasbuilding, Boren's Intelligence Committee brushed aside twowitnesses connecting Gates to the alleged GOP actions in 1980and the purported CIA arms deals with Iraq a few years later.The witnesses, former Israeli intelligence official AriBen-Menashe and Iranian businessman Richard Babayan, bothoffered details about Gates's alleged connections to thoseschemes.

Ben-Menashe, who worked for Israeli military intelligence from1977-87, first fingered Gates as an operative in the secret Iraqarms pipeline in August 1990 during an interview I conducted forPublic Broadcasting System's FRONTLINE program. Ben-Menashe wasin jail in New York on charges of trying to sell cargo planes toIran (charges which were later dismissed). When I interviewedBen-Menashe in 1990, Gates was in an obscure position, as deputynational security adviser to President Bush and not yet acandidate for the top CIA job.

In that interview and later under oath, Ben-Menashe put Gates ina 1986 meeting with a Chilean arms manufacturer Carlos Cardoenwho allegedly was supplying cluster bombs and chemical weaponsto Saddam Hussein's army. At the time, Iraq was at war withIran. Babayan, an Iranian exile working with Iraq, alsoconnected Gates to the Iraqi supply lines and to Cardoen.

Ben-Menashe insisted, too, that Gates joined in meetings betweenRepublicans and senior Iranians in 1980 when President Carterwas trying to gain release of 52 Americans then held in Iran.Ben-Menashe claimed that he and Gates were with Casey and Bushin Paris for a round of meetings in October 1980. The Israelisaid he got Gates's help, too, in bringing a suitcase full ofcash into Miami in early 1981 to pay off some of theparticipants in the hostage gambit.

In fall 1980, Gates was executive assistant to CIA directorStansfield Turner, a job giving Gates extraordinary access tothe Carter administration's most closely held secrets. But, iftrue, Ben-Menashe's allegations would mean that Gates hadbetrayed his official duties. For his part, Gates hassteadfastly denied involvement in either October Surprise orIraqgate.

Alibis, Anyone?

"I was accused on television and in the print media by people Ihad never spoken to or met of selling weapons to Iraq, orwalking through Miami airport with suitcases full of cash, ofbeing with Bush in Paris in October 1980 to meet with Iranians,and on and on," Gates writes in his memoirs. "The allegationsof meetings with me around the world were easily disproved forthe committee by my travel records, calendars, and countlesswitnesses."

Gates blames the Ben-Menashe/Babayan charges on "the magneticattraction of media attention in drawing out all manner of verystrange people." But none of Gates's supposedly supportiveevidence was ever made public by either the Senate IntelligenceCommittee or the later inquiries into either October Surprise orIraqgate. Not one of Gates's "countless witnesses" who couldvouch for Gates's whereabouts was identified. Though Borenpledged publicly to have his investigators question Babayan,they never did.

Most galling was the Intelligence Committee's handling of aclaim by Ben-Menashe to have met with Gates in Paramus, N.J., onthe afternoon of April 20, 1989. The date was pinned down bythe fact that Ben-Menashe had been under Customs surveillance inthe morning. So it could have been a perfect test for eitherdestroying or buttressing Ben-Menashe's credibility.

When I first asked about this claim, congressional investigatorstold me that Gates had a perfect alibi for that day: he had beenwith Boren at a speech in Oklahoma. But when FRONTLINE checkedthat out, we discovered that Gates's Oklahoma speech had been onApril 19, a day earlier. Gates also had not been with Boren andhad returned to Washington by that evening.

So where was Gates the next day? Could he have taken a quicktrip to northern New Jersey?

The committee said no again, citing two points: Gates deniedgoing to New Jersey and his calendar made no reference to thetrip. But the investigators could not tell me where Gatesclaimed to be that afternoon. They also admitted they hadquestioned no witnesses to corroborate his alibi. Essentially,the alibi came down to Gates's word.

An Affidavit

Then, in January 1995, a new witness linked Gates to arms shipments to Iraq. Howard Teicher, a staffer on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, submitted a sworn affidavit in an arms-to-Iraq case in Miami, Fla.

"Under CIA Director Casey and Deputy Director Gates, the CIA authorized, approved and assisted [Carlos] Cardoen in the manufacture and sale of cluster bombs and other munitions to Iraq," Teicher declared. In other words, an insider on Reagan's NSC staff was leveling the same Iraqgate charge against Gates that Ben-Menashe and Babayan had made earlier.

The Clinton administration, however, chose not to pursue this new avenue of investigation. Instead, Clinton prosecutors suppressed the affidavit and attacked Teicher's credibility. The federal judge ruled Teicher's testimony to be irrelevant in the Miami case against a mid-level Teledyne salesman, Edward Johnson, who was then convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

The Democratic failures to enforce meaningful oversight on that12-year Republican era again had left dangling historical questions. Robert Gates remained a respectable man writing memoirs celebrating U.S. victory in the Cold War. But the truth, it seems, has yet to make the nation free.

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