Julian E. Barnes / Los Angeles Times – 2006-11-27 23:13:45
— Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive
WASHINGTON (November 26, 2006) — Robert Gates, President Bush’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, advocated a bombing campaign against Nicaragua in 1984 to “bring down” the leftist government, according to a declassified memo released by a nonprofit research group.
The 1984 memo from Gates to his then-boss, CIA Director William Casey, was among a selection of declassified documents from the 1980s Iran-contra scandal posted Friday on the National Security Archive’s Web site.
In the memo, Gates, then-deputy director of the CIA, said the Soviet Union was turning Nicaragua into an armed camp and the country could become a second Cuba. The rise of the communist-leaning Sandinista government threatened the stability of Central America, he said.
The target of Gates’ anxieties was Nicaragua’s leftist president, Daniel Ortega.
In an odd bit of timing, Gates’ recent nomination to succeed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was announced just days after Ortega capped off a surprise political comeback by winning Nicaragua’s presidential election after three previous bids were rejected by the voters.
Ortega has recast himself as a moderate, assuring Nicaraguans that his Marxist-Leninist days are over.
Gates’ 1984 memo echoed the view of many foreign-policy hard-liners at the time; however, the feared communist takeover of the region never materialized.
“It seems to me,” Gates wrote, “that the only way we can prevent disaster in Central America is to acknowledge openly what some have argued privately: that the existence of a Marxist-Leninist regime in Nicaragua closely allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba is unacceptable to the United States and that the United States will do everything in its power short of invasion to put that regime out.”
Gates predicted that, without U.S. funding, the Nicaraguan anti-communist forces known as contras would collapse within one or two years.
But he said providing “new funding” for the contras was not good enough. Instead, he advocated that the United States should withdraw diplomatic recognition of the Sandinista government, provide overt assistance to a government in exile, impose economic sanctions or a quarantine and use airstrikes to destroy Nicaragua’s “military buildup.”
“It sounds like Donald Rumsfeld,” said Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive. “It shows the same kind of arrogance and hubris that got us into Iraq.”
In the memo, Gates noted he was advocating “hard measures” that “probably are politically unacceptable.”
Late Friday, Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, said he was not familiar with the memo. Stanzel said Gates would not be available for comment because it was standard practice for nominees to reject interview requests before Senate confirmation hearings.
Blanton acknowledged that it would be wrong to look at a 22-year-old memo as evidence of Gates’ current thinking.
Gates seemed to have changed after his nomination for CIA director was withdrawn in 1987, Blanton said. When Gates became director in 1991, he had been chastened and his earlier arrogance diminished.
“People change,” Blanton said. “And very possibly the Robert Gates nominated for secretary of defense is the Robert Gates who is the best CIA director we ever had and not the Robert Gates who was a ‘mini-me’ Rumsfeld.”
It was the Reagan administration’s attempts to find ways to provide funding for the Nicaraguan rebels even after Congress forbade such support that led to the Iran-contra scandal, a plan to use the proceeds of arms sales to Iran to fund the contras.
Democrats say they will question Gates during his Senate confirmation about his knowledge of the Iran-contra scandal, which erupted two years after he sent his memo.
Gates’ grim prediction in the memo of disaster in Central America did not happen — Congress renewed aid to the contras in 1986. In February 1990, Nicaraguans dealt a blow to the Soviet Union and Cuba by voting Ortega out of office. And within two years, the Soviet Union had disappeared.
Gates denied any wrongdoing in the scandal. Most of the debate over Gates’ role centers on what he knew about the plan.
Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, appointed to investigate the Iran-contra scandal, concluded Gates was “less than candid,” but did not bring charges against him.