A PECULIAR RISK:
Blackmail & Bobby Gates
One risk of putting career intelligence officer Robert Gates in charge of the Defense Department is that he has a secret—and controversial—history that might open him to pressure from foreign operatives, including some living in countries of U.S. military interest, such as Iran and Iraq.
Put more crudely, the 63-year-old Gates could become the target of pressure or even blackmail unless some of the troubling questions about his past are answered conclusively, not just cosmetically.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Gates benefited from half-hearted probes by the U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch into these mysteries. The investigators – some of whom were Gates’s friends – acted as if their goal was more to sweep incriminating evidence under the rug than to expose the facts to public scrutiny.
While giving Gates another pass might work for Official Washington, which always has had a soft spot for the polite mild-mannered Gates, it won’t solve the potential for a problem if other countries have incriminating evidence about him. So, before the U.S. Senate waves Gates’s through – as happened in 1991 when he was confirmed as CIA director – it would make sense to resolve two issues in particular:
Gates has denied allegations linking him to these operations, but evidence that has emerged since 1991 has buttressed claims about Gates’s involvement. Other new documents, such as papers recovered from Iraqi government files after the U.S. invasion in 2003, also could shed light on the mysteries.
- Did Gates participate in secret and possibly illegal contacts with Iranian leaders from the 1980 election campaign through the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986?
- Did Gates oversee a clandestine pipeline of weapons and other military equipment to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq starting in 1982?
On the question of Gates and the Iraqi arms shipments, former National Security Council aide Howard Teicher swore out an affidavit in 1995 detailing Gates’s secret role in shepherding military equipment via third countries to Iraq.
Teicher said the secret arming of Iraq was approved by President Ronald Reagan in June 1982 as part of a National Security Decision Directive. Under it, CIA Director William Casey and his then-deputy, Robert Gates, “authorized, approved and assisted” delivery of cluster bombs and other materiel to Iraq, Teicher said.
Teicher’s affidavit corroborated earlier public statements by former Israeli intelligence officer Ari Ben-Menashe and Iranian-born businessman Richard Babayan, who claimed first-hand knowledge of Gates’s central role in the secret Iraq operations.
In 1995, however, Teicher’s affidavit embarrassed President Bill Clinton’s Justice Department, which had just tried to dispose of the so-called Iraqgate scandal with a report that found no evidence to support allegations that the Reagan-Bush administration had illegally armed Saddam Hussein.
Clinton’s Justice Department apparently wanted to clear the decks of these complicated historical scandals from the Reagan-Bush years. Clinton found those old controversies a distraction from his goal of focusing on the nation’s domestic needs.
The Clinton administration’s debunking report about Iraqgate had been so determined to see no evil that the Clinton lawyers didn’t even object to the discovery that the CIA had been hiding evidence from them.
“In the course of our work, we learned of ‘sensitive compartments’ of information not normally retrievable and of specialized offices that previously were unknown to the CIA personnel who were assisting us,” wrote John M. Hogan, counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno.
Without further skepticism or curiosity, Hogan added, “I do not believe this uncertainty severely undermined our investigation.”
In other words, the CIA had withheld “sensitive compartments” of information from the Justice Department and – rather than conclude that this concealed evidence might be worth seeing – the Clinton investigators assumed that the hidden “compartments” must not be very significant.
A rookie detective would be kicked off a small town police force if he had applied such logic to the search of a drug suspect’s house – “look anywhere you want, except in the closet” – but that was the way Reagan-Bush investigations were handled in that period.
Then, two weeks later, to the chagrin of the Clinton investigators, Teicher filed his affidavit as part of the defense by Teledyne Industries and one of its salesmen, Edward Johnson. Teledyne and Johnson were accused of shipping explosives to Chilean arms dealer Carlos Cardoen, who then used the material to manufacture cluster bombs for Iraq.
With the unveiling of Teicher’s affidavit, the Clinton prosecutors exploded. Not only did Teicher’s affidavit complicate their prosecution of Teledyne, it made Clinton’s Justice Department look foolish for having failed to check out the CIA’s “sensitive compartments.” The lawyers lashed out at Teicher.
First, the Clinton administration classified Teicher’s affidavit a secret. Then, when he pointed toward relevant records in the files of Ronald Reagan’s White House, the Clinton lawyers insisted that they could find nothing to support Teicher's claims. Next, they threatened Teicher with prosecution for revealing state secrets.
Though this intimidation of a witness had the look of prosecutorial misconduct – if not outright obstruction of justice – the tactics worked. Teicher backed away. The Clinton lawyers claimed Teicher had recanted, though he told me that he hadn’t retracted a thing.
Having blocked the testimony from Teicher and other witnesses who planned to describe the U.S. government’s Iraqgate secrets, the Clinton administration won its prosecution of Teledyne. Salesman Johnson, who earned about $30,000 a year, was sentenced to a 3 ?-year prison term.
If the Senate intends to review Gates’s nomination seriously, it now has a fresh opportunity to ascertain the truth about Gates and his role in the Iraqgate case.
A source at the United Nations told me that some of the captured Iraqi documents shed light on the Cardoen arms pipeline; a new Chilean government less sympathetic to the old Pinochet regime might finally be willing to hand over Cardoen who remains under indictment in the United States; and Teicher and other witnesses finally could be given a forum to testify under oath about what they know.
Other potential witnesses include Israeli intelligence officer Ben-Menashe.
In his 1992 book Profits of War, Ben-Menashe wrote that Israeli Mossad director Nachum Admoni approached Gates in 1985 seeking help in shutting down unconventional weapons moving through the arms pipeline to Iraq.
Ben-Menashe wrote that Gates attended a meeting in Chile in 1986 with Cardoen present at which Gates tried to calm down the Israelis by assuring them that U.S. policy was simply to ensure a channel of conventional weapons for Iraq. Gates has denied that the meeting occurred.
For his part, Cardoen has insisted in press interviews that American officials knew about and supported his weapons sales to Iraq in the 1980s. He said he was targeted for punishment only after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and U.S. officials scrambled to distance themselves from the covert policy of aiding Saddam Hussein.
On the question of Gates’s illicit contacts with senior Iranians, other new opportunities have presented themselves for evaluating those controversial charges.
In a secret 1993 report to the U.S. Congress, the Russian government claimed that its intelligence files listed Gates as participating in hostage negotiations with Iranian officials in Paris in October 1980 behind President Jimmy Carter’s back.
At the time, Iran was holding 52 American hostages and Carter was desperately trying to secure their release before the November 1980 elections, what became known as the October Surprise case. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s recent three-part series, “The Original October Surprise” – Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.]
Ben-Menashe, who was born to Iraqi Jewish parents and grew up in Iran, worked for Israeli military intelligence from 1977-87, according to Israeli government records. He first fingered Gates as an operative in the secret Iraq arms pipeline in August 1990 during an interview that I conducted with him for PBS Frontline.
At the time, Ben-Menashe was in jail in New York on charges of trying to sell cargo planes to Iran (charges that were later dismissed). When the interview took place, Gates was in a relatively obscure position, as deputy national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush and not yet a candidate for the top CIA job.
In that interview and later under oath to Congress, Ben-Menashe said Gates joined in meetings between Republicans and senior Iranians in October 1980. Ben-Menashe said he also arranged Gates’s personal help in bringing a suitcase full of cash into Miami in early 1981 to pay off some of the participants in the hostage gambit.
Gates has denied the claims from Ben-Menashe, Babayan and others.
“I was accused on television and in the print media by people I had never spoken to or met of selling weapons to Iraq, or walking through the Miami airport with suitcases full of cash, of being with Bush in Paris in October 1980 to meet with Iranians, and on and on,” Gates wrote in his memoir, From the Shadows, in brushing aside the claims.
But the Russian report, which was sent to an investigative House task force in January 1993 but never officially released, represents another chance to judge competing claims of credibility between Ben-Menashe and Gates.
The Russian report stated that “R[obert] Gates, at that time a staffer of the National Security Council in the administration of Jimmy Carter, and former CIA Director George Bush also took part” in a meeting with Iranians in Paris in October 1980. (Actually, Gates had left the NSC staff by then; he was working as the executive assistant to CIA Director Stansfield Turner in October 1980.)
If nothing else, questions could be posed to Russian officials about the quality of their intelligence reporting. [For the text of the Russian report which I discovered in the task force's unpublished files, click here. To view the actual U.S. embassy cable that includes the Russian report, click here.]
Once in office, the Reagan administration did permit weapons to flow to Iran via Israel. One of the planes carrying an arms shipment was shot down over the Soviet Union on July 18, 1981, after straying off course, but the incident drew little attention at the time. [For details on the October Surprise dispute, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
In his memoir, Gates claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee decisively knocked down the suspicions about him during the 1991 confirmation process for him to become CIA director.
“The allegations of meetings with me around the world were easily disproved for the committee by my travel records, calendars, and countless witnesses,” Gates wrote.
But none of Gates’s supposedly supportive evidence was ever made public by either the Senate Intelligence Committee or the later inquiries into either the Iran hostage initiative or Iraqgate.
Not one of Gates’s “countless witnesses” who could vouch for Gates’s whereabouts was identified. Though Senate Intelligence Committee chairman David Boren had pledged publicly to have his investigators question Iranian businessman Babayan about the Iraq arms shipments, they never did.
Perhaps most galling for those of us who were trying to assess Ben-Menashe’s credibility was the Intelligence Committee’s failure to test Ben-Menashe’s claim that he met with Gates in Paramus, New Jersey, on the afternoon of April 20, 1989.
The date was pinned down by the fact that Ben-Menashe had been under Customs surveillance in the morning. So it was a perfect test for whether Ben-Menashe – or Gates – was lying.
When I first asked about this claim, congressional investigators told me that Gates had a perfect alibi for that day. They said Gates had been with Senator Boren at a speech in Oklahoma. But when we checked that out, we discovered that Gates’s Oklahoma speech had been on April 19, a day earlier. Gates also had not been with Boren and had returned to Washington by that evening.
So where was Gates the next day? Could he have taken a quick trip to northern New Jersey? Since senior White House national security advisers keep detailed notes on their daily meetings, it should have been easy for Boren’s investigators to interview someone who could vouch for Gates’s whereabouts on the afternoon of April 20.
But the committee chose not to nail down an alibi for Gates. The committee said further investigation wasn’t needed because Gates denied going to New Jersey and his personal calendar made no reference to the trip.
But the investigators couldn’t tell me where Gates was that afternoon or with whom he may have met. They interviewed no alibi witnesses. Essentially, the alibi came down to Gates’s word.
In his memoir, Gates thanked his friend, David Boren, for pushing through the CIA nomination. “David took it as a personal challenge to get me confirmed,” Gates wrote.
Boren’s top aide who helped limit the investigation of Gates was George Tenet, whose behind-the-scenes maneuvering on Gates’s behalf won the personal appreciation of then-President George H.W. Bush.
Tenet later became President Bill Clinton’s last CIA director and was kept on in 2001 by the younger George Bush partly on his father’s advice.
As difficult as it might be for Congress to run down some of these Iran-Iraq leads before voting on Gates’s nomination to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary, the risks to the United States would be much greater if hard evidence surfaces later showing that Gates did participate in these dubious schemes.
It could even be worse if U.S. adversaries are in a position to hold undisclosed evidence of Gates’s guilt over the Defense Secretary’s head.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq
, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com
. It's also available at Amazon.com
, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle
with permission of the author.
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This story was published on November 15, 2006.