“The 75th Anniversary of the CIA” – with former Director Robert Gates
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: To coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Central Intelligence Agency, I thought, who better to speak to than the first career officer in the CIA's history to rise from entry-level employee to director? More recently, he was the first secretary of defense in American history to be asked to remain in office by a newly elected president. Born just a few years before the CIA was founded in 1947, he spent 27 years as an intelligence professional, with almost nine of those years at the National Security Council. He was born in Wichita, Kan., served in the U.S. Air Force and got his Ph.D. from Georgetown University. In all, he served eight presidents. I am, of course, speaking about Robert M. Gates. When I asked him what came to mind when he heard the words Central Intelligence Agency, his response was, from a personal standpoint, it meant everything to me. In this episode, Dr. Gates and I discuss his reflections on the 75th anniversary, how the CIA's story intersected with his own, his take on the CIA's strengths and weaknesses, and the complex international environment the United States and its allies now face and how the CIA will be indispensable and helping America to navigate it.
Andrew Hammond: Again, a reminder to leave a review on Apple Podcasts. If you appreciate the show and the hard work that goes into bringing every episode to you, it will mean a lot to us if you could spare a single minute or write a single sentence.
Andrew Hammond: OK. Well, it's a pleasure to speak to you, sir. I really feel like all the stars are aligning for this interview because your friend that put me in touch with you, Jim Olson - his podcast about the spy museum aired today. The CIA - which we're doing this podcast for the 75th anniversary - that was born in September. You were born on September the 25. I was born on September the 24. I feel like we are both early Libras, so we're going to bring some balance to this conversation. So I'm really pleased to be speaking to you.
Robert Gates: Sure. My pleasure.
Andrew Hammond: So just thinking about the CIA - so you predate the CIA not by many years, but I think it's really, really fascinating the way, over the course of your life, that the CIA as an institution has really mapped onto your life. So one of the things that I wanted to ask was, coming up on the 75th anniversary, when you hear those letters - or when you hear those words, Central Intelligence Agency, what comes to mind?
Robert Gates: Well, I think, first of all, from a personal standpoint, it meant everything to me. And when I first went to work for CIA in August of 1966, I was 23 years old. And when I first retired in 1993 as DCI, that sort of bookended my career. And it was sort of - you know, it's one of those remarkable things. I joined CIA. I was recruited out of the Russian and East European Institute at Indiana University. And little did I dream, when I reported for work in August of 1966, that I would be Director of Central Intelligence when the Soviet Union collapsed. And so there was a sort of symmetry, if you will - or I guess a better word would be - I don't know - you talk about closure. It can't - doesn't get any better than that.
Robert Gates: And, you know, like all institutions - I've led four very big, very different institutions. And like all of them, I always saw where - places where CIA could be better, but I always loved the place. And I always was proud to work there and proud of the people that I knew. They were probably the smartest, most honest people I've ever met and worked with. So I have an enormous amount of affection for the place, and I still remember being in the Blue Bird bus, being picked up at a hotel in downtown Washington and taken out to the agency for my polygraph and the interviews and so on. And I've never forgotten that. It really began quite a ride.
Andrew Hammond: It really was quite a ride. How did it feel for you becoming the first person that had joined the CIA as an analyst - or just in any position - and went on to become the DCI?
Robert Gates: Well, I think that the key is I never anticipated that at all. In fact, I didn't even anticipate a career at CIA. I - as soon as I - when I came to the agency for my first job in August of 1966, I remember my GS11 boss. We worked in the basement of the agency, in the Office of Biographical Intelligence. And I remember my first boss taking me to the seventh floor and walking me past the offices of the DDI and the - Deputy Director for plans at that time - DDCI and DCI - and we were sort of tiptoeing down that hallway, scared to death that somebody'd stick their head out and say, what are you doing up here? And, you know, I just never dreamed then that I would occupy most of those offices. And in truth, I - as I said, I never anticipated a career with the agency.
Robert Gates: Once I began work in the Office of Central and - of Current Intelligence, I began my doctoral work at Georgetown because I actually wanted to teach Russian history - Russian and Soviet history - at the university level. And it just so happened that the year that I finished my Ph.D. and got it - early 1974 - I got the call from Brent Scowcroft about coming down to join the NSC staff. My bosses at the agency at the time saw no value to the agency and my going down to do that, which I always found extraordinary, and basically told me that there probably wouldn't be a job for me when I was ready to come back or when they sent me back. But I went anyway, and there was a job for me when I came back.
Robert Gates: And I guess that's one of the things that I reflect on a lot. I had a number of opportunities. I ended up working in the NSC for four different presidents, and I had a number of opportunities to go to state or to go to defense, but I always went home. I always went back to CIA because I - every - all of us who work there know that it's a bureaucratic place. It can be frustrating and so on, but I think it's the least bureaucratic institution in government. I think it is - it always, for me, was the most entrepreneurial of all of the agencies in the government. If you were really good, your age didn't matter - you could move up very fast. I remember, in the early '80s, when I was DDI - we had a senior analyst working on Germany and West Germany, and there was a 24- or 25-year-old junior analyst.
Robert Gates: And it was a really difficult time with respect to Germany because we were putting Pershing missiles in there, Kohl was elected. There were a number of big issues, and this junior analyst got it all right - every single one of them. And so he got promoted to senior analyst because he was that good. And that always impressed me about the agency - was that it was the quality of your work and not some artificial rule or regulation that would keep you in your place until a proper time had come. And I always really respected that about the agency.
Robert Gates: The other thing I guess I would say that always impressed me, having dealt with - dealing with bureaucracies, the agency was very hierarchical administratively, but substantively was extraordinarily horizontal. So when the director wanted to be briefed on something - whether it was an operation or some analytical issue - he didn't pay any attention to the chain of command. He went right to the people who knew the most. And there were times that I was aware of both - well, all through my career, where people who were fairly junior were cleared and briefed in on programs their bosses didn't know anything about. And that was understood. And that was just the way that it was. The hierarchy wanted access to the people who really knew the answers - not somebody who had been briefed on the answers. And that was one of the exciting things about working for the agency.
Andrew Hammond: And who was the director at the time when you were tiptoeing on the seventh floor? Was that Richard Helms?
Robert Gates: No, actually, it was Admiral Raborn, who - one of my colleagues famously told me he was briefing Admiral Raborn and - about something relating to Libya. And Raborn, who was actually a very smart man, had been the father of the Polaris submarine program. But he looks up at the briefer, and he says, Libya, Libya. That's a landlocked country, isn't it?
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Robert Gates: And my friend said, well, sir, mostly.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Good recovery.
Robert Gates: He didn't last very long, so the first director that I really worked under for a protracted period of time was Dick Helms.
Andrew Hammond: And I've seen elsewhere that you describe Richard Helms as the dean of former directors of the CIA. And I find it really interesting just thinking about the different types of directors. And of course, you worked for many of them and knew many of them - people like Bill Casey, Stansfield Turner - which were very different types of people and personalities. And when I think about the NSC as well, you know, people often hold Brent Scowcroft up to be the - like, the example of a national security adviser. So other than yourself - because that wouldn't be fair - what one CIA director do you look back to and think that, yeah, that was the best example I could give to someone? Would that be Richard Helms?
Robert Gates: I think so. I think, you know, partly just because of his experience - you know, from the OSS particularly. He was director under both President Johnson and President Nixon. He did not have a good relationship with President Nixon, but he had a very powerful relationship with Lyndon Johnson. And it was a measure of Johnson's respect for Helms that Helms could put honest evaluations of what was going on in Vietnam in front of Johnson, and he didn't get fired. But Helms was just so smooth and so smart. And the way he went around Washington - the way he dealt with the Congress - of course, those were very different days. I remember one story that the way the CIA budget got done when Dick Helms was director - he'd go up to the Hill and meet with the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, where our budget was - where our budget reposed. And the chairman would say, well, what do you - Director Helms, what do you think you need? And Helms would write a number on a slip of paper, show it to the chairman, and it was done, you know?
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Robert Gates: And, you know, as a former director, I looked back on that, and I said, wow, that would have been pretty nice...
Andrew Hammond: The good old days.
Robert Gates: ...Compared to the way it gets done today. But he was respected on the Hill. He was respected in the White House. And he just - and he was respected, above all, by people in the agency and across the board - not just in the clandestine service, but across the board in the agency. So I think most people who spent any time at the agency - and particularly those who had the experience of working under him - always felt that he probably was kind of the quintessential example of a CIA director.
Andrew Hammond: Wow, the good old days of budgeting over a three-martini lunch...
Andrew Hammond: ...Very different days.
Andrew Hammond: Tell me a little bit more about the type of institution that you found when you joined, Dr. Gates. You've mentioned some of the dynamics and the personalities at the time, but what kind of CIA did you encounter? What was morale like - training and the relationship between operations and analysis, geographical versus thematic designations and so forth? Just help our listeners understand a little bit more about what it was like to be you in those early years.
Robert Gates: Well, when I joined the agency, there were still a lot of people from the founding days or from the very early '50s who were at the agency. So it wasn't just Dick Helms. It was people like David Blee and James Critchfield and James Angleton. There were just a number of these people who had been there at the - and Walter Pforzheimer, who had been there at the very beginning, and Cord Meyer. So I got to know all those people. And, you know, they sort of were a repository of extraordinary experience in the intelligence world, particularly during the formative days in the '50s and the early '60s.
Robert Gates: The thing that I - one of the things that's most vivid to me and one of the areas where I think there has been a great deal of positive change - in those days, the agency operated very much in silos. In fact, between the DI and the DDP, there were actual physical barriers. You had to go through a turnstile with an armed officer to get between the DI and the DO. And the irony is it was the DI who put that in place because the DI folks had a special mark on their badge because they had access to satellite information. And people in the DO mostly didn't. And so there were clearances - just as there were operational clearances that nobody in the DI had, there were collection clearances - particularly technical intelligence programs, where only people in the DI - but, you know, you had to go through the turnstile and show your badge to get from one to the other.
Robert Gates: And I think one of the most significant changes in the agency since I joined was the breaking down of that barrier between - and that barrier - that physical barrier - was a physical representation of an even bigger barrier, which was a cultural barrier and even a measure of disdain for each other. And that - I think the most significant step in removing that substantively came in 1986, when Casey created the Counterterrorism Center, because it was the first time that the DI sent people into the DO - a cadre of experts - to work with the DO in helping plan operations and informing in operations and so on. And that obviously has grown dramatically in the years since then, with mission centers and other centers on other subjects. So - and then sort of working on a China mission or another kind of mission, where you've got a lot of collaboration between the DI and now the DO. And I think that's a huge - has been a huge improvement in the contribution that the agency has been able to make. So I think that's the single most dramatic change that I have witnessed over the years - was the breaking down of the barriers between the DI and the DO and a lot of collaboration and cooperation.
Andrew Hammond: And one of the things that I wanted to ask you as well was - I was looking through your Ph.D. dissertation, which came out the year I was born, and it's just a just a very brief question. Do you think that - like, looking at Russian sinologists today, do you think that that would tell us anything about China, given the changes in the Russian system of government and the way that Russia is structured presently, or do you do you think that that only held while it was a particular type of ideological regime? So it's just a...
Robert Gates: I think it was probably peculiar to that period. I mean, I'm so out of touch with it all at this point. But I just think - I think you don't have the same kind of rigid controls over what people would write and be published, even in Putin's Russia. I think that that level of control doesn't go down where you could actually use it as a gauge of what official policy was, I think. And I guess what I'm trying to say is I suspect there's not the strong link between the party position on an issue today and what academics are writing in Russia today. So I - you know, they may or may not have more freedom, but I just don't think there's the linkage that I talked about in my dissertation. By the way, when I was first nominated to be deputy DCI, I got a call from a friend - this was in 1986. I got a call from a friend at the Georgetown Library and said there were three journalists there reading my dissertation, to which my response was, it serves them right.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) Wow.
Robert Gates: They were trying to make sure I hadn't gotten my degree from a program on the back of a matchbook or something.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) They wanted to make sure it was all above board. Just thinking about the history of the CIA and in even, you know, your personal story, it seems like Russia has always been the foil at some point or another in the background. So when the CIA comes into being, we're talking about the Cold War. The Cold War ends, and then we've got this interregnum period. Then we have 9/11 and the post-9/11 wars. But obviously, this year, Russia's back on top of the headlines in The Washington Post and The New York Times just like the old days. Tell us a little bit about your engagement with that country and with that entity over the course of your career, specifically as a CIA man.
Robert Gates: Well, I sort of saw different sides of the engagement with the Soviet Union from the agency. I was hired as an analyst in the Soviet foreign policy branch of the Office of Current Intelligence. So, you know, we were basically - in the late '60s and early '70s in particular, the Soviets had become very active in the third world. There obviously was the military buildup in the Soviet Union. The question - the really central question with their military buildup was do they want parity, or do they want superiority? And that was debated back and forth for a long time. You know, it kind of reached its apex, I think, with the Team B exercise in 1975, '76, where - you know, is the CIA tough enough in its thinking about the Soviet Union? And I think that - I think the reality is that we were pretty realistic, but there were some areas in which we probably weren't realistic enough.
Robert Gates: And, you know, a lot is made of the estimates of Soviet military spending. And the truth is, there were two aspects to that analysis. One was the econometricians and the development of these models of the Soviet economy. And the problem is the models were all built for Western economies. And so if you produce 10 million pairs of shoes and nobody wants any of them, what's the value? How do you put a - place a value on that? And so I think that the modelling significantly underestimated, for example, what the Soviets were spending on their military. But the other side was that CIA's economists working on the Soviet economy, who were actually looking at sectors of industry and so on - and of society - really, really had it on the mark and really started writing about the challenges facing the Soviet economy as early as the late 1960s. And every president after that negotiated with the Soviets knowing that they were under economic pressure. So on arms control, they really had an incentive to put limits on what the U.S. would do.
Robert Gates: So I - you know, I went - and - but then I was also part of the CIA support element for the strategic arms delegations. And we were always in those delegations. And when we were there over Christmas in Vienna, and there was an exchange of Christmas gifts between the Soviet and American delegations, the Soviet gifts would say Ambassador Paul Nitze, Department of State, or General Royal Allison, United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. And when it came to the CIA contingent, it just had our names - no affiliation at all.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter).
Robert Gates: But then I saw how - I mean, we were doing, I think, good research on Soviet military capabilities and so on. But we also - and this is a contribution intelligence made - CIA made - that people don't pay much attention to. It was really CIA information - derived information - that served as the basis for all of those negotiations with the Soviet Union - all of those arms control negotiations. CIA was the one - they worked from the - both delegations worked from CIA numbers. And just one fun anecdote - in one of the early negotiations when we were briefing the - or when we were talking about the Soviet military capabilities, the Soviet military representative on their delegation, General Trusov, came to Admiral - came to Gerry Smith, the head of our delegation, and said, you can't talk about that stuff in front of the rest of my delegation. They're not cleared for it.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. I spent a lot of time going through some of those materials. My dissertation was on the Soviet-Afghan war, so I spent a lot of time at the Reagan Library going through some of the memcons and telcons all about the negotiations and so forth - so really fascinating period. Thinking about personalities, just like - in your books and other things that I've read, you know, of course, there's the structures, there's the processes. There's, you know, all of that there. But the personalities do make a difference. And I'm just wondering if you had any reflections on that for the CIA.
Andrew Hammond: So I'm just thinking of - for example, you know, Kissinger taking a bigger role in foreign policy and kind of becoming a particular type of Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. I'm thinking about Brzezinski, who pretty much put the kibosh on Stansfield Turner. And I know that you were a special assistant to Brzezinski. And then you have Casey and Shultz and Weinberger. You know, I think there's something interesting in that the Reagan administration has - I think it's five or six different national security advisers, so I'm trying to bring all of that together. But I know that you said that when you became Secretary of Defense, for example, you tried to be mindful of how you related to Condi and Secretary Clinton because you didn't, you know, want to - you didn't want it to be a relationship beset by, you know, acrimony. So I guess that's the long way of saying, how important are personalities in allowing the CIA to do its job or not do its job?
Robert Gates: Oh, I think it's critical. And I would start with Directors of Central Intelligence and the president and subsequent CIA directors. The CIA is, uniquely in government, an instrument of the president. He is their only constituency. He is their only defender. And so it matters a lot - the relationship between the director and the president. And I would say roughly half of all CIA directors had a good relationship with the president. So Allen Dulles with Eisenhower, McCone with Kennedy, Helms with Johnson, but not Nixon. I would say Casey with Reagan, my relationship with the first President Bush, George Tenet's relationship with the second President Bush, Mike Pompeo's relationship with Trump, and Bill Burns' relationship with President Biden. These are all strong relationships. They gave CIA a lot of cover and a lot of protection.
Robert Gates: A number of presidents didn't like and didn't trust CIA, and I always found - people would ask me, how's morale at CIA? And I'd say, you know, if I've just been promoted, my morale is pretty good. But from an institutional standpoint, I think, broadly speaking, morale at CIA is dependent more than any other single thing on whether - on the perception whether what they are doing is valued by the president and has impact. They can put up with scandals and headlines and questions about all kinds of things. But if they feel like what they're doing is important and valued, that's all that matters to most of the people who I think work at CIA.
Robert Gates: So those personalities really were important - those relationships. And it was tough when the relationship with the president was bad. And like I say, you know, kind of half the time, that's where things were. And presidents had different levels of appreciation of what CIA could do and couldn't do. Some came in believing CIA couldn't do anything and couldn't do anything right, and some came in thinking they could do everything. And figuring out how to give them a dose of reality was really important. And this was particularly true, I would say, beginning in the '60s. Eisenhower, I think, had a pretty realistic view in both ways. I would say the other president who had a very realistic view of what CIA could and couldn't do was George H.W. Bush. Of course, the fact that he'd been director for a year mattered a lot in that respect, so I had it really easy. I had a president who probably better understood CIA than any other president, and so that made my job a lot easier.
Robert Gates: The relationships with others in the administrations beyond the president varied a lot. You know, Casey was very close to Weinberger. He and Shultz couldn't stand each other, and it kind of radiated. Turner was not - I mean, Brzezinski had issues with Turner and vice versa, and Turner did not have a good relationship with Carter. Same way with Nixon and Helms. So those relationships, I think, matter a lot. And having a director who understands the importance of those relationships is also critical. And the final thing I would say is, particularly after the '50s and probably beginning with Vietnam, what was also important was the director's relationships with the key players on Capitol Hill. And so if you had a good relationship with Dan Inouye and Barry Goldwater, you were going to be golden up on the Hill. And that would hold true right up to the present day, I think.
Andrew Hammond: When you became DCI, what were some of the things that you wanted to accomplish? 'Cause you had - you know, you'd spent a lot of time, unlike other former directors who maybe came in for a period after doing some other stuff or maybe spent some of their earlier life in intelligence, left it, and then came back. You had come right through the system, albeit working at the NSC and working at other parts of the government. So what was it you felt that you brought to the job as a member of the tribe, so to speak - as someone who came through the system, and now you were in the top job? You had a sympathetic president. You had the, you know, one of the paradigmatic national security advisers in Brent Scowcroft. Like, what were some of the things that you set out to do?
Robert Gates: Well, I think - I mean, my challenge was, I think, quite straightforward. I became director - I became DCI six weeks before the collapse of the Soviet Union. So my job, as I saw it and as the president saw it, was how do I direct this behemoth - not just CIA, but the other agencies of the intelligence community - away from a singular focus on the Soviet Union to a much more complicated and increasingly more dangerous world because there were so many - a proliferation of other kinds of threats. So at one point, I had something like two dozen different task forces working, and we restructured the National Reconnaissance Office. We made a lot of changes, both on the analytical side and on the operations side.
Robert Gates: I think we recognized that, with the growing threat of terrorism and proliferation and so on, that the kind of targets that the DO used to meet on the diplomatic circuit were not the targets we were going to need in dealing with terrorism and so on. So there was a program to dramatically increase the number of officers under nonofficial cover - the NOCs. So there were a couple of dozen different major initiatives. And we got most of that pretty well underway while President Bush was - under - while he was president.
Robert Gates: The other thing I did is I took advantage of a protracted nominating process or confirmation process. While I was assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser, I drafted a memo for President Bush to sign to all the cabinet officers, tasking them with identifying their forward-looking requirements for intelligence and to prioritize them. Now, most of the time, that would have been delegated by the secretary of state to INR and by Treasury to their unit and Defense to DIA or whatever. But I put in this memo that Bush signed - your senior civilian - your senior policy person has to head this effort, not your intelligence unit. Because we wanted - what do the policy people want, and what do they think?
Robert Gates: So it was very interesting. The responses were - and, as I said, the hard part was prioritizing. But the responses said basically 40% to 45% of those requirements were economic. And this was in 1992, so - when we got the responses. So I had the advantage of working from the White House before I became director to sort of do what would have been much more difficult for me to do just as DCI. And a perfect example is - Stansfield Turner tried to do the same thing in the Carter administration, and he couldn't get any of the principals to come to his meetings. And so by being able to leverage being in the White House during the confirmation process, I got the requirements that - the clarity on requirements for a post-Soviet world that were very helpful for us.
Andrew Hammond: It's just a time of monumental change, isn't it? Like you say, when you become DCI - I mean, I guess one of my questions is what affect did that have on the agency or culturally? How did it change the agency? Because it's a very difficult thing - right? - if you're set up and all of your structures and processes are - you know, there's a range of threats, of course, but this is the big - you know, the main enemy. This is the big target. And then all of a sudden, that gets taken away. And you've got all of these people that have been brought up in the Cold War. They have a Cold War mindset. There's a Cold War culture. What did you think about that shift for the agency and the types of cultural shifts that may or may not have occurred?
Robert Gates: Well, first of all, there was a significant reallocation of resources. We - in the space of 18 months, we moved the budget from probably two-thirds being spent, broadly speaking, on the Soviet target to under a quarter - under 25%. Because first of all, we now didn't have one target focused in Moscow, where there had been the Soviet Union. We now had 16 targets - all the different republics - from Ukraine to Kazakhstan and so on. So I mean, there was still attention to - I mean, the Russians still had a lot of nuclear weapons. So we didn't - we couldn't turn away from Russia entirely, and we didn't. But we also could see these other - I mean, one of the places where the agency was, I think, ahead of much of the rest of the government was seeing the multiplicity of other threats that were coming or that had - were, at least at that point, nascent.
Robert Gates: So I don't recall, Andrew, that there was any real cultural problem or challenge in the agency because we saw all these other problems that were in the background or where we frankly probably hadn't paid enough attention because of the focus on the Soviets. And we had always had a lot of attention on the Middle East - obviously, during Vietnam, a huge amount of attention to Vietnam. So I think there was a flexibility in the agency of reallocating resources depending on the nature of the major problems facing the president. So I don't - I didn't detect or didn't get any sense at the time or later that there was - you know, I'm sure some individuals who had been working on the Soviet account who were then put over onto another account - that it would cause some angst - some anxiety. But I think, by and large, that's one of the great attributes of the agency - is a great deal of flexibility institutionally and also individually in being able to shift to different sets of targets.
Andrew Hammond: And was there anything that you learned about the agency as DCI that you never knew before? You come through the system. Obviously, you know a lot about this institution. You've been in it for most of your working life. But is there something that you learned with the position of DCI that you were like, oh, I never expected that this was the case or something else?
Robert Gates: I honestly don't think so. I mean, I'd been there 25 years. I think I had a pretty good appreciation of the agency's strengths and areas where it needed to improve. I wrote my first article for Studies in Intelligence on how to improve our analysis of the Soviet Union in 1970. I'd been there three years. And so I'm - I think I had a pretty good idea of the strengths and weaknesses and the particular areas where there's resistance to change. And I think the key is figuring out the right people and who understood the need for change and how to make change that brings people along. In all honesty, that was one of my failures at the agency was - when I became DDI, there was a need for a lot of change and improvement in the analysis of the agency. Successive presidents had been unhappy with it, and I had seen that firsthand. And I didn't do enough to bring people along as I put in changes to try and improve the quality of intelligence. Ultimately, most of what I did was embraced, but it created a lot of hard feelings. And so I was mindful of that - both when I became DDCI, but then especially when I became DCI - in terms of a much more collaborative effort in terms of bringing change.
Andrew Hammond: And just thinking forward in your role as secretary of defense, it's quite interesting to me, thinking about DCI - which, obviously, that position has changed now since the ODNI - but thinking about that role and all of the responsibilities there, and then thinking about being the secretary of defense, where there's also a humongous intelligence component to the DOD and to that whole enterprise, so I just wondered - what was your thinking about intelligence as secretary of defense? I mean, I know that you had some very grievous and serious challenges going on. So, you know, it's not like I think that you were just introspectively sitting around for days on end thinking about this stuff, but maybe with the light of day, what did you learn as secretary of defense about intelligence that you didn't know as DCI or as a career CIA officer? I mean, maybe there was nothing, but maybe there was something.
Robert Gates: Well, I think my major agenda regarding intelligence was I have always believed that the act in 2004 creating the DNI was a big mistake. And I had written a long memo at that time to Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins, who were co-chairing - the chairmen - committee working on this, that there were things they could do to strengthen the DCI and giving the DCI additional authorities that could solve the problems they were trying to solve post-9/11 without a huge bureaucratic restructuring and creating a whole new layer. So the legislation that was passed - and then the irony was that, in January of 2005, the White House reaches out and asked me to be the first DNI. And I really gave it a lot of thought for a couple of weeks and then said no. And that law left a lot to be desired and left a lot of gaps and a lot of problems.
Robert Gates: And so I was able, both from a personal and institutional standpoint, to bring together the leaders of the community - the key leaders - and work out memoranda of understanding that took care of a lot of the problems that had been created. So I had - my undersecretary for intelligence was Jim Clapper, who'd been the director of DIA when I was DCI. Mike McConnell was the head of NSA - Admiral McConnell. And he'd been the J2 during the first Gulf War, so I'd gotten to know him. Mike Hayden was the director of CIA. So I was able to bring these guys together because we all had known each other for years and worked these things out and - sort of independent of all of our bureaucracies, which were always at war about one thing or another. But because of our personal relationships and the trust we had in each other, we were able to work out a number of compromises. So I think that was my major preoccupation as secretary when it came to intelligence.
Robert Gates: Although the other one, quite honestly, was one that has always been with the intelligence community, and that is the analytical assessments of how a war is going are always different in Washington than they are in the field. And this was a real problem in Afghanistan because the field commanders and the field intelligence was very optimistic and very forward-leaning, and the analysts in Washington were much more skeptical about how things were going. And at one point, I sent Clapper out to Afghanistan and said, figure this out. Why are these people disagreeing? They're all looking at the same stuff. And so, you know, but I think my having been in intelligence created the opportunity to fix some of those problems.
Andrew Hammond: I'm just thinking about your career. You take over as DCI when the Soviet Union dissolves. You take over as secretary of defense when Iraq is unraveling and Afghanistan's not really going anywhere. So if you look at your career in one way, it's very blessed. But if you look at that another way, you've taken over at some very challenging moments. So for any leaders out there that are listening, like, how did you deal with both of those tremendously complex and almost bewildering experiences?
Robert Gates: Well, the most important thing is to surround yourself with really good people. And not only people who are exceptional managers and leaders, but people who are intellectually honest - people who will tell you exactly what you think - what they think. And, you know, I've always believed - and particularly based on the lesson that I described when I was DDI - the lesson I learned was the importance of - you know, somebody has to make the decision. The leader always has to make the decision. But particularly, when you're dealing with change and challenge, having an inclusive and transparent decision-making process is really critically important - not only in terms of informing yourself about the different points of view and the different challenges and different ways to deal with the challenges, but in terms of bringing people along - in terms of having them support whatever decision that you ultimately make.
Robert Gates: And I think the other thing is - that's critical is holding people accountable. I mean, I feel like I fired a lot of people when I was secretary of defense, and I don't think I ever fired somebody for not knowing about a problem. Mostly, I fired people because, once they were informed of the problem, didn't take it seriously enough - whether it's wounded warrior treatment at Walter Reed or the handling of nuclear weapons in the Air Force and things like that. So - but I think an inclusive and transparent decision-making process and keeping people informed of where you're headed, but also just people who will tell you what they actually think. Most bosses say they want that. Most people are gun-shy because they've heard bosses say that, then they try it and they discover, well, actually, he really didn't want to hear what I had to say.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) It takes a certain level of self-confidence to hear what you don't want to hear, right? And I was wondering, as well - you mentioned the DNI and some of your reservations about it. Is that partly why you didn't become the first director of national intelligence in 2004, but you were tempted to go away to become secretary of defense a couple of years later? Did that feed into your decision?
Robert Gates: No, it really - I sort of - there were two aspects to my decision on the DNI. One was, you know, I told them why I thought this was a bad idea, and here are all the problems. And I will say the Bush administration - the national security adviser, Steve Hadley, Andy Card, the chief of staff - you know, I said I'll need these authorities and these authorities and this and this and this. And everything I asked for, they pledged I would get. But underlying it all for me was - so I opposed the creation of this thing, and now they're turning to me to come in and try and fix it. And, you know, I just - I don't want to go back to Washington and I don't want to fight those fights. And at the same time, I felt very strongly - I had a lot of different big initiatives underway at Texas A&M. And I loved Texas A&M, and I really didn't want to go back to D.C.
Robert Gates: But two years later - a year and a half later, when Hadley calls me and says, if the president - I mean, and this was a completely cold call. I had no idea this was coming. And when he said, if the president asks you to become secretary of defense, would you do it? I - my immediate reaction was, Steve, all those kids out there are fighting and dying, risking everything and doing their duty, how could I not do mine? The answer is yes. So no hesitation - no second thoughts or anything on that at that time.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And for - like, this is just a playful question - if William & Mary Tribe football team were to play the Aggies, who would you support? Because you're president of one university and chancellor of another.
Robert Gates: Well, it would depend. I guess the better question would be, who would I bet on?
Robert Gates: And that's an easy answer. I would be betting on Texas A&M. William & Mary has many assets - a top five football team - they do well and they try hard, but they're literally not in the same league as A&M.
Andrew Hammond: Even their stadium is, like, 90,000 less people.
Robert Gates: Yeah, something like that. Maybe 95.
Andrew Hammond: And just looking into the future - so 75 years, the CIA has came a long way. Where do you see it going in the next 75 years? So I know that this is not fair. I know that this is futurology and so forth. But as a historian, sometimes if you watch the trajectory that you're seeing just now, you can get some appreciation of where it's going. So we're just thinking about cyber and AI and so forth. And, you know, I know those are very esoteric things, and specialists spend a lot of time thinking about them. But just as a general institution, where do you see the CIA going in the next 75 years?
Robert Gates: I think that the need for CIA today is as great as at any time in its history and will become even more important. For the first time since World War II, the United States faces powerful, revanchist states that are hostile to the United States. We face a global threat from two authoritarian, huge states, a number of other emerging threats, and we're going to have a lot of instability in the Global South because of climate change, because of food. We're seeing that right now due to the Ukraine war, but also climate change. Iran, North Korea - I just - I think that the world in some respects has returned to pre-1914 of conflicting great powers or rival great powers seeking power and territory and influence and markets and so on. And the United States faces a big challenge. And I think CIA will have to be a critical element in how the current and all future presidents deal with those threats in terms of real-world estimates of their military power, of their economic strengths and weaknesses, of their politics, of their intentions and those things.
Robert Gates: And I just - I think that one of the reasons CIA has survived all the vicissitudes, all the scandals, all the publicity and thises and thats over 75 years is because presidents ultimately have recognized the importance and the value of independent intelligence unaffected by politics. Every director has been accused of slanting intelligence to support the presidents. The interesting thing is I couldn't find a single president who would agree with that. They would all argue CIA went to extraordinary lengths to poke them in the eye and say, your policies aren't working. That's the mythology that it's slanted and so on. But the truth is, one of the huge advantages we always had over the Soviet system was that - and over other countries in many respects - was that our intelligence operations, our CIA was independent of political control and could tell presidents when things weren't going well - or on those occasions when warranted, that they were going very well - and provide warning and so on. And I just - I think presidents, no matter what they thought of the agency, understood they needed that at the end of the day. And I think that will be even more true going forward.
Andrew Hammond: And just as we come to an end, just one - a couple of final questions. One was, if there's anybody in the CIA listening to this, as one of the past luminaries of the institution, what message would you have for them, if any?
Robert Gates: Well, regardless of the vicissitudes of day-to-day work in any job, I think you're - I think they're fortunate to work in probably one of the most professional and most interesting and challenging organizations in government. It's why so many young people want to join CIA. They just have an instinctive understanding that this is going to be amazingly interesting. And I will say this - in all the years that I spent at CIA, I can't think of a single day I was bored.
Andrew Hammond: That's a good enough reason in and of itself. And final question, do you know where you'll be spending the 75th anniversary? Have you been asked to appear at some event or ceremony? Are you going to be spending it quietly at home?
Robert Gates: Quietly at home. I live as far from Washington, D.C., as you can get in the continental United States, so I'll be here.
Andrew Hammond: Well, if you ever come back to Washington, D.C., the new Spy Museum opened in 2019. And I know for a fact there's some operations you were involved in that we have in our exhibits. So thank you very much.
Robert Gates: My pleasure. Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew Hammond: Thank you.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter at @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter at @spyhistorian. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. The "SpyCast" team includes Mike Mincey and Memphis Vaughn III. See you for next week's show.