FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asked me to testify at the confirmation hearings for Robert M. Gates, who had been nominated to be director of Central Intelligence.
I was asked because I had worked in the CIA’s office of Soviet analysis back when Gates was the agency’s deputy director for intelligence and chairman of the National Intelligence Council.
More specifically, I was asked to testify because of my knowledge about the creation of a May 1985 special National Intelligence Estimate on Iran that had been used to justify the ill-fated deals known as Iran-Contra.
It seems like a long time ago now. Iran-Contra is just one of many scandals that have come and gone in the intervening years. But today, in the aftermath of the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq based on faulty intelligence — and with Gates poised to reemerge, this time as secretary of Defense — it is worth remembering some lessons from the 1980s about how intelligence was politicized to support ideologically-based positions.
In 1985, during Ronald Reagan’s second term as president, the U.S. faced enormous diplomatic and military challenges in the Middle East and in Central America. Reagan and then-CIA Director William J. Casey were known for their aggressive anti-Soviet rhetoric and policies. Gates, as Casey’s deputy, shared their ideology.
Iran-Contra was in the planning stages then, a secret scheme in which the Reagan administration was going to sell arms to an enemy country, Iran, and use the proceeds to fund the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua.
In order to justify these actions, administration officials felt they needed some analytical backing from the intelligence community. Those in my office knew nothing of their plans, of course, but it was the context in which we were asked, in 1985, to contribute to the National Intelligence Estimate on the subject of Iran.
Later, when we received the draft NIE, we were shocked to find that our contribution on Soviet relations with Iran had been completely reversed. Rather than stating that the prospects for improved Soviet-Iranian relations were negligible, the document indicated that Moscow assessed those prospects as quite good. What’s more, the national intelligence officer responsible for coordinating the estimate had already sent a personal memo to the White House stating that the race between the U.S. and USSR “for Tehran is on, and whoever gets there first wins all.”
No one in my office believed this Cold War hyperbole. There was simply no evidence to support the notion that Moscow was optimistic about its prospects for improved relations with Iran. All of our published analysis had consistently been pessimistic about Soviet-Iranian relations as long as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was alive.
We protested the conclusions of the NIE, citing evidence such as the Iranian government’s repression of the communist Tudeh Party, the expulsion of all Soviet economic advisors and a number of Soviet diplomats who were KGB officers, and a continuing public rhetoric that chastised the “godless” communist regime as the “Second Satan” after the United States.
Despite overwhelming evidence, our analysis was suppressed. At a coordinating meeting, we were told that Gates wanted the language to stay in as it was, presumably to help justify “improving” our strained relations with Tehran through the Iran-Contra weapons sales.
It’s possible that the Reagan administration would have gone ahead and made its overtures to Iran regardless of what was said in the NIE, but having the coordinated assessment of the intelligence community support its views certainly added legitimacy to its rationale. What’s more, if the policymakers had received better and more accurate intelligence, perhaps someone would at least have questioned the false sense of urgency. Instead, our intelligence was used as expensive intra-government propaganda.
Unfortunately, the Iran NIE was not the only case of politicization under Gates. It began in 1982, when Casey asked for an NIE on Soviet support for international terrorism. It continued when we were asked how far we thought the Soviet Union would go in its support for leftists in Central America. There was also an investigation by the CIA’s inspector general into the atmosphere of politicization at the agency, the results of which were published even before 1991.
It was well known among analysts at the time that we would have a hard time getting Gates to sign off on analyses that did not fit his ideological preconceptions. All one had to do was look at his margin comments on controversial papers to know what was going on. Fortunately for him, classification and layers of bureaucracy kept those comments from public view. Today, however, many cases of politicized intelligence are a matter of public record. The National Security Archive, a not-for-profit organization, has posted many documents on its website that tell the story.
During those years, the government was clearly dominated by people who had a strong ideological view of the Soviet Union. But their conflict was not with people who were “soft” on communism, it was with people who looked at all the available evidence, without much bias one way or another, and who had been to the USSR and witnessed its hollow political and social structure, seeing not an omnipotent superpower but a clumsy, oafish regime often stumbling over its own feet.
The real untold story is just how wrong the American hard-liners, such as Gates, got the Soviet Union. Although they were the last to recognize that Mikhail S. Gorbachev was indeed reforming the USSR, they were the first to state that Gorbachev would be ousted and replaced by neo-Stalinists, as had been done to Nikita Khrushchev. (See Gates’ Op-Ed article in the Washington Times in March 1989.) They also completely missed the Boris Yeltsin reform option.
Is all this ancient history relevant today? It is if you believe that policymakers are poorly served when analysis is concocted to support their preexisting positions. It is relevant if you believe that the failure to learn the lessons from the 1991 Gates hearings harmed U.S. foreign policy when, a decade later, we went to war on false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It is relevant if you believe that Congress should take its oversight responsibilities seriously.
The nomination of Robert Gates to become secretary of Defense is an opportunity for him to demonstrate that he has learned from his mistakes and for Congress to reassert its constitutional authority.