The Bureaucrat Spy, Review of Robert M. Gates' From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War

The Bureaucrat Spy, Review of Robert M. Gates' From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War

Mini Teaser: Robert M. Gates entered CIA toward the end of its best years, and the history he recounts of the ensuing twenty-odd years is strewn with untidy crises and a mix of CIA successes and disasters, brilliant insights, and woeful miscalls. Gates describ

by Author(s): Russell Jack Smith

The Bureaucrat Spy, Review of Robert M. Gates' From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Chatting together, former Central Intelligence Agency officers, now old men but once pioneers who built CIA and ran it for the first twenty-five years, on occasion nod in agreement and say, "We had the best of it, my friends." The veteran CIA men recall the zestful years when CIA was the leader in pursuing a heady Cold War mission, when the organization was still unencumbered by a restrictive bureaucracy, when Congress exercised a benign and cooperative oversight, and when the American press was friendly and respectful in its dealings with the agency charged with anticipating foreign threats to the nation's security.

Robert M. Gates entered CIA toward the end of this halcyon period, and the history he recounts of the ensuing twenty-odd years is strewn with untidy crises and a mix of CIA successes and disasters, brilliant insights, and woeful miscalls. Gates describes these various episodes even-handedly and in great detail. Despite a reputation he is purported to have among some CIA colleagues as aggressive and confrontational, his tone throughout this account is equable, reasoned, and dispassionate.

But though Bob Gates says at one point that he regarded CIA as his true home base, the fact is that nearly half of his Washington career was spent in the White House where, as a National Security Council staff officer, or as deputy national security advisor, he played an active role in formulating national security policy. This fifty-fifty blend of intelligence officer and policymaker is unique to Gates. In CIA's early days a high wall stood between intelligence and policymaking. Agency leaders regarded the organization as an instrument of policy, never its formulator or advocate. And previous to Gates no top CIA executive had ever served alternately in intelligence and policymaking positions. In his several roles in these two realms Gates, by his account, kept the two activities entirely separate. Some critics within CIA did not always see it that way, however, and contended that Gates' self-admitted "hard line" stance toward the Soviet Union had politicized and biased Agency analysis to favor a tough anti-Soviet policy. To this charge, Gates makes a detailed and documented rebuttal, and it is left to the reader to decide whether or not the line drawn was exceedingly fine.

At the outset Gates announces that he intends to break new ground in recounting those years "from Vietnam to the collapse of the Soviet Union":

"Drawing on personal experience at CIA and the White House, as well as knowledge of CIA documents and activities never before revealed or declassified, I want to tell what really happened. . . . I want to challenge the proliferation of myths and revisionism, and to challenge the conventional wisdom on important events and personalities of the period."

Certainly no reader can complain that Gates is sparing of evidence in supporting his account of events. The book is densely packed--indeed it teems with quotations from official CIA estimates and memoranda, memos recording White House and Agency meetings and conversations, internal CIA memos, and inter-office notes and letters. When one adds to this imposing collection such examples of Gates' excellent memory, or superb record keeping, "Between 10:00 and 10:15, Jim McCullough . . . told me Casey had just collapsed. . . .", it is hard to fault the author for either laziness or imprecision. It is possible, however, that historians and other scholars may be frustrated by the lack of precise notation for many references, especially those drawn from personal files or correspondence, notations that would enable them to pursue other aspects of the material besides those used by the author.

Gates reveals again and again that he possesses a discerning eye in appraising the personalities and characters of people he worked with in Washington. Among CIA directors, he is unsparing of both James Schlesinger ("among those who were in the Agency then, Jim Schlesinger remains the most unpopular director in CIA's history") and Stansfield Turner (a "man regarded with deep hostility and dislike by many in and out of the Agency and intelligence community, then and now"). About William Colby, the only director he portrays with whom I served directly, Gates takes an appropriately two-edged view. After stating that "Colby to this day remains controversial in CIA circles", he comments: "I saw Colby then, and now, as a reform Director--as someone from the inside prepared to make changes in order that CIA do its job better. . . ." William Webster gets only accolades: "Webster was a godsend to the Agency . . . he brought to CIA . . . leadership, the respect of Congress, and a sterling character." But it is William Casey who gets the fullest treatment.

As a subordinate, Gates saw both Casey's flaws and strengths clearly. The flaws were not unanticipated at the time of Casey's appointment as DCI. Many observers worried that Casey's role as President Reagan's campaign manager suggested looming politicization of the Agency. But at the time a former CIA top executive expressed to me a different take:

"The thing that worries me about Casey is that he will come down here thinking he can take up where he left off in OSS. During the Second World War OSS sent him to London with little or no training and he began running agents into Europe. I'm sure he thinks any smart guy can do it now just as well as then."

By Gates' account this was a remarkably prescient prediction. Casey, says Gates, "had only one real hero: William J. Donovan", the head of OSS. "If Donovan was willing to cut a few corners to accomplish the mission, so was Casey." Moreover, "When Casey had been an intelligence officer in OSS, there was no congressional oversight, no body of intelligence law, really no rules or regulations." And Gates goes on to document Casey's headstrong style on repeated occasions, most particularly in the complicated affairs of Nicaragua and the Contras. Gates also faults Casey for his contempt of Congress and his hostility toward the press, both attitudes having served him ill. He notes that Casey had "his own foreign policy agenda and, as a Cabinet member, pursued that agenda vigorously and often in opposition to the Secretary of State."

But Casey was also, in Gates' view, "one of the smartest people I have ever known. His intellectual curiosity was deep, and he met with and read an extraordinary variety of people . . . liberals, conservatives, wackos, authors, and businessmen. His door was open to them all."

Of the six presidents who held office during Gates' Washington career--Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush--the two who impressed him most favorably were Jimmy Carter and George Bush. Carter, especially, is his candidate for upsetting Gates' oft-cited opponent, "conventional wisdom." After noting Carter initiatives in approving strategic and conventional military programs, later expanded by President Reagan, Gates summarizes:

"Carter's record in dealing with the Soviet Union . . . was far more complex and successful than commonly believed at the time or since. Indeed, he was the most consistently--if unintentionally--truculent president in relations with the Soviets since Harry Truman."

George Bush too had qualities not always perceived by "conventional wisdom." For starters, "George Bush was tough. He could take a punch and get back up. There are numerous examples from his public life." While it is true, in Gates' judgment, that Bush had the support of "the best national security team since the Truman administration",
"It was Bush who set strategy, who decided to push for German unification, who decided how to deal with revolutions in Eastern Europe, who decided how to deal with a collapsing Soviet Empire. He was the master of tactics, from when to call a foreign leader to the need to make a splash with a new arms control proposal. His instincts were sure. . . ."

Diverting as the portraits of these major figures are, the heart of this densely detailed book lies in the myriad of play-by-play accounts of incidents and crises in the national security arena during the period 1969 to 1992. If there were any significant incidents in that period not dealt with here, I cannot recall them. The accounts are virtually case studies of the interplay among the White House, the Department of State, the Pentagon, and CIA. The names heading sections of the book describing the problems addressed--Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, Afghanistan, Grenada, and so on--read like the syllabus for a college course on late twentieth-century world history. Unfortunately, Gates chooses to organize his presentation almost entirely on a chronological, not thematic, principle. This obliges him to lay the treatment of an individual subject aside for a time and return to it, after time has passed or some other crisis has intervened, some pages later. This creates a choppy effect at times, the most glaring example of which is his discussion of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in May 1981. After two pages on the subject, it is dropped and then resumed briefly 105 pages later.

Quite properly, the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Union is to Gates the most significant event of our time. No one, Gates asserts, foresaw that collapse:

"Political and historical revisionism notwithstanding, no one in American government--in Congress or the Executive--believed that the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union was a real possibility until very late. The inevitability of the collapse was, in the West, an article of faith politically and of analysis intellectually. But the reluctance to forecast specific timing was born simply of uncertainty and political self-preservation."

If the assertion is correct, if no Soviet observers in the National Security Council staff, the Department of State, the Pentagon, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, or the senators and representatives on the foreign relations committees or their industrious staffs foresaw or forecast the collapse, then what justification has there been for singling out CIA and charging it with failure? The answer is simple and direct: It was CIA's responsibility to foresee the event and forecast it. As the national intelligence service, CIA is charged with the task of alerting the president and the Congress in a timely fashion to an event whose ramifications could jeopardize the security of the United States. If it failed to do so, regardless of extenuating circumstances, then on this occasion it failed in its mission.

Gates makes the best possible case in defense of the Agency's performance.

"CIA's record--literally thousands of assessments, briefings, and monographs, public and classified over a thirty-year period--makes clear the Agency:

--from the late 1960s onward accurately described the growing economic, political, and social weakness of the Soviet Union and its worsening systemic crisis;

--accurately portrayed the futility of tinkering with the system and pointed out how Gorbachev was undermining the old system without embracing a new one;

--and by 1988-9 was warning of a deepening crisis, the potential for a rightist coup, and possible collapse of the entire system."

For a clincher he cites the 1991 report by a panel of outside scholars commissioned by the House Intelligence Committee to evaluate CIA's work on the Soviet economy: "We conclude . . . the CIA's reports have been of high quality, timely, and useful to policymakers."

Much of the criticism of CIA's performance, or lack of it, in predicting the demise of the USSR has centered on the Agency's economic data. Gates says that he himself was "never comfortable with our estimates in Soviet military spending--especially in dollars. . . . As a noneconomist, nonstatistician, I was hard-pressed to quarrel with the methodology. But I . . . believed instinctively that, in this communist variant of Sparta, the burden of military-related spending was far greater than the 14-16 percent of Soviet Gross National Product . . . perhaps somewhere between 25 and 40 percent."

After expressing this peculiarly personal caveat--an extraordinary disclaimer by the deputy director responsible for Agency economic analysis--Gates surely does nothing to strengthen either his case or that of the Agency by stating that CIA was then in "hot water" with the Defense Department for suggesting that Soviet military procurement was leveling off and "the last thing [Secretary of Defense] Weinberger needed was CIA analysis that suggested Soviet defense spending was slowing." In any event, CIA economists themselves were warning by 1990 that statistical analysis was "much less informative than in the past", given the deterioration in the stability of the Soviet economy.
"CIA urged, instead, focusing on qualitative assessments of the Soviet economy as more revealing than the statistics. Policymakers at the time heeded this advice and grasped the magnitude of the crisis we were describing. . . . How ironic that critics later would use the statistics CIA warned against as evidence that it had missed the crisis altogether!"

Certainly, the economic crisis was a key element in the collapse of the USSR, but a more determining factor was the course of action taken by Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, if there is extenuation to be found for CIA or the others who failed to foresee the imminent collapse of the USSR, it is to be found in the person of this committed Communist who instituted a system of reforms intended to strengthen his Party and his country, but which had a contrary effect. His first move was to establish glasnost, freedom of discussion. "Through glasnost and a new look at Soviet history", writes Gates, "he exposed the myths and lies that had been central to preserving the authority of the center and the party." His action can be likened, it seems to me, to a workman who systematically removes all the mortar between the bricks of a building without realizing he has doomed it to collapse. "Without authoritarian central control of the economy and society--buttressed by myths and fear--the Soviet system could not survive", Gates declares.

But why was Gorbachev blind to the likely consequences of his actions? Gates suggests only that he "lacked vision." I suggest that after lifelong immersion in the Soviet repressive system Gorbachev did not recognize its essentiality. To him, it was merely a part of the environment, an aspect that could be improved upon. But taking it all in all, an observation by Henry Kissinger quoted by Gates best sums it up: "If you were setting out to destroy the Soviet Union, would you do it any differently?"

Essay Types: Book Review