The Betrayal of the Contras

Comandos: The CIA and Nicaragua’s Contra Rebels

by Sam Dillon
Holt, 393 pp., $27.50

Executive Report 102–19 on the Nomination of Robert M. Gates to be Director of Central Intelligence

report by the Select Committee on Intelligence

The sixty-four senators who voted to confirm Robert Gates as the fifteenth director of the CIA had to dismiss a lengthy catalog of mistakes and misjudgments attributed to him. Among them were his belief that the Soviet Union was behind the attempted assassination of the Pope; his exaggerated sense of Soviet ambitions in the third world; his excessive estimate of the strength of the Soviet economy; his failure to perceive the strength of the Soviet reformers; his conviction that Moscow had designs on Iran; his willingness to share intelligence with Iraq; his meddling in an intelligence estimate on Mexico; his faulty memory on the diversion of funds to the contras; his abrasive personality and autocratic style of management; his contribution to the growing sense of malaise and tension within the agency; and more generally, his part in politicizing and slanting the intelligence reports that were circulated to policy makers in Washington.

At first glance, it would seem hard to hold the Senate Intelligence Committee responsible for Gates’s confirmation. In contrast to the fractious, bumbling performance of the Senate Judiciary Committee on the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas, the hearings on Gates seemed a model of informed inquiry. The committee reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed hundreds of witnesses, including eighty intelligence analysts. Gates testified for four full days, responding to almost nine hundred oral questions and one hundred more in writing. The committee’s summary report on the nomination, a remarkably dense and detailed document, runs to 225 pages. Not since 1975, when the Church Committee investigated the CIA’s assassination plots, has the agency been so closely scrutinized, and never before has its day-to-day intelligence-gathering process been so thoroughly examined.

Often, though, the proceedings had an unreal air about them. For all the important revelations about distorted data and slanted intelligence, the panel left untouched many of the CIA’s most important activities. At times it seemed as if its members had an unwritten agreement to limit the scope of their inquiry, probing deep on some aspects of the CIA’s work while determinedly ignoring others—some of them certainly bearing on Gates’s fitness for the job.

This paradox was most apparent on the subject of Nicaragua. On the one hand, the senators were eager for information about the diversion of funds to the contras. Over and over again they pressed Gates on when he first learned of Oliver North’s resupply operation and on what action he took when he did. More than a third of the committee’s report is devoted to the matter, with lengthy sections on such matters as “Gates’ Knowledge of Private Benefactor Support Prior to Becoming DDCI in April, 1986,” “WhetherGates Was Privy to Information Known to Casey,” and “9 October Gates/Casey Lunch with North.” Warren Rudman summed up the committee’s mood when he observed that “the underlying question here, when all is said and done…is whether or not Bob Gates has told this committee the truth …

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