A Reluctant Servant, Gates To Stay On At Defense Robert Gates was ready to say farewell to the Pentagon when President-elect Obama asked him to stay on. The once-controversial spymaster has reinvented himself as a consensus builder. He's not the Gates people recall from a generation ago.
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A Reluctant Servant, Gates To Stay On At Defense

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A Reluctant Servant, Gates To Stay On At Defense

A Reluctant Servant, Gates To Stay On At Defense

A Reluctant Servant, Gates To Stay On At Defense

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/98388122/98494918" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates likes to say that in the spy business, there are secrets and there are mysteries.

Secrets you can steal, he says. Mysteries are unknown.

It's no secret that Gates will stay on at the Pentagon in the new Obama administration.

The mystery is Gates himself and how he has changed.

Not Quite Farewell

In 1991, Gates was considered a controversial Cold War spy. His critics accused him of politicizing intelligence.

Today, he is a wise man at Defense and something of a rock star.

Last week, he traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq. It was supposed to be his farewell tour to both places.

The short, slightly stocky man with white hair was greeted with wild cheers from American military personnel everywhere he went. But as with most old rockers, farewell tours never quite mean farewell.

Despite saying it was inconceivable he would stay on in an Obama administration, Gates explained to the troops last week in Afghanistan why he was not leaving just yet.

"No reason was more compelling to me that if hundreds of thousands of young Americans were doing their duty ... then I had no choice but to do likewise," he told troops in Kandahar.

Gates had been counting the days until he could rejoin his wife and family near Seattle.

"It was my hope that if I made enough noise about how much I did not want to stay here and how much I wanted to go back to the Northwest, that I wouldn't have to worry about the question ever being asked," Gates said. "Because I also knew myself well enough that if the question was asked what the answer would be."

Unapologetic Cold Warrior

In his two years at the Pentagon, the reviews have been good.

William Cohen, defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, said, "He is a professional to the core — that he is a devoted patriot and someone that everyone can respect."

"I think Secretary Gates has brought the Pentagon some distance back to where it optimally would be," said Richard Danzig, an Obama adviser.

Brent Scowcroft, Gates' friend and a former national security adviser, recalls when Gates started work at the Pentagon as defense secretary.

"The building collectively heaved a huge sigh of relief after Bob came, and they saw how he worked and how he dealt with them," he said.

But today's reluctant servant is not the Bob Gates people recall from a generation ago. He was tough, ambitious and didn't suffer fools.

Gates is also an unapologetic Cold Warrior. "It was a glorious crusade," reads the last line in his memoir.

He was recruited by the CIA straight out of graduate school in the 1960s.

Mel Goodman, a former CIA analyst, says he took Gates out to lunch on his first day. "I came back and told my colleagues ... 'You know, I think I've had lunch with a future CIA director,'" he said. The two worked together for years and became close friends.

Goodman says Gates outworked everyone at the CIA. Gates was so competitive, he says, that when he beat him at tennis one day — badly — they never played again.

Their friendship ended in the mid-1980s. Goodman says Gates ordered up a secret memo that claimed the Soviet Union was involved in the plot to kill the pope in 1981. He says Gates was trying to please his boss at the time, CIA Director William Casey.

"I went to Bob and said this was an integrity issue," Goodman recalled. "'You know very well that the Soviets weren't involved and our evidence is very good, and in the operational directorate, where they had very good sources in Eastern Europe, they essentially knew the Soviets weren't involved. And Bob really blew up over the issue of his integrity."

In his memoir, Gates offered a more nuanced version of the story, saying there were arguments on both sides of the issue and calling Soviet involvement in the plot "one of the great remaining secrets of the Cold War."

Consensus Building

Gates' rise to the top at the CIA was derailed by other controversies, chief among them the Iran-Contra affair. In 1987, President Reagan nominated him for the job, but Gates withdrew his name after it became clear he wouldn't be confirmed.

When he was nominated again in 1991, his old friend, Goodman, and others testified against him during confirmation hearings.

Harold Ford, a former chairman of the National Intelligence Council and Gates protege, also spoke against his nomination.

"Many will share my view that Bob Gates has often depended too much on his own individual analytic judgments and has ignored or scorned the views of others whose assessments did not accord with his own," he said.

The man who had outworked everyone at the CIA then outworked his critics. He jammed two briefcases full of documents and spent 48 hours in a hotel room reviewing every attack against him. And then, Gates writes in his memoir, he got mad.

"We were wrong at times, but our judgments were honest and unaffected by a desire to please or to slant," he testified. "I was demanding and blunt. Probably sometimes too much so. I'm open to argumentation. And there was a lot of that. And I never distorted intelligence to support policy or to please a policymaker."

He won the argument and led the CIA for a little more than a year until Clinton became president.

By the end of the decade, Gates had landed at Texas A&M University. In 2002, he became president of the institution.

Robert Bednarz has been a professor at the school for 35 years. The Gates he describes doesn't sound much like the blunt, demanding CIA officer.

"We were skeptical initially because of his background, but he turned out to be a wonderful administrator, and very strongly believed in the notion of consensus building and shared governance, and that sort of thing," Bednarz said.

Past And Present Collide

Gates was called back to run the Pentagon in the fall of 2006. This time around, his confirmation hearing lasted only a day. Democrats, like Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, tired of his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, simply wanted someone to state the obvious.

"Mr. Gates, do you believe we are currently winning in Iraq?" Levin asked.

"No, sir," Gates replied.

Today, Gates might answer differently. The secretary was in Iraq just last week where he met with soldiers.

"Thanks for your service," he said over and over with a smile and just enough time for a picture. He shook the hand of every single soldier. There were hundreds of them.

Gates' task now will be to shift some of those troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is where his old career at the CIA collides with his new one.

"I'll just put it to you in historical terms," Gates told troops in Kandahar. "Twenty-two years ago, when I was deputy director of CIA, we were on that side of the border, taking advantage of that safe haven to go after the Soviets here in Afghanistan. It's a lesson I haven't forgotten."

Some of the people he helped years ago are still sending fighters across the border, only this time it's to attack Americans. The man who once armed the Afghan insurgents is now responsible for hunting them down.