Former Defense Secretary: Intelligence Is an Essential Weapon

One day after the anniversary of 9/11 and within the same hour of President Obama issuing a statement condemning the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that on Tuesday killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took the stage at ASIS 2012 taking place here at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, delivering Wednesday’s keynote address and beginning the day’s educational program. He was only a couple of minutes late.

While Gates did not specifically address the breaking news of the attacks, the impetus behind them and the attitudes and violence demonstrated by the Libyan extremists who carried them out was very much part of the former CIA director’s theme.

Early on in his speech, Gates anecdotally recalled an incident in the 1980s when he was deputy DCI and was briefed on a plan to launch balloons into Libya that would drop leaflets telling people to overthrow the government.

“I told them to make sure the leaflets specifically said that it was specifically Gadaffi who should be overthrown,” Gates said. “I could imagine strong westerly winds carrying those balloons with a generic ‘Overthrow Your Government’ right across Libya and into Egypt and didn’t think [then] President  Mubarak would be thrilled.”

After that reminiscence, the levity pretty much ended.

Touching briefly on scenes, missions, decisions and political figures spanning the past four-and-a-half decades, during which time he rose up the ranks of the CIA and served as a trusted advisor to eight U.S. presidents, serving as Defense Secretary under two of them, Gates shared his candid insights on world affairs, U.S. intelligence and defense strategies, leadership and his own perspective on security issues in “this messy post-Cold War world [that] does not lend itself to immutable doctrines.”

Recalling the early ‘90s, when America was “flush with victory in the Cold War” and standing supreme internationally with elements that would later be called “soft power” and the apparent vindication of democratization, Gates stoically noted that those days are gone.

“Twenty years later, the world situation belies that naïve idealism,” he said.

If it had not already, that type of idealism came crashing down in an unforgettable way on 9/11, when Gates was still the deputy National Security Advisor (he would be sworn in as CIA director two months later).
 
“There is an inherent flaw in human nature that happens collectively, and that tendency is to postpone problems until they reach a crisis point,” he said. “Before 9/11, there was no Tertullian voice sounding the alarm. After 9/11, the NSA, CIA, FAA and other leading agencies in the intelligence community all had a number of tough questions to answer, but I would argue that so did both political parties,” which, through Congress, had fiscally hampered U.S. intelligence operations.

At the end of the Cold War, the CIA still needed more field officers, Gates noted, and, similar agencies responsible for protecting the homeland had likewise suffered cutbacks. Gates cautioned making similar mistakes as the country “careens toward the so-called fiscal cliff” later this election year, when cuts to the military and intelligence agencies are easy (or tempting) to promise.

“Al-Qaeda is on its heels, to be sure,” Gates said, “but it’s certainly not out. Al-Qaeda is increasingly turning to the alienated and disillusioned for recruits”—individuals, in other words, much like those who launched the rocket attack in Libya on Tuesday.

“Now, 11 years ago today, on Sept. 12, 2001, no one would have predicted that we wouldn’t have another attack on U.S. soil,” Gates said, noting that it was not a matter of such an attack not being attempted but rather because of the “heightened awareness of our own citizenry.”

He added, however, that awareness is only part of the strategy. “We can no more eliminate the risk of terrorist attacks than we can eliminate crime,” he said. “We can minimize risk, but we must do so without sacrificing dignity, privacy and rights.”

Gates advised a policy of having a minimal military presence in Afghanistan but cautioned against an abrupt exit of U.S. forces because “a pell-mell exit could mean a Taliban takeover and, likely, a renewed civil war there.” And such a sudden, wholesale withdrawal could also be something al-Qaeda would use as a rallying point, he said.

Gates rightly noted that Iran’s nuclear program is a serious threat, especially to Israel, and he acknowledged that Iranians do have the capacity to disrupt oil shipped in the Persian Gulf and to launch terrorist activities.

“The results of an American or Israeli military strike on Iran could be a catastrophe,” he said, “but if there’s not an intervention we will very likely face a catastrophe of a different sort: a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Gates said the United States needs to pursue partnerships with Persian Gulf nations and make it clear that American leaders do understand their urgency. “After all, we’re all in this together, and this is perhaps the most difficult security problem that I have seen since . . . 30 years ago,” he said.

China, meanwhile, a country experiencing phenomenal growth, represents another security threat on the international scene, Gates said. That country’s economic bullishness has underlying problems that the Chinese government is well aware of, he added, noting that U.S. intelligence forces “expect more belligerences over the months to come.”

Threats from all fronts have a new battleground in the cyber realm, Gates said, noting that cyberwarfare does not require a billion-dollar industrial complex to cause harm and, conversely, has “low barriers for entry,” where would-be terrorists can easily obtain “toxic tools and deploy them virtually.” Such attacks have the capability of being disruptive and destructive, and while most nation-states would not be behind them because of the likelihood of being found out, terrorist groups who would be otherwise willing to fly themselves into buildings have no such qualms, and the intelligence community thus has to assume such groups will continue trying to use those tools. For that reason, the cyber realm is one of the few areas that is likely to remain budget protected for U.S. forces, he said.

Noting in sum that the security threats are many and challenging, Gates said that forces dealing with such challenges must maintain balance and proportion. Making an embassy into an unapproachable fortress, for example, belies the point of even having an embassy in the first place, he observed. Quoting a line attributed to Frederick the Great—“He would defend everything ends up defending nothing”—Gates said that security breaches inevitably will occur. While he made no direct reference to the breach that took Ambassador Stevens’ life hours earlier in Libya, the reference seemed to hang in the air.

Instead, he closed with a passage from Sir William Stephenson’s book A Man Called Intrepid: “’Perhaps a day will dawn when tyrants can no longer threaten the liberty of any people. When the function of all nations, however varied their ideologies, will be to enhance life, not control it. If such a condition is possible, it is in a future too far distant to foresee. Until that safer, better day, the democracies will avoid disaster, and possibly, total destruction, only by maintaining their defense.’

“He continued: ‘Among the increasingly intricate arsenals across the world, intelligence is an essential weapon, perhaps the most important. Safeguards to prevent its abuse must be devised, revised and rigidly applied. But, as in all enterprises, the character and wisdom of those to whom it is entrusted will be decisive. In the integrity of that guardianship lies the hope of free people to endure and prevail.’”

Within 30 minutes of the conclusion of Gates’ remarks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement similar to that of the president’s earlier in the morning. “This is an attack that should shock the conscience of all peoples of the world,” Clinton said. “This was an attack by a small and savage group—not by the people of Libya.”

Libya’s Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur likewise condemned the attacks.

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