CIA Nominee Says Mysteries Upstage Secrets
If confirmed as head of the CIA, Robert M. Gates figures he will be expected to help U.S. policy-makers unravel two types of problems--mysteries and secrets.
“Secrets are things that are ultimately knowable, stealable--you can find them out, they exist, you can target them, you can go after them,” Gates told the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearings last week. “Mysteries are those things where nobody knows what the answer is.”
But the big problem facing Gates, as he sees it, is that the number of mysteries in the world is growing “geometrically,” while the number of secrets is declining just as fast. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is less need for U.S. policy-makers to know the inner workings at the Kremlin, and more demand for political and economic forecasts.
Judging from his background as a career policy analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, Gates, 47, who now serves as President Bush’s deputy national security adviser, would seem to be precisely the right man to head the agency at this time of cataclysmic change around the world. Secrets are, after all, the domain of the agency’s spies; mysteries are more often left to the policy analysts.
Gates has vowed, if he is confirmed, to revolutionize U.S. intelligence-gathering to fit the new realities of a world that is no longer galvanized by a Cold War standoff. Among other things, he has said he would expand the agency’s human intelligence capabilities--relying more on people than satellites--and downplay covert action, particularly paramilitary operations.
Without such sweeping changes, he argues, the CIA will be vulnerable to those forces that already are demanding that the U.S. spy agency be dismantled.
But not everyone agrees that Gates has the vision or mental agility to recognize all of the mysteries that suddenly present themselves in a time of rapid change. By his own account, he is no “swashbuckler.” Instead, he has a reputation for being--as Tom Korologos, a Gates confidant, puts it--"a measured, plodding, thoughtful” person.
Chief among Gates’ critics is Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, who questions whether President Bush’s nominee for CIA chief will be bold enough to set the nation’s spy agency on a new course in the wake of the collapse of communism. He said Gates, whose expertise in Soviet affairs now appears to be outdated, does not have a vision of “what is intelligence in a world where you’re not just counting nuclear warheads.”
And even some of Gates’ biggest admirers say that he faces a formidable challenge that might cause even the boldest, most aggressive CIA chief to stumble. Former Deputy CIA Director Bobby Ray Inman, for one, predicts that Gates’ first six months at the helm of the agency will be “extraordinarily turbulent.”
“It’s going to be bumpy because there is a massive job in front of the country to reorient its intelligence activities to the reality of an incredibly changing world and one that’s going to keep changing,” Inman says. Even if Gates wants to change the agency, he adds, the new director will meet with enormous resistance from the existing personnel.
Ironically, while Bradley questions Gates’ ability to act boldly, Inman says many career analysts at the CIA fear that the President’s nominee--who began his own meteoric career rise as a CIA analyst--will be too bold, too aggressive. As he put it, “There’s a substantial apprehension . . . that he will move too fast and too brutally for their careers.”
Others have asked whether Gates’ close relationship with the President would be an asset or a liability. Although Gates has said that Bush--who is himself a former CIA chief--likes to receive information that has not been altered by analysts, Gates has occasionally been accused of slanting intelligence to suit the inclination of policy-makers.
But Gates says he believes it would be “a unique opportunity” to have a CIA director with such a close working relationship to the President. He has always disagreed with those who feel that CIA analysts should--in his words--"throw intelligence over the transom,” keeping their distance from policy-makers.
“My view has been . . . that the intelligence community has to be right next to the policy-maker, right at his elbow, that he has to understand what is on his mind, he has to understand what his future concerns are, he has to understand what his agenda is,” he says.
Gates has pledged that, as CIA director, he would focus the work of the agency on the specific issues that are of primary importance to the Administration. “We publish too much intelligence of questionable relevance to policy-makers,” he says. “Less and better should be the rule.”
That rule, according to Inman, will encounter enormous resistance at the agency, where analysts naturally want to focus on the issues they know best and shy away from those subjects that are unfamiliar to them.
Likewise, Inman foresees trouble for Gates’ plan to emphasize human intelligence. Now that Americans have access to the Soviet Union, the U.S. government will find itself woefully lacking in personnel who have the necessary language skills or the cultural knowledge to provide accurate estimates of political and economic activities in the individual republics.
By and large, the CIA’s Soviet experts are people whose expertise and experience is geared to estimating Soviet military capabilities--a matter that is no longer of primary importance to the President and his foreign policy experts.
Similarly, Gates admits he once viewed as “unthinkable” the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, and he realizes that CIA analysts in the future must begin to think the “unthinkable” in other parts of this rapidly changing world--particularly in China. “Clearly,” he says, “we need to be thinking about alternative futures for China.”
As the threat of a nuclear conflict declines, the CIA also is being forced to revamp its planning for periods of war--focusing on the prospects of a conventional conflict. Accordingly, Gates has promised to forge an improved relationship with U.S. military officials, who complained bitterly during the Gulf War that the agency’s assessments of damage behind enemy lines were too equivocal and too dependent on satellite photos.
In the current post-Cold War environment, the proliferation of dangerous weapons has become an even bigger threat, and U.S. officials are clearly concerned that stolen Soviet arms will begin showing up on the international arms market as the economy of that country deteriorates further.
In assessing the threat of nuclear proliferation, CIA analysts have been guilty of what Gates calls “technological arrogance"--the erroneous assumption that a nation such as Iraq would not settle for outdated technology to build nuclear weapons. He has promised to remedy that, and to rid the agency of the naive assumption that people in other cultures will act as Americans do.
Further, he intends to invest more effort in tracking the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, which pose a growing threat in the Persian Gulf.
Still, Gates can be expected to resist some of the most controversial suggestions for reshaping the agency in a post-Cold War world. For instance, he opposes suggestions that the CIA should be engaged in espionage against industries in other countries that compete with U.S. manufacturers.
This idea has been put forth by business executives in the United States because some other countries are suspected of using their intelligence services for industrial spying.
Nevertheless, Gates says he would get the agency involved in collecting information about other nations that are violating international trade rules. In addition, he says the CIA--working with the FBI--would aggressively investigate cases where foreign intelligence services are being used in espionage against U.S. companies.
“We know that foreign intelligence services plant moles in our high-tech companies,” he says. “We know that they rifle briefcases of our businessmen who travel in their countries. We know they collect information on what we’re doing.”
Like most analysts, Gates has a natural skepticism of covert operations. The operational and analytical departments of the CIA have historically been at odds. But Gates also shares the view of many experts that the need for covert operations will be diminished as a result of the decline in Soviet adventurism in the Third World.
Gates would be expected to choose a strong deputy to head up the operations side of the agency, which he admits he virtually ignored when he become deputy director in 1986.
Although the challenges that would await Gates at the CIA are enormous, perhaps the most difficult one would be surmounting his personal reputation among his former agency colleagues as a somewhat brittle, unyielding manager. “He is an extraordinarily hard taskmaster,” says Inman. “He is of himself, and he is of others.”
The hearings will continue this week with the Intelligence Committee expected to vote late in the week on whether to recommend confirmation to the full Senate.
Times staff writer Douglas Jehl contributed to this story.