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Bush's new defense secretary:
Veteran of U.S. war crimes past

December 15, 2006 | Page 11

ALAN MAASS looks at the record of George Bush's new defense secretary Robert Gates.

THE PRESIDENT wanted to continue his crusade despite all opposition. And Robert Gates helped make sure it happened.

Under Ronald Reagan, that meant manipulating CIA intelligence to make the former USSR and its "evil empire" seem like a growing threat--and organizing the covert war against the people of Nicaragua.

Now Gates has a chance to serve another president bent on war--as George W. Bush's new defense secretary.

Republicans and Democrats alike seem certain that Gates will clip the wings of the White House's neoconservative hawks and engineer a "change of course" in Bush's disastrous war on Iraq. Gates got the kid gloves' treatment in questioning by the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the vote of the full Senate to confirm him was a lopsided 95 to 2.

But no one should think this veteran liar and right-wing warrior has become a compassionate peacenik. His priority will remain what it has been his whole political life--to defend and extend U.S. power around the globe, regardless of the human cost.

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AS LEFT-wing investigative journalist James Ridgeway pointed out, in the 1980s, Donald Rumsfeld was just an errand boy for the Reagan administration. Sent to Iraq to bring greetings to Saddam Hussein, Rumsfeld was famously photographed yukking with the dictator he would later demonize.

Meanwhile, his latter-day successor, Robert Gates, was "at the very heart of the American intelligence apparatus, actively planning and carrying out covert operations in Central America and the Middle East," Ridgeway wrote.

Gates was recruited to be a spy while a college student in the midst of the Vietnam War. He rose through the ranks, alternating between the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC).

Under Reagan, he became the right-hand man to new CIA chief William Casey. Casey had been Reagan's campaign manager, and is believed to have engineered the original "October surprise," negotiating with the new Islamist government of Iran to delay the release of hostages from the U.S. embassy in Tehran until after Democrat Jimmy Carter's defeat.

Casey came to the CIA determined to use the agency to advance the administration's more aggressive foreign policy, especially in whipping up Cold War hostility toward the USSR.

Gates proved a willing accomplice. When Casey and the administration demanded that the agency pin terrorist attacks in Europe on the Russians, Gates led an attempt to promote a favorite fantasy of the right-wing press--KGB involvement in an assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. "CIA analysts again knew that the charge was bogus," wrote journalist Robert Parry, "but could not block [a paper engineered by Gates framing the Russians] from leaving the CIA."

In 1985, Gates took aim at another favored Reagan administration target--Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Promising that it would "redraw the map of North Africa," Gates drafted a plan for a joint U.S. and Egyptian military operation that would topple Qaddafi and end with Egypt taking over half of Libya. The Pentagon had already drawn up invasion plans before cooler heads in the administration shelved the operation.

Gates was also in on the plans to funnel military equipment and intelligence to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq--then locked in a bloody decade-long war against the U.S. government's chief adversary in the region, the Islamist government in Iran that came to power after the fall of the Shah. Rumsfeld's mission to Baghdad was part of this operation.

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LIKE THE rest of the Reagan team, though, Gates was even more obsessed by Nicaragua, where U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza had been overthrown in 1979 and the left-wing Sandinista government was in power.

"It is time to talk absolutely straight about Nicaragua," Gates wrote in a memo to Casey. "The Nicaraguan regime is steadily moving toward consolidation of a Marxist-Leninist government, and the establishment of a permanent and well-armed ally of the Soviet Union and Cuba on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere. Its avowed aim is to spread further revolution in the Americas."

With the U.S. defeat in Vietnam still fresh in memory, the Reagan administration had to stop short of a U.S. invasion. Instead, it armed, trained and financed a murderous guerrilla army known as the contras.

The CIA's manual written especially for the contras, titled Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, outlined a plan for terrorizing anyone sympathetic to the Sandinistas that shocked even contra leader Edgar Chamorro. With the contras utilizing "practices advocated in the manual," Chamorro told the World Court, "[m]any civilians were killed in cold blood. Many others were tortured, mutilated, raped, robbed or otherwise abused."

U.S. mercenaries, hired by Washington, were up to their eyeballs in the violence. As journalist Stephen Kinzer described the scene at the main hotel in the capital of Honduras, where the contra guerrillas were based, "Busloads of crew-cut Americans would arrive from the airport at times when I knew there were no commercial flights landing, spend the night, and then ship out before dawn; they said they didn't know where they were going, and I believed them. Friends told me that death squad torturers stopped in for steak before setting off on their night's work."

The toll of the contra war on Nicaragua was immense. Some 58,000 people were killed, and the government was forced to spend half its tiny budget on the military rather than needed social services. By the end of the 1980s, Nicaragua had dropped to the second-lowest per capita income in the Western Hemisphere--after Haiti, another devastated victim of U.S. imperialism.

There was one obstacle to carrying out this dirty war--U.S. senators angered by the CIA's secretive operations against Nicaragua passed the Boland Amendment, which barred U.S. assistance to the contras.

But that didn't stop the Reagan White House. A group of CIA and NSC officials, working out of a basement office in the White House, organized an elaborate operation to keep the contra war going. The centerpiece was a cynical scheme to sell arms to Iran--to use against Iraq, which the U.S. was supplying more and more openly--and use the proceeds to fund the contras.

The Iran-contra connection was eventually exposed in the media, becoming the worst scandal of all for the ethically challenged Reagan administration.

William Casey died of brain cancer before he could be indicted as a mastermind of the operation. As Casey's right-hand man, Gates likely knew all about Lt. Col. Oliver North's contra support activities, according to Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor who investigated Contragate.

But Walsh couldn't come up with enough evidence to add Gates to the list of administration officials indicted in the Iran-contra scandal, which included North, Adm. John Poindexter, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, White House adviser Elliott Abrams among others.

When Reagan picked him to take over the CIA after Casey's death, Gates had to withdraw his name after it became clear that his nomination would be voted down. But a few years later, George Bush Sr. again tapped Gates to head the CIA, and the Senate confirmed him this time around. He remained head spy until the Republicans lost the White House to Bill Clinton.

Gates stayed out of government in the years that followed, except to serve as an "elder statesmen" on government panels like the Iraq Study Group. He turned down an offer to be the first Director of National Intelligence when the position was created by George Bush Jr. in 2005. Gates' Reagan-era colleague, John Negroponte, took the job instead.

Yet Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy are acting like Gates is a renegade among the likes of Negroponte and the other veterans of the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations.

Nothing could be further from the truth. During questioning before senators, Gates repeated the administration's opposition to an early withdrawal from Iraq, and he endorsed spending billions more on the missile defense system fraud--a pet project of Rumsfeld's that dates back to the insane Star Wars proposal of Gates' old boss, Ronald Reagan.

Gates may have significant differences about what to do next in Iraq--or he may not, time will tell--but his long record shows that he is dedicated to the same priorities of promoting U.S. imperial power as the most hawkish members of the Bush administration.

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