New Straits Times, 11 Jan 1997: "Truth duller than fiction."

Robert M. Gates: From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War. Simon & Schuster, 1996. 604 pages

review by Otto Steinmayer

CIA skulks at the top of the list of conspiracy aficionados, and I, as one who entered puberty during the paranoid 60s, as an spectator of history, as a fellow-sufferer in the turbulence of this century of blood, and as great admirer of Thomas Pynchon, I acquired a considerable gusto for conspiracy theories. Not that I take them seriously. Facts that one can get from any newspaper are quite appalling in themselves. But an esthetically constructed conspiracy theory is always good for a frisson. Why else would they call the story of a novel a “plot”?

    Robert M. Gates is a career CIA officer who rose through the ranks at last to serve as Director of Central Intelligence under George Bush. Along the way he held many other positions of the highest importance, and worked close to five US presidents. He was thus able to observe the conduct of the last years of the Cold War at the most intimate level, and was at times privy to secrets only known to the president and a handful of others.

    You might expect, then, astonishing tales of desperate covert missions, the apocalypse of wonderful arcana of state, the hermetic significance of motives and actions that seemed innocent or trivial. I cannot say I’m sorry to disabuse you, reader, for Gates’ book is in its own way very satisfying; but, alas, Bob Gates worked in the analytical section, not the clandestine service, and From the Shadows is, if a thriller, a cerebral one that unfolds in the security of offices and situation rooms, its creepiest scene in a french restaurant. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but considerably less entertaining.

    The book Gates has written belongs to the specialized genre of memoir. From the Shadows is not exactly history or analysis, but as the term “memoir” suggests, a committing to memory of great events as the authour saw them and participated in them. Memoirs are the raw material of historiography, and are not fully useful in isolation, nor are intended to be read so. A memoirist’s goal is to let his version of events compete with and complement those of others. The historian comes in to interpret all.

    You may easily and pleasurably play the part of historical critic with Mr Gates. Most of the events he describes are things we actually lived through, saw happening in front of us on CNN. We have already a story to check his against. However, I advise you that reading him with this strategy is the only way you’re going to enjoy him. The book is stuffed with events, dates, names, and minute detail. You’re at all times going to have to bring old conferences and crises back to mind, and keep on top of the narrative by referring back and forth through the chapters.

    If you’re a professional historian—I even know some such in Malaysia—you need no recommendation for this book, and will have an easy time with it.

    Then, if you are a unreconstructed conspiracy buff, you’ll have plenty to occupy you. Sure, Gates is now a private citizen—except you know that nobody ever retires from The Firm, and of course an “ex”-director of CIA would write a book that would make his agency look so open, understandable, loyal, even dull! Remarkable decipherings of FTS are no doubt even now available on the internet.

    We can hardly believe the Cold War is over, it was such a perduring terror. Many of us would place its worst years somewhere in the 50s and 60s, but the US and USSR fought with perhaps greatest savagery in the 70s and 80s. Some people called it World War Three, and Gates shows the truth in that with a bitter pun, calling the conflict the “Third-World” War. Millions of people in the remotest parts of the earth, even in the small Sarawak town where I write, died by violence and ideology, conveniently away from Moscow and Washington.

    Intelligence is that upon which governments make policy, and the gathering of information has always been vital to rulers whether in war or peace, though, contrary to the image people have of government and of intelligence, such information is hard to get and hard to get into the right hands. I am not talking about atomic secrets, but about such things as how people live under their system, the price of rice and the rigmarole of getting an IC.

    The two powers that fought the Cold War gambled with the high stakes of nuclear annihilation, and played everything more secretively and deviously than anyone had played before. Intelligence, the gaining of it, and the denying of it, became of utmost importance.

    The Cold War was also much waged by covert means. Both sides gave lethal aid to their clients, but only after agents had prepared conditions by propaganda and manipulation of opinion. If proxies could slug it out under the cloak of a “national liberation movement,” then the Big Powers could preserve deniability for themselves. “Intelligence work,” then, was as much about the spreading of lies as with the gathering of facts. Many of us, too wary to swallow all we heard or read, trained ourselves into intelligent agents for our private benefit. Compare Gates with Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
    Getting sound intelligence is hard, but the greatest difficulty that Gates and everyone else faced was with the interpretation of that intelligence. The bulk of FTS concerns itself with the conflicting analyses that emerged from the available data, and how State Dept. clashed with the National Security Council, Defense with CIA. At times the squabbling looks embarrassingly similar to the office politics of a petty department in a provincial university. Gates comes out looking good, but then it’s his memoir.

    The president could cut through this; his was the serious responsibility to take the final decision. In FTS Gates paints the presidents supreme Cold Warriors. It astonished me to hear, coming from someone we’d presume to be cynical, that the US’s ascendancy over the USSR began with when presidents introduced a moral element into their foreign policy.
Ford went to Helsinki and signed an accord that committed both powers to a clause on human rights. The Soviets would have liked to get out of this, but couldn’t, and Carter pushed the human rights issue further. The Kremlin had liked Nixon because he accepted the legitimacy of the Communist regime. Carter questioned that legitimacy; Carter also began programs to bring the American military out of its post-Vietnam slump. While we at home saw Carter as a wimp, the Soviets were terrified of him.

    Not all propaganda is deception, nor all covert action evil. Under Carter the CIA began the major action of broadcasting news to East Europe, of smuggling in communications and printing equipment to people like Solidarity in Poland. of infiltrating Solzhenitsyn’s books and other samisdat into the USSR. Chalk one up for CIA. Many people remain grateful for this sort of spying.

    Despite the acrimony of US party politics, the succeeding Republicans Reagan and Bush carried on Carter’s policies with little change. The rest, who does not know? Bush, many felt, did not cut a impressive figure as an actor in the last days of the Iron Curtain. Gates shows how expertly indeed Bush “greased the skids” to help the communists out of power with as little violence as possible.

    The other Great Player, Gorbachev, Gates views as something of a bungler who failed to keep his empire in one piece through utter lack of policy. Maybe it was Gorby’s secret policy to wind up the Red Era. As Gates heard Kissinger observe, “If you were setting out to destroy the Soviet Union, would you do it any differently?” Bush greased things and Gorby, who could have done so much ill, had no stomach for blood. It was a merciful provision of history that so little killing accompanied such a great revolution.

    When the end finally came, not Bush, not Gates nor CIA triumphed. It had been, as Gates titles his last chapter, a joyless victory. Gates believed in the conflict—a lot of us didn’t. Gates knows as well as we the human cost of the Cold War.

    Two causes are commonly cited for the end of communism: over-reaching, and over-spending. The Soviet military—and this is frightening—expanded up to the end.

    CIA knew that; it was the collapse that caught it by surprise. Conventional wisdom is that the USSR was doomed from within to fail. That is hindsight, and Gates, though wishing to defend his agency, is scrupulous to make that clear. Nobody, he says, nobody, in government or out of it, in early 1989 predicted that by 1992 the Soviet empire would be gone. Things went out of the hands of leaders and went fast. Even the CIA was at times reduced to getting basic information from CNN—who could, Gates concedes, go where CIA could not.

    Gates had one spy encounter, worthy of fiction, that illustrates the uncertainty of intelligence and the ironies of the war. On Dec 4, 1987 Gates, then Deputy Director CIA, went to lunch in Washington with Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the First Chief Directorate, KGB. The two spies of enemy powers, the highest ranking ever to meet, talked shop, talked politics—nothing they couldn’t have gotten out of Newsweek. As they parted, Gates shared a small secret. Gorbachev had been getting tapes of the Moscow TV evening news from US State. Gates revealed these were taped by CIA. Kryuchkov thanked him and said he thought that was the only surveillance CIA was doing. Kryuchkov could be confident. In the heart of CIA, unknown to the US, lay mole Aldrich Ames faithfully reporting to his control.