January 7th, 2014
07:07 PM ET
9 years ago

Gates' tell-all rattles White House, Congress

Updated 12:05 p.m. ET, 1/8/2014

(CNN) - Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates set off shock waves in Washington with accounts from his upcoming memoir, in which he unleashes blistering criticism of Congress and his former colleagues in the Obama administration.

He also claims the President lost faith in his own Afghanistan policy.

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Gates' comments come in his memoir "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," which was obtained by CNN but set to be released next week.

In the book, Gates writes, "[Obama] eventually lost faith in the troop increase he ordered in Afghanistan, his doubts fed by top White House civilian advisers opposed to the strategy, who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing."

A Republican appointee of President George W. Bush who stayed on into Obama's administration, Gates also writes of a pivotal 2011 meeting in which Obama questions the abilities of Gen. David H. Petraeus.

"As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his...For him, it's all about getting out," Gates writes.

A source familiar with White House thinking on how to respond to Gates' memoir told CNN that White House officials have been in meetings on the issue and were reaching out to allies to defend the President against the claims.

The source said they are being careful not to attack Gates directly, thinking that will backfire.

Officials believe Obama's foreign policy legacy is strong because of his Afghanistan policies and the killing of Osama bin Laden, and that Gates' accusations don't hurt with the Democratic base.

A White House official called attention to two parts of the book that reflect positively on the President. Gates said of Obama's chief Afghanistan policies, "I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions."

"I never doubted Obama's support for the troops," Gates writes. The official, however, did not highlight the rest of the sentence, which says "only his support for their mission."

A former White House official contested the excerpts saying, "I thought the President was a close ally of Gates. It's disappointing, because if Gates had issues you would've expected him to raise them. When I spoke to Gates about the president he was always effusive."

National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the President "deeply appreciates Gates' service" and is open to differing points of view from his national security team.

"Deliberations over our policy on Afghanistan have been widely reported on over the years, and it is well known that the President has been committed to achieving the mission of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, while also ensuring that we have a clear plan for winding down the war, which will end this year," Hayden said in response to the comments.

A senior U.S. military official involved in some of the events described in the book expressed dismay with Gates, telling CNN that if Gates had been in uniform and felt that the President and his staff were deficient, he would have had an obligation to resign. He noted some may feel Gates also had the same obligation given that he signed orders sending troops off to war.

This official was directly involved in Afghanistan troop surge discussions. He was adamant the military commanders did not "game" the President on the numbers, but they came to realize Obama felt that way.

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake tweeted in response to reports of the memoir, criticizing the timing of the former defense secretary's comments.

Criticism of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden

Gates was also critical of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, recounting a conversation between Obama and Clinton suggesting political motives for their positions on Iraq.

"Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq has been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary,” Gates writes. “The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying."

Republicans use Gates' new book to hammer Clinton, Biden

The former White House official responded, "President Obama evaluated the merits of the surge but his opposition to it was not political, rather in line with his thought that more of the same was not the right path."

Of Biden, Gates wrote, "I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”

Hayden said Obama disagrees with Gates' assessment of Biden and hailed the Vice President as "one of the leading statesmen of his time."

One day after Gates book bonanza, a rare peek into Obama-Biden lunch

Criticism of Congress more severe

For as scathing as Gates was in describing the Obama administration, the former defense secretary said none of the difficulties he had with the executive branch "compared with the pain of dealing with Congress," a body he describes as phony, self-centered and narrow-minded.

"Congress is best viewed from a distance – the farther the better – because up close, it is truly ugly," Gates wrote in a piece in the Wall Street Journal, which was adapted from his book.

"I saw most of Congress as uncivil, incompetent at fulfilling their basic constitutional responsibilities (such as timely appropriations), micromanagerial, parochial, hypocritical, egotistical, thin-skinned and prone to put self (and re-election) before country."

Gates opened the piece by writing that in the numerous times he testified before Congress, he found himself "tempted to stand up, slam the briefing book shut and quit on the spot" because of the "rude, insulting, belittling, bullying and all too often highly personal attacks" one has to endure during congressional testimony.

He said if he had done so, he would have told Congress, "I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that."

"Members postured and acted as judge, jury and executioner," he wrote.

His hypothesis as to why so many members "were in a permanent state of outrage:" The members must have "suffered from some sort of mental duress that warranted confinement or at least treatment for anger management."

Another congressional thorn in Gates' side brought to light in his opinion editorial is how Congress handled deciding which defense instillations and bases to close during budget tightening.

Gates wrote that "any defense facility or contract in their district or state, no matter how superfluous or wasteful, was sacrosanct," even if the member had "stridently attacked the Defense Department as inefficient and wasteful."

Why he wrote the book—now

Critics of the memoir blasted Gates for publishing the critique in the middle of the Obama’s second term, saying the more appropriate move would have been to wait until after his former boss leaves the White House in 2016.

A source close to Gates noted that he’s a historian by nature and wanted to document what went on but didn't want to wait because he believed the content of his book is all still relevant and should be discussed real time, especially issues of war and the troops.

The dysfunction in Washington and the way commanders and generals were treated really upset him, the source added.

Gates disagrees that his decision to release the book now is disloyal. In fact, he believes just the opposite and stands by all of it, the source said.

As for Gates’ stinging criticism of Congress, the source said Gates had the most disdain for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, though he didn’t give specific names of lawmakers.

- CNN's Brianna Keilar, Barbara Starr, Dana Bash, Dan Merica, Dana Davidsen and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.


Filed under: Obama administration • Robert Gates • White House
soundoff (625 Responses)
  1. Mary1972

    What is the news here? Biden is clueless ==> well, OK; Obama was not committed to staying in Afghanistan ==> Who is except the warmongers?; Do Nothing Congress sucks ==> who would object to that?

    January 8, 2014 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  2. Tom1940

    Sounds like a repeat of the Robert McNamara, Sect'y of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. Caught between the political machine in the White House and the Politicians on the Hill. A no-win situation all around.

    January 8, 2014 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  3. sam

    I would say Gates is a coward for not letting congress know what the administration was doing much earlier like when it was happening!!! Lives were lost so Gates could sell a book and the CROOK in the White House is still sucking eggs.

    January 8, 2014 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  4. American Worker

    Results matter.
    The foreign policy results of this Presidency matter.
    The results are not good.

    January 8, 2014 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  5. Ceswho

    There is a children's book that sums up this administration–"The Emperor's New Clothes". The more we learn about President Obama, the more it is obvious that he is a "naked" pretender, surrounded by Chicago politicos who know nothing about leadership. They were all unprepared for this responsibility and it shows. Their only interest is getting re-elected, maintaining power, and pushing a socialist style agenda. The worst President in my 65 years, including Carter.

    January 8, 2014 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  6. wasse

    TRILLION dollars and Gates still couldn't win the war, thats his real problems

    January 8, 2014 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  7. ukulelelady

    Gates miscalculated... he should have waited with this release of his memoirs. It's just being taken apart and used politically. If anything, it shows he's the one who is wrong on everything, not Biden.

    January 8, 2014 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  8. DaveinIL

    So what's new. Just one more piece of evidence that Obama is a cheap Chicago politician rather than a statesman like leader or even a second rate President.

    January 8, 2014 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  9. wasse

    Gates should be in prison for the horrible results of these wars.

    January 8, 2014 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  10. Rudy NYC

    "As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his...For him, it's all about getting out," Gates writes.
    In light of this book, I guess the President's mistrust of his top commander and Gates was well founded. Wouldn't you say?

    January 8, 2014 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  11. Bob

    Sounds like there is now two people who think we should stay at war Gates and McCain. The guy should become a GOP member – better chance of another war there. Thank God the White did not listen to the fool.

    January 8, 2014 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  12. IpseCogita

    I really love how the political faithful can spin anything as a positive for their guy.

    January 8, 2014 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  13. fr114

    boring. books from EVERYONE in the political world are nothing but scams to bilk people out of their money. They have to have crazy stuff in them or nobody would be interested in buy it. And OBVIOUSLY, the crazier the B S in the book the more it gets the attention of media dolts who then give them free publicity

    January 8, 2014 11:12 am at 11:12 am |
  14. scott

    i heard and read that gates, in this book, said that he (gates) was wrong and the president obama was right about going into pakistan and killing bin laden....if that is true, then what is new about this book??? these are items that the press reports on every day through their sources...gates even critizised the bush/cheyney administration, as well...so basically there is nothing new here, move on

    January 8, 2014 11:12 am at 11:12 am |
  15. Doug

    To me, the only depressing thing described in this article is the claim that Obama's initial objections to the surge were entirely political. I am certainly not surprised that politics would factor into this decision, but it is still depressing to hear (if true).

    The rest seems neither surprising nor upsetting. Obama has concerns about the Afghan mission? Of course. He inherited a mess, where he had to choose between a range of bad options. Is it any surprise that he might have some doubts, and end up reevaluating his initial decisions?

    Biden has been wrong in every foreign policy decision for decades? Is it really a surprise that a lifelong Republican and a lifelong Democrat would disagree? Is this news to anyone?

    And grandstanding in Congress? I'm shocked!! [sarcasm]

    January 8, 2014 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  16. Gamera

    The White House has allies? Thought all the aids were abandoning ship.

    January 8, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  17. Ricky Temple

    It's refreshing to hear Gates speak so honestly of the dysfunction in Congress. I agree that now is the time for this book, not later. Obama had the odds stacked against him before even taking office, recalling the troops was overdue and the right move. We have many problems that need fixing at home, before we try to police the rest of the world.

    January 8, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  18. bluesjordan

    Gates boldly tells it straight with a vivid picture of rare behind the scene workings of the president's corruptions. And with Obama's freshly crowned 'liar of the year' award, any given white house rebuttal will be questionable at the very least With newly revealed corruptions by the NSA and continued Obamacare troubles, 2014 is already off to a bad start for the busier than ever WH spin masters.

    January 8, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  19. Wade

    CNN is a total disgrace for placing this story here in this section instead of the FRONT PAGE for all America to see. The hoops that CNN jumps through to protect Obama is just shameful. CNN is not a news company at all just a mouth piece for Obama and the dems. NOW Gates the most honored man in America even by Obama himself has told America the TRUTH. CNN needs to start doing the same!

    January 8, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  20. Angie

    @bcrunner. I agree and I would vote for President Obama again also. @Beezers U r right, its just an opinion, I doubt based on actual facts, but jargon for a good selling book. Anyone with a conscious would question if they are doing the right and moral thing when it comes to war! His book actually showed that the President has MORALS! So kudos to Gates. Karma is inevitable.

    January 8, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  21. Ruby

    Seems to me that much of what Gates doesn't like is Democracy in Action. It's just the way the system works.

    January 8, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  22. myrtlemaylee

    it isn't so much what Gates said in his 594 page homage to himself, but rather how he said it; with that reptilian, mean-spirited contempt for civilians that disagree with him even if Commander-in-Chief. Obama was elected to get us out of illegal & ill-contrived wars initiated under false pretenses & with no coherent plan to end hostilities. The military is usually loathe to just leave anything unfinished, but apparently none of THEM had a clear plan to "finish" either, ther than lifelong occupation.

    Gates statements are the gold-standard for Conservative Hawk "bipartisanship", IMO. Serve & then skewer afterward. And Gates know which side his Democrats are buttered on – he falsely attacks Biden who can do nothing else for him in future, while sucking up to Hilary. Disgusting.

    January 8, 2014 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  23. yod

    "He said if he had done so, he would have told Congress, "I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that."
    That right there is so true about how one would feel seating in front of the most dysfunctional congress ever.

    January 8, 2014 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  24. Greg

    Part of my vote for Obama was to GET US OUT of Afghanistan and Iraq. How about a scathing memoir pointing out Gates is an idiot because he couldn't follow orders and thought continuing in those crap-holes was a good idea?

    January 8, 2014 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  25. OnTheRoad

    If you don't have a clue what you are doing, then you have a very hard time explaining what you are doing and an even harder time defending what you have done! This explanation places Bush/Cheney/Obama in the same light!

    January 8, 2014 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
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