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. Peter Gerdeman

    Sec. Gates – astounding comments from you, if true. You seemed surprised that some of us were in doubt of our SWA strategy? So – where was the WMD in Iraq, bozo?

    January 7, 2014 11:21 pm at 11:21 pm |
  2. Reagan80

    No, Gates didn't say that Obama "lost faith" in his Afghan strategy. He said that Obama NEVER HAD faith in his strategy. That it was all political cover. That's much more damning.

    January 7, 2014 11:28 pm at 11:28 pm |
  3. Scott

    From what I've viewed, hosts discussing the Gates thing, Gates is considered completely honest, and I'm going with that. If the Obama administration does not wish embarrassment, avoid doing embarrassing things.

    January 7, 2014 11:29 pm at 11:29 pm |
  4. LiveFree

    Sorry, Mr. Gates, the congress only has nice words to those with a full pocket and a will to spend "wisely".

    January 7, 2014 11:34 pm at 11:34 pm |
  5. don

    This is nonsense!! We are clearly WINNING the Afghan war. I mean, the last time I read anything about it, which was about 4 or 5 years ago on CNN, it seemed like everything was going well.

    January 7, 2014 11:38 pm at 11:38 pm |
  6. IpseCogita

    "Gates' accusations don't hurt with the democratic base."

    I think it has been clearly shown that nothing could hurt Obama with the democratic base. The base will not believe, or tolerate anything negative. They will spin things to seem good, they will call them lies, they will even adjust their own beliefs to accommodate him.

    As evidence I offer the promise of all the troops home by the end of summer I hist first year. He did exactly the opposite of that and even the people that voted for him primarily on the strength of that promise lauded him for it.

    January 7, 2014 11:40 pm at 11:40 pm |
  7. IpseCogita

    I do love what the man has to say about congress.

    January 7, 2014 11:43 pm at 11:43 pm |
  8. Flash

    What else is new, some people will say or write anything for a buck. Shame on Gates.

    January 7, 2014 11:45 pm at 11:45 pm |
  9. Susan McFarland

    ... And so we have further confirmation that our President is an "naive incompetent", as Bill Clinton said. Barack Obama has, and continues to be nothing more than a Chicago style politician who has never grown into the office.

    January 7, 2014 11:48 pm at 11:48 pm |
  10. American Worker

    No surprise that a dishonest Presidency would slam honesty.

    January 7, 2014 11:52 pm at 11:52 pm |
  11. corpsman

    Mr. Gates acknowledges that he initially opposed sending Special Operations forces to attack a housing compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding. Mr. Gates writes that Mr. Obama’s approval for the Navy SEAL mission, despite strong doubts that Bin Laden was even there, was “one of the most courageous decisions I had ever witnessed in the White House.”

    In his final chapter, Mr. Gates makes clear his verdict on the president’s overall Afghan strategy: “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”

    January 7, 2014 11:54 pm at 11:54 pm |
  12. silencedogood

    If this had been written about Bush it would be praised, as it is about Obama CNN includes the "bad taste" angle. Really? Since when has it been in bad taste to criticize our elected officials? Maybe about the same time supposed "news organizations" start running reality TV shows about democrat politicians (see the new chicago show). Pathetic.

    January 8, 2014 12:07 am at 12:07 am |
  13. Richard Mitchell

    Look at how many senior Military Leaders took early retirement during the Bush years. Leaders understood the war against terrorist, but the war in Iraq over Halliburton's control of the Iraq Oil Fields?

    January 8, 2014 12:11 am at 12:11 am |
  14. Dan5404

    Former employees of presidents, especially when of a different party, often embellish books to get sales. Frankly, I think it is unprofessional of any former cabinet member to bash his former boss, considering there were good Democrats that could have handled his job. Obama put his trust in Gates. and the least he could have done is show respect by keeping his mouth shut until Obama leaves office. This sounds like a pre-planned partisan ploy to try to discredit Democrats prior to the 2016 election.

    January 8, 2014 12:12 am at 12:12 am |
  15. u laby

    Lets stop worrying about saving face and protecting the president. Lets focus on the issues that matter to the country. It shouldn't matter if a politician "feels betrayed" by the likes of a Gates or a Snowden. What's most important is that the voter is receiving effective leadership. This goes for both Republicans and Democrats.

    January 8, 2014 12:26 am at 12:26 am |
  16. Chuck

    The Truth is comming out, wait till Patraus writes his book as well

    January 8, 2014 12:34 am at 12:34 am |
  17. Monomachos

    So Gates is incorrect when he criticizes the president but correct whenever he praises the president. Right. The WH never lets any attack go unanswered and there will never be an admission of any mistake, but they still haven't come up with a good deflection to the problem of the president lying about his healthcare plan during the election. Makes it hard to trust anything the WH says.

    January 8, 2014 12:36 am at 12:36 am |
  18. David

    I think what bothers me is that General McChrystal said the same thing after he met with Obama re the war in Afghanistan. I don't know much about Gates, and McChrystal could be mouthy at times, but I have never heard anyone call the general a liar.

    January 8, 2014 12:38 am at 12:38 am |
  19. leadreviewer

    What a Fraud of a man to gossip over the office of the Presidency.. In my opinion Gates is a fraud of a man who has only now brought shame onto the position that he once held. Shame on him.

    January 8, 2014 12:55 am at 12:55 am |
  20. Snoway

    CNN to the rescue. Changing the story from a criticism of the president and his secretary of state to a story about the rebuke of the criticism. THE STORY IS THE CRITICISM!

    January 8, 2014 12:57 am at 12:57 am |
  21. muffintop

    Anything to sell some books! Don't these people all have to sign confidentiality agreements before assuming any position in government? I work for a little micky-mouse organization and everyone is expected to sign on the dotted line before they start working. It should be law – the same as criminals are not allowed to profit off their crimes then it should be the same for these creeps. Saying anything positive about President Obama will not get him on Fox news and will not get him a multi-million dollar book deal.

    January 8, 2014 01:37 am at 1:37 am |
  22. Evelyn Connaway

    As for Robert Gates – I remember him from the Iran-Contra affair. He was useless then along with all the others in that fiasco. I remember his being questioned during congress. His answers to most things was I don't remember! I thought about this when Obama kept him in the position he was in, when he became President. Maybe he kept him because he thought Gates knew what was going on and needed him to continue – but with his lack of memory from his past – I doubt he was really worth a damn. I didn't trust him or anyone that had been involved in the Reagan and Bush I, Iran Contra affair, nor during Bush I president – nor anyone involved with Bush II and Cheney presidential Fiasco. In fact he has a lot of audacity to write a book about anything, it's just another way to make money. I wouldn't believe anything he said.............Just like I wouldn't believe anything any of the Bushes or Cheney and their other cohorts had to say. Just another damn republican trying to knock President Obama. They are all a sorry bunch of people. Frankly none of them did a damn thing for our country except tear it down. In fact that's all the republican politicians are doing, trying to degrade President Barack Obama and our country. They have never tried to rebuild what they tore down from 2000 through 2008, nor even tried to help Obama rebuild it. Many of us remember what happened during our past presidents regimes.

    January 8, 2014 01:41 am at 1:41 am |
  23. zackdryer

    CNN you are propaganda at this point and should stop referring to yourselves as journalist any ore than MSNBC or FOX

    January 8, 2014 01:44 am at 1:44 am |
  24. Batman

    If anyone ever doubted that Gates has a backbone I bet they will not after reading this book. I will buy it as soon as possible. I doubt Gates spared anyone from his opinion. From congress to the executive branch. Gates was sandwiched between Bush and his cronies the congress and then had to deal with President Obama. The very fact that our country had invaded Iraq and Afganistan was just pure over the top. A long range strategy for war is what...5-10-15 or 30 years? No one in America wanted this and we all were "sold" on this Iraq war by a corrupt Bush administration. But in all fairness to all, Gates should have waited a few years before writing his memoirs.

    January 8, 2014 02:05 am at 2:05 am |
  25. Old soldier

    Mr Gates served under Republican and Democratic Presidents during a single appointment. Unlike Mr Rumsfeld and Mr Cheney, he did, in fact, execute his duties in a highly professional manner. He never undercut either President or Party as he conducted business. It is unfortunate he committed the same, deadly sin committed by so many high ranking officials: writing (or allowing a ghost writer to writing) public records of classified or private conversations. There is an old saying to never puke on someone else's combat boots. Divulging what went on in meetings ranks right up there with Snowden. As the General Officer noted, if he felt as strongly about things he observed (assuming his comments are true and accurate), he should have resigned his position. He has the same rights of free speech, but releasing his recollections and perceptions is abusive of his office. Unlike Gen Billy Mitchell, he didn't take actions at the time....he waited until after leaving office. Not cool, and not manly. While Gen Mitchell forced his own Court Martial, Mr Gates slipped his comments into a book to make money. Again, not cool, nor manly. He damaged his reputation and legacy to sell books and likely make himself more desirable for speaking circuits. Good-bye, Mr Gates. When I observed things I considered illegal, fraudulent, and wasteful, I went public as a "Whistleblower" (I wouldn't advise anyone to do that, since the Chain of Command hangs you out to dry). No guts, no glory. Tchuss!

    January 8, 2014 02:10 am at 2:10 am |
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