Gates pushed for bombing of Sandinistas

Times Staff Writer

Robert M. Gates, President Bush’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, advocated a bombing campaign against Nicaragua in 1984 in order to “bring down” the leftist government, according to a declassified memo released by a nonprofit research group.

The memo from Gates to his then-boss, CIA Director William J. Casey, was among a selection of declassified documents from the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal posted Friday on the website of the National Security Archive,

In the memo, Gates, who was deputy director of the CIA, argued that the Soviet Union was turning Nicaragua into an armed camp and that the country could become a second Cuba. The rise of the communist-leaning Sandinista government threatened the stability of Central America, Gates asserted.


Gates’ memo echoed the view of many foreign policy hard-liners at the time; however, the feared communist takeover of the region never materialized.

“It seems to me,” Gates wrote, “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.”

Gates predicted that without U.S. funding, the Nicaraguan anti-communist forces known as Contras would collapse within one or two years. But he said that providing “new funding” for the Contras was not good enough. Instead, he advocated that the United States withdraw diplomatic recognition of the Sandinista government, provide overt assistance to a government in exile, impose economic sanctions or a quarantine, and use airstrikes to destroy Nicaragua’s “military buildup.”

“It sounds like Donald Rumsfeld,” said National Security Archive Director Thomas S. Blanton. “It shows the same kind of arrogance and hubris that got us into Iraq.”

In the memo, Gates noted he was advocating “hard measures” that “probably are politically unacceptable.”

Indeed, Blanton said, Gates’ advocacy of military strikes against Nicaragua was extreme.

“It sure wasn’t a mainstream opinion; most Americans thought we shouldn’t be doing anything in Nicaragua,” Blanton said. “How possibly was our national security interest at stake?”


Reached late Friday, Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, said he was not familiar with the memo. Stanzel said Gates would not be available for comment because it was standard practice for nominees to reject interview requests before Senate confirmation hearings.

Blanton said it would be wrong to look at a 22-year-old memo as evidence of Gates’ current thinking. Gates seems to have changed after his nomination for CIA director was withdrawn in 1987, Blanton said. When Gates became CIA director in 1991, he was chastened and his earlier “arrogance” diminished.

“People change,” Blanton said. “And very possibly the Robert Gates nominated for secretary of Defense is the Robert Gates who is the best CIA director we ever had, and not the Robert Gates who was a ‘mini-me’ Rumsfeld.”

The memo offers some insights into how Gates viewed historical lessons, at least in 1984.

Gates wrote that the United States wrongly thought in the late 1950s that it could encourage Castro to form a pluralistic government. And he said that in Vietnam the United States took a series of half measures that “enabled the enemy to adjust to each new turn of the screw” by the war’s end, he said, the country was able to tolerate severe bombing campaigns.

“Half measures, halfheartedly applied, will have the same result in Nicaragua,” Gates wrote.

It was probably the election of Daniel Ortega to the Nicaraguan presidency in November 1984 that prompted Gates to write his memo of Dec. 14, 1984.


Ortega was elected again to the presidency this year, although he now presents himself as a moderate.

In the memo, Gates concluded that the Contra rebels alone would not be able to overthrow the Sandinista regime, even with U.S. money.

It was the Reagan administration’s attempts to find ways to provide funding for the Nicaraguan rebels even after Congress forbade such support that led to the Iran-Contra scandal, a plan to use the proceeds of arms sales to Iran to fund the Contras.

The Iran-Contra affair erupted in the public spotlight 20 years ago. Gates’ role in the scandal was investigated by Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh and was the focus of confirmation hearings for Gates’ 1987 nomination for CIA director.

Gates denied any wrongdoing in the scandal. Most of the debate over Gates’ role centers on what he knew about the plan.

According to documents released by the National Security Archive and others, Gates seems to have known about Oliver North’s attempts to raise money for the Contras, but opposed the idea and tried to keep the CIA out of it.


Critics have said Gates failed to make inquiries about the scandal that could have stopped the scheme from going forward.

Walsh concluded that Gates was “less than candid” but did not bring charges against him.

Gates’ suggestions for Nicaragua policy were never adopted by the Reagan administration. And, on the whole, Gates’ predictions in the 1984 memo didn’t pan out.

Nicaragua did not become a communist dictatorship. The Sandinista regime did not lead to the fall of U.S.-backed governments in El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala. Ortega and the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990. A year later the Soviet Union ceased to exist.