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License to Spill

Robert Gates lets us in on his 30 years with the CIA. Anything shocking? No much, except near planetary destruction.

June 25, 1996|ROBERT SCHEER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was an investigative reporter's ultimate fantasy come true. There he was, the former head spook of the CIA, sitting at the Beverly Hilton lobby bar, knocking back some hard liquor and eager to talk.

"From the Shadows" is how he had titled his tell-not-quite-all book, and the secrets were about to flow. They had subtitled it right: "The Ultimate Insider's Story."

Robert M. Gates, who spent three decades with the CIA from Vietnam through the collapse of the Soviet Union, and even served with Zbigniew Brzezinski working out nuclear war scenarios on the National Security Council staff, was now out in the cold. And wide open for interrogation.

Gates had been captured by book publicists and there is no distance they won't make an author crawl. Simon & Schuster was marketing Gates, and the man had spent weeks on the road spilling the mostly known secrets of the Cold War on radio talk shows, at bookstores and at elite foreign policy councils all over the country.

Now it was my turn to make a buck. Sure, the newspaper had asked for a nice little feature profile, but I was thinking TV treatment. "Tales From the Shadows," a long-running series. But classy--not creepy like "Tales From the Crypt," more like "The X-Files" or, dare one hope, "Mission: Impossible." Maybe even a movie.

He's got the short, wiry body and good hair, but forget "Mission: Impossible" unless you can imagine Tom Cruise 25 years older, very tired and without the smile.

But one look at Gates and you know he is the genuine article. Not a flashy, cocky spy doing car bombings and stuff, more the clerk type, really earnest and good looking in a middle-aged sort of way.

Harrison Ford could play him. But unlike Ford, this guy never ends up being in the middle of the action with bullets flying. Always desk-bound, a fly on the wall at top meetings even in the White House. Gates is nondescript to a fault. His M.O. is no M.O.

The book doesn't even mention his teenage children, and his wife appears only once. After tough questioning, he finally confessed that he decided to omit his personal side from the book because "I guess I felt that I wasn't very interesting."

Right, and boring is your cover. Gates is the butler who did it. He could spy on you all day and you'd never know it. And he has no fingerprints. Nada. Any evidence you might want to pick up, from Stingers in Afghanistan to mines in the harbor of Nicaragua, in all those years of evaluating evidence, this guy never got caught with his prints on a piece of it.

Those mines--it was all William Casey's fault. "[Then-Director] Casey loved the idea. No one bothered to tell me or consult with our analysts about the operation."

Not even when Iran-Contra was bubbling and the special prosecutor was all over him and Gates was about to be confirmed as CIA director by the Senate could they lay a glove on him. It was, he writes, "the lowest point of my life," but he was confirmed nonetheless.

*

"The Ultimate Insider's Story" turns out to be the ultimate survivor's story. It is very important, to hear him tell it, to know that nothing ugly ever occurred on his watch.

Gates never left the building at Langley to play outside. No wonder he's so white. While other spooks were blowing up things and rifling safes, Gates was reading satellite reports. A desk job may sound easy, but it takes its toll.

"I came in when it was dark to prepare the morning reports," he confesses, "and I left when it was dark. I could only see my kids on weekends."

But saving the Free World wasn't all drudgery.

"We in CIA worked terrible hours, but we had a lot of fun too." Among other things, they maintained a list of grammatical screw ups in the cable traffic they were forever reading. Real spies read a lot, and they're damn proud of it.

As an analyst specializing in Russia, Gates was analyzing a country he had never seen. He could barely get permission to travel anywhere lest he be kidnapped and pumped for secret codes.

Nor could he rely on the agents the CIA had developed in the Soviet Union because they were all presumed to be double agents. That was the word, early in Gates' career, from the legendary CIA head of counterintelligence James Jesus Angleton, whom Gates describes in his book as "mysterious, even weird--sitting in a darkened office with a single desk light, chain-smoking, a figure from another world."

You can't make this stuff up. According to Gates, Angleton was so loony that he became convinced that James Schlesinger, then CIA director, "was one of them," meaning he was part of the Soviet conspiracy.

Angleton made the mistake of telling this to one Sam Hoskinson, a friend of Gates but--more important--one of Schlesinger's top assistants. When Hoskinson told Angleton that he would have to report the conversation to his boss, Angleton replied, "Well, then, you must be one of them too."

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