In her novel Damage, Josephine Hart wrote that the modern expression of guilt brings its own absolution: “Say the guilt prayer ‘I feel guilty,’ and hey presto, that’s the punishment.” So it was with President Bush’s nominee to head the CIA, Robert Gates, who appeared (and said the prayer) before the Senate Intelligence Committee this fall. And so it would be, no doubt, for the press—except that the press so rarely stoops to atone.
The newspapers of record—the New York Times and Washington Post reported extensively on the Gates hearings, publishing, in the case of the Times, many pages of transcribed testimony. There was plenty of text but little insightful analysis, as typified by a front-page piece (10/6/91) by Elaine Sciolino: “The picture that emerged from the [hearings] was of a nominee for Director of Central Intelligence who is both contrite and arrogant; meticulously organized but forgetful of crucial facts.” In this case, “forgetful of crucial facts” is a euphemism for lying.
Mushy assessments by Sciolino continued throughout the hearings. In a Times post-mortem (10/13/91) that appeared after Gates tried to debunk his critics, Sciolino and David Johnston stated: “A review of his testimony suggests that [Gates] was both truthful and evasive.”
In another article (10/2/91), Sciolino referred to a schism within the CIA—”the armchair culture of analysis that is separate from the swashbuckling worlds of spies, coups and assassination attempts.” According to U.S. media folklore, the CIA has merely attempted assassination; it has never actually killed anyone.
Coverage of the first week of testimony concentrated on Gates’ involvement in the Iran-contra affair, as the press peered through billowing smoke-clouds in search of the smoking gun. Gates appeared before the Senate two months after his subordinate Alan Fiers, the former CIA Central America Task Force chief, agreed to a plea bargain with the Iran-contra special prosecutor, and just 10 days after Clair George, who reported directly to Gates, was indicted. CIA veteran Thomas Polgar confirmed that Gates’ division at the CIA received detailed information not just on the October 1986 Hasenfus plane crash that exposed off-the-shelf U.S. military aid to the Nicaraguan contras, but on every illegal flight into Central America. In addition, Fiers disclosed that the CIA—with Gates’ knowledge—regularly intercepted conversations between congressional Democrats and officials of the Sandinista government.
Despite these revelations, Sciolino of the Times (9/20/91) minimized Gates’ misdeeds, calling them “tame.. .when compared with the secret projects of Mr. North and the evasive attitude of [former CIA director William] Casey.”
Andrew Rosenthal, in the same issue, stressed Gates’ extremism, discussing a 1984 memo he wrote calling for U.S. air attacks on Nicaragua: “His analysis and his proposals went further than Mr. Casey himself and underscored Mr. Gates’ hardline views on Soviet expansionism.” In fact, Gates’ proposals were mainstream in an administration whose Nicaraguan policies at the time included mining harbors and bombing oil tanks.
Second and third week testimony brought up the topic of “politicization,” which came to overshadow other aspects of the hearings. Shuffling back and forth between open and closed sessions, a number of former CIA analysts charged that Gates had perverted the intelligence process by slanting assessments to please the obsessions of his boss, William Casey.
If disclosures by past and present CIA employees about skewed intelligence prompted soul-searching among journalists responsible for passing “intelligence” to the public, it certainly wasn’t visible in the pages of their newspapers. Public testimony from former spooks demonstrated Gates’ fostering of an increasingly spectral Soviet threat, but there was no discussion in the New York Times of how the paper of record faithfully toed Gates’ line—promoting, for example, bogeyman notions about the Soviet/Bulgarian plot to kill the Pope. No mea culpas from A.M. Rosenthal, who as Times executive editor allowed Clare Sterling (viewed as unreliable by CIA analysts) to push her crackpot theories of Moscow as Terror Central both as a beat reporter and as an op-ed contributor.
It might have been worth a mention that the man who first sponsored Robert Gates for Agency employment back in 1966 was the same man, former deputy director Ray S. Cline, who told reporter Carl Bernstein that “one journalist is worth 20 agents,” and called the U.S. news media the “only unfettered espionage agencies in this country.”
Charges that the CIA cooked intelligence data are hardly new. David MacMichael of the Association of National Security Alumni, who resigned from the Casey/Gates CIA in 1984, told the New York Times back then (6/4/84) that the CIA had “systematically” doctored evidence “to justify efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.”
“The Gates hearings were explosive,” said MacMichael. “It’s just that some explosions are allowed to be heard more loudly than others.”
Laura Flanders co-hosted Pacifica Radio’s gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Gates hearings. Martin Lee is the co-author of Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media.