Warner: Best Hearing Ever

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Before the Senate Armed Services Committee interrupted its questioning of Robert Gates to break for lunch, outgoing chairman John Warner commented that today’s hearing was among “the best we’ve had” in his 28 years in the Senate – “best” being code, one assumes, for least contentious. The hearing was certainly uncharacteristically civil and free, for the most part, of partisan barbs, save for one surreal moment when Senator Hillary Clinton questioned Gates on whether he believed the President and the Vice President are “intelligent men.” But absent from the hearing as well were any tough questions about the serious allegations that have been leveled against Gates in the past, including his role in Iran-Contra and in politicizing intelligence at the CIA.

Senator Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the committee, came the closest to raising these issues, asking Gates to comment on a passage from former Secretary of State George Shultz’s memoir, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State, which relates a conversation Shultz had with Gates, then the acting CIA director, in January 1987. “I don’t have any confidence in the intelligence community,” Shultz reportedly told Gates. “I feel you all have very strong policy views. I feel you try to manipulate me. So you have a very dissatisfied customer. If this were a business, I’d find myself another supplier.”

Gates responded by telling Levin that he believed Shultz’s view of intelligence was colored by his fractious relationship with former CIA director (and Gates’ mentor) William Casey. “Bad blood influenced the Secretary of State’s view of intelligence,” he said, pointing out that Casey had once written to President Ronald Reagan recommending that Shultz be fired. Levin did not press him further.

Certainly Shultz was not the only one who distrusted the information coming out of the CIA. So did some career CIA analysts who believed Casey and Gates were subverting the intelligence process in order to play up the Soviet menace. One of them was Mel Goodman, a longtime friend of Gates and a veteran Soviet analyst, who became one of his most vocal critics, offering damaging testimony during Gates’ confirmation hearings in 1991 as he sought to become the director of Central Intelligence. “My major concerns are issues of integrity,” Goodman told me recently. “For me, basically, the test of character is what you do when no one’s looking. I don’t think Bob Gates can be trusted when no one’s looking.”

Perhaps the Democratic wing of the Armed Services Committee, who would seem the most likely to raise questions about Gates’ past, feel this is ancient history, but it certainly seems relevant given the intelligence failures – to put it charitably – that preceded the Iraq war.

During the hearing Gates, who has previously been circumspect about what he knew about Iran-Contra, was praised repeatedly by members on both sides of the aisle for being a straight-shooter. “Dr. Gates, thank you for your candor,” Clinton remarked. “That’s something that has been sorely lacking from the current occupant in the position that you seek to hold.” She was referring to the way Gates had fielded questions about Iraq, at one point answering “No, sir” when asked by Carl Levin whether “we are currently winning in Iraq.” Sadly, it seems any semblance of truth passes for candor in Washington these days.

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