By Ray McGovern 12/7/06

At Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the nomination of Robert Gates to be secretary of defense, I felt as though I were paying last respects to the Constitution of the United States. But there was none of the praise customarily given to the deceased. Rather, the bouquets were fulsomely shared round about among the nominee and the senators – all of the “distinguished,” but none more distinguished than the Very Reverend John Warner, the gentleman from Virginia, chairman of the committee and presider at the wake.

“Distinguished, indeed,” I could not help thinking; this is the committee that allowed itself to be co-opted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputies Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith into abnegating its constitutional duty to prevent the United States from launching a war of aggression on false pretenses against a defenseless Iraq. The Nuremberg Tribunal ruled war of aggression “the supreme international crime inasmuch as it contains the accumulated evils of the whole” – kidnapping and torture, for example. This is the committee which, when such abuses came to light, let the Pentagon investigate itself. And I thought of how our Virginian forefathers, really distinguished Virginians like James Madison and James Mason, who crafted the checks and balances into our Constitution, and how they must be rolling over in their graves at the flaccid timidity of their 21st century successors. Perhaps the plain-speaking senator-elect from Virginia, James Webb, will be able to remind other senators of their duty and curtail their mutual fawning when he takes office in January.

It was a sorry spectacle Tuesday, as pretentious, patrician manners trumped courage and vitiated the advise-and-consent prerogative carefully honed by the framers of our Constitution for the Senate.

In other news, “A series of particularly brutal attacks across Baghdad Tuesday resulted in at least 54 Iraqis killed and scores wounded,” according to the New York Times. The US military announced that three more American soldiers were killed Monday, adding to the 13 killed over the weekend. Ten more US soldiers were killed on Wednesday. And five Marines are expected to be charged today with the killing of 24 Iraqis, many of them women and children, in the village of Haditha in November 2005.

No such bothersome details about this misbegotten war were allowed into evidence yesterday by the stuffed shirts sitting in stuffed seats in a hearing room stuffed with 80 stenographers from our domesticated press. Rather, the hearing room seemed to serve as a kind of funeral parlor for the Constitution. There were plenty of bouquets, but none smelled very genuine.

That Gates would be given a free pass without serious probing was already clear in ranking member Carl Levin’s (D-Mich.) deference to lame-duck chairman John Warner’s (R-Va.) plan for a one-day, carefully scripted hearing, at which senators could disregard new, documentary evidence of Gates’s deception of Congress and the Iran-Contra independent counsel. Expediting the hearing served to squander the leverage provided by the confirmation process to committee members, had any of them wished to put that leverage in play. Rather, Gates was often able to say, in effect, “Gosh, I just got here; didn’t know about that; haven’t read that, but I’ll put that on the top of my reading pile.”

Fully expecting that Levin’s Democratic colleagues would join him in acquiescing in this charade, antiwar activists told me before the hearing began that they had come prepared with a chant:

“You won the elections. Now ask real questions!”

I later learned that the activists left after only an hour, unable to stomach the courtly fawning, as troops and Iraqi civilians get blown up in Baghdad. They started feeling queasy after a brief ray of hope was abruptly dashed during Warner’s introductory remarks, when he alluded to what he called the “moral obligation that our government, the executive and legislative, has to the brave men and women of our armed forces.” Moral obligation; sounded good! Oops. And then they heard what he meant. By “moral obligation,” Warner meant merely that the president “privately consult [why privately?] with the bipartisan leadership of the new Congress” before making his “final decisions” on Iraq. It gets worse: witness the hypocrisy shining through the most distinguished senator’s admonition to Gates:

“In short, you simply have to be fearless – I repeat, fearless – in discharging your statutory obligations.”

More fearless, we hope, than Warner was in deferring to the Pentagon to conduct a “full and thorough investigation” into Abu Ghraib, like the one Richard Nixon ordered his attorney general, John Mitchell, to conduct into Watergate.

Fearless fawning is what followed. It doesn’t matter how many times Warner and Levin have dropped into the hermetically sealed Green Zone in Baghdad. There is always the “In other news….” And beneath the affectation yesterday, none of those senators are affected in any immediate way by the carnage at the Green Zone gate. It is our soldiers and Iraqi civilians who are Lazarus at the gate. And, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

From Gates: Candor or Disingenuousness?

On weapons of mass destruction: Little attention is being given to the disingenuous response Gates gave to this question from Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Ohio):

“Given what we know today about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, given the predicament that we’re in today, with the benefit of hindsight, would you say that invading Iraq was the right decision or the wrong decision?”

Gates left it to “historians” to decide. Defending his early support for the invasion, he resorted to the tried-and-tested FOX News red herring: “I thought he [Saddam] had weapons of mass destruction … just like every other intelligence service in the world, apparently, including the French.”

Now, please, Dr. Gates: You know better than most where other intelligence services get strategic weapons-related information on denied areas like Iraq. From us. Independent-minded intelligence analysts in the Australian and Danish intelligence services were able to see through the deception and took courageous steps to notify leaders of their governments. American analysts (and their British counterparts) were bought, and Gates bears much of the blame for that, for it was he who was primarily responsible for institutionalizing the politicization of intelligence at the CIA twenty years before.

On links between Iraq and al-Qaeda: Senator Levin reminded Gates that he recently told the senator that he saw no “evidence of a link between Iraq under Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.” Why then, asked Levin, did Gates say publicly in February 2002 that:

“We know that at least one of the leaders of the September 11 hijackers met twice in Prague with Iraqi intelligence officers in the months before the attack.”

Levin wanted to know the source of that information. “Strictly a newspaper story, sir,” said Gates. Now that’s odd. Robert Gates is not given to relying on newspaper stories to make sweeping assertions on such neuralgic issues. It seems more likely he would have gotten that “intelligence” from his successor as CIA director, arch-neoconservative James Woolsey, who cooked up and – together with Vice President Dick Cheney – promoted that cockamamie story to a fare-thee-well.

Fresh Eyes but No New Ideas

In one moment of genuine – perhaps unintended – candor, Gates indicated he thought there were no new ideas to be had in addressing the conflict in Iraq. The suggestions made public today by the Iraq Study Group tend to substantiate that sad conclusion.

How about old ideas? Like dispatching more training teams to work with Iraqi security forces. Gates said, “That certainly is an option.” And he vowed to show “great deference to the judgment of generals.” New emphasis on the training mission is what General John Abizaid told the committee less than three weeks ago is a “major change.” Is that the “new” strategy? It is a feckless exercise, as we know from Vietnam. Been there; done that; should have known that.

Three months after John Kennedy’s death, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sent President Lyndon Johnson a draft of a major speech McNamara planned to give on defense policy. What follows is a segment of an audiotape of a conversation between the two on February 25, 1964:

Johnson: Your speech is good, but I wonder if you shouldn’t find two minutes to devote to Vietnam.

McNamara: The problem is what to say about it.

Johnson: I’ll tell you what to say about it. I would say we have a commitment to Vietnamese freedom. We could pull out there; the dominoes would fall and that part of the world would go to the Communists … Nobody really understands what is out there … Our purpose is to train [the South Vietnamese] people, and our training’s going good.”

McNamara: All right, sir.

It wasn’t “going good” then and – as countless middle-grade American officers have now conceded – it’s not going good now, despite our having thrown our best generals at the problem. Hewing to this misguided approach betrays the “woodenheadedness” of which historian Barbara Tuchman speaks in From Troy to Vietnam: The March of Folly. Almost always, it is a forlorn hope that unwelcome occupation troops can train indigenous soldiers and police to fight against their own brothers and sisters. That the British seem to have forgotten that, as well, is really no excuse.

Speaking Truth to Power?

Yesterday’s spectacle at the Senate Armed Forces Committee included repeated allusions to the biblical injunction to “speak truth to power.” This has never been Robert Gates’s forte. Rather, his modus operandi has always been to ingratiate himself with the one with the power, and then recite – or write memos about – what he believes that person would like to hear. Thus, while CIA Director Bill Casey’s “analysis” suggested that the Soviets would use Nicaragua as a beachhead to invade Texas, Gates pandered by writing a memo on December 14, 1984, suggesting US air strikes “to destroy a considerable portion of Nicaragua’s military buildup.”

This makes me wonder what may be in store for Iran, if Cheney solicits help from Gates in making the case for bombing.

Gates may have “fresh eyes,” but if past is precedent he will add but marginally to the flavor of the self-licking ice cream cone that passes for Bush’s coterie of advisers. What Bush has done is replace Rumsfeldian Tart with Sugary Gates. Otherwise, the Cheney/Bush recipe is likely to remain the same as the US draws nearer and nearer to the abyss in Iraq.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He is a 27-year veteran of the CIA and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).