Betrayal: Robert Gates Gets Even


When General George Marshall, World War Two military leader, former Secretary of State, and architect of the Marshall plan, was offered a million dollars to write his memoirs in the 1950s, he demurred, saying that there was no way he could write a truthful memoir without undermining people still at work in the government and military.

And then there was David Stockman…Paul O’Neill

…and Robert Gates.

Bottom line: these people betray their colleagues for money, and often, as is Robert Gates’s case, out of spite. Former Defense Secretary Gates, like the others, was given an opportunity to serve his country in a high executive branch position. He was privy to policy discussions and the inner workings of the administration. He was trusted. To reveal details of his tenure while the administration he worked for is still in office, done in a way designed to provoke criticism and embarrass his former associates and boss, is the height of disloyalty, and a breach of implicit confidentiality.

The honorable and ethical way to write such a book would be to wait until it could not actively interfere with the work of the Executive Branch. The people may have a right to know, but they do not have a right to know everything immediately. People in high policy-making positions must be able to be themselves, express opinions, and have productive meetings with the confidence that those they work with are not collecting notes for a future Book-of-the-Month sellout. Books like Gates’s undermine that trust, make it more difficult to get candid and controversial opinions and ideas into the decision-making process, and ultimately hurt all of us. The former  Secretary and those who appreciate the additional ammunition for administration-bashing can assemble a lot of rationalizations for the  book, but they all boil down to “Everybody Does It,” the most threadbare and cowardly rationalization of all.

The ethical thing would have been for Gates to write the book in a few years, or not to write it at all. The ethical conduct for the reading public is to discourage betrayals, no matter who is the one betrayed, by sending such books to the remainders bin.

I suppose I should mention that except for the substitution of Robert Gates’ name for that of Paul O’Neill, and replacing “Treasury” with “Defense,” every word above was written in 2004, when I condemned the sell-out of fired Bush Treasury Secretary O’Neill, who had just provided the information used in a Bush-bashing tell-all called “The Price of Loyalty: The Education of Paul O’Neill.” (Yes, the old Ethics Scoreboard is coming in handy today.) Every word applies with equal force to the new memoir by Gates, who was President Obama’s Secretary of Defense and whose current tell-all attack has set Washington buzzing, except that Gates’s conduct is ethically far worse. O’Neill was a loose cannon and amateur in government: he was a poor appointment, and while his book was a betrayal and unprofessional, he shouldn’t have been trusted in the first place. Gates, in contrast, is a consummate professional who has served many Presidents, and such a book coming from him is shocking. He must know, or have once believed, that Marshall was right. It is being said that this is the first time any former Cabinet member of Gates’ status has attacked his former superiors while they were still in office, and that is nothing for Robert Gates to be proud of. It is shameful. It is especially shameful because, based on the excerpts that have been released so far, it seems that the book was at least in part motivated by frustration and anger. Those emotions may be justified, but they can not in turn excuse breaching the trust of the President of the United States and damaging the  presidency that Gates once pledged to serve.

A few final observations that I did not or could not consider in 2004:

  • I wrote in O’Neill’s case that the best response would be for nobody to read the book. I think that was unrealistic and wrong. Yes, we should discourage such books, but the only practical way to do that is to heap abuse and disdain on the writer. Trusted staff that write such books should recognize that while they may settle score and line their pockets, their reputations are forfeit.
  • Similarly, I believe that as despicable as the writing of this book is, the public and press should give the information revealed by Gates fair and serious attention to the extent that it deserves it. In this respect, Gates’s book is like Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA secrets. The fact that they shouldn’t have been leaked, if they shouldn’t, does not change the value of the information once it has been made public.
  • As yet another example of how ethics and ethical duties seldom enter the minds of American journalists, though I have read more than ten articles about the book and watched four news reports about it on various networks, the fact that Gates’s book is a breach of confidentiality and trust wasn’t mentioned once.
  • When O’Neill wrote his book and it was published just in time to do maximum damage to Bush’s re-election campaign, Democrats gleefully cheered. They were fools. The principles and duties O’Neill breached should have been the target of bi-partisan condemnation; now Democrats are reaping the harvest of their own hypocrisy.


Sources: Washington Post, Bloomberg

46 thoughts on “Betrayal: Robert Gates Gets Even

  1. When a man like Gates writes a book like this and describes how horrified he is at the acts of the administration he worked for, my question is why didn’t this guy resign his post in protest rather than snipe from the sidelines.

    • Good question. Possible answers:
      1. He’s a good soldier, or was. You always think you can make a difference, even among fools.
      2. He’s an old fashioned patriot. He serves at the pleasure of the President.
      3. He’d been around since Nixon, and didn’t want to go out that way.
      4. This way is more lucrative.
      5. Nobody resigns in protest any more. Unfortunately. That’s the way to do it honorably and by the rules.

      • 6. He was disgusted at the difference he saw between the two administrations and thought it needed to be pointed out for the historical record.
        7. He came to believe Obama kept him on, alone of all the cabinet from GWB so he could use him as a “fall guy” or a conduit to keep blaming GWB wrt the wars, and he wasn’t pleased with this state of affairs. I say “came to believe” because had be believed this from the get-go he could have just turned down the offer to stay on, telling Obama the wars were his problem now and since he was so much smarter than everyone, he could figure them out.

  2. I will read his book. The Secretary of Defense’s primary concern is the military aspects but the Secretary of State and President have much more to consider. A good soldier would have resigned and quietly walked away.

  3. Your last point in the main article is by FAR the best. Too often a tell-all book or damaging report from someone on the other side politically is slammed as “politically motivated” or “sour grapes” or even “treasonous,” but when it’s from someone on your side politically it’s hailed as “courageous,” “bold,” etc. It’s never about who might be telling the truth or being ethical, it’s just about who advances the agenda.

    That said, would all of the above criticisms also apply to former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke, who also released a book sharply critical of George W. Bush in March of 2004? Apparently his book, which I have not read, was bad enough that then-FBI Director Louis Freeh felt the need to denounce his claims in his memoirs “My FBI,” which I have read, mostly for his account of the investigation and eventual arrest of honest-to-goodness traitor Robert Hanssen.

    P.S. Your thoughts on someone who claims a “crystallization of conscience” and doesn’t just write a damning book, but actively works to destroy the agency he claims was evil, a la Philip Agee, the now-deceased author of “Inside the Company: CIA Diary?”

  4. As a Canadian, and not much more than glancingly familiar with American laws, perhaps something has escaped me… But why do books like this see such a vastly different treatment from people like Snowden or Manning? I get that the situations aren’t completely apples to apples, but when we’re dealing with confidentiality issues, and one group is being published and making money while the other is being sought after for treason, it’s not even a matter of degrees/

    • The cynical answer is that Gates is an Important Man, while Snowden and Manning are peasants. You assume that you’ll take your share of body blows from your equals, and deal with them as they come. When the little man starts trying to punch above his weight class and do some damage to the people in power, he has to be abjectly destroyed.

    • Snowden isn’t being pursued for Treason. He’s being pursued for Espionage because he stole classified information and gave it to other parties.

      Gates only violated an reasonably assumed confidentiality with the Cabinet he was formerly a member of.

      There’s a substantial difference in what the two individuals did.

    • Snowden and Manning have both revealed state secrets…secrets that, presumably, will do damage to US security. Gates book, from what little I have heard about it, is embarrassing and personal, but does not actively serve our enemies interests or put US operators at risk. The first is, in fact, treason…the second, tasteless and, well, unethical.

    • Another fine point: while some matters (maybe even most matters) discussed with a President might be Top Secret, whether someone supported or didn’t support a policy due to political calculations probably isn’t. Nor would revelations regarding a PotUS’s interest/faith – or lack there of – in his own strategies.

      Still, Gates should have resigned and THEN talked about it, not wait, retire, and craft a profitable book deal.

      Further, there existed many ways Snowden and Manning could have raised their concerns that would have been perfectly reasonable (contacting members of the Senate Select Committee, for example).

  5. You forgot to mention that Marshall won the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him for actually doing something, unlike the one awarded to someone else a bit more recently.

  6. Jack:
    In my opinion Philk57 has laid out the most ethical thing to do. Maybe Gates did resign (retire) in protest. Given that Gates is a person who is stated to be a consummate professional, retiring quietly without any disparagement or disruption to the administration lends credence to that claim. This leads me to consider why he announced his retirement in 2010 before the stated national defense objectives were achieved.

    This is not a justification for the publication but to consider the implications of waiting to “tell all.” It is quite possible that he stayed on past the Bush administration at the request of the President to help influence the new President’s policies or ensure that previous policies were understood and executed as originally planned. If it became apparent to him that his appointment was for show only, then it’s also quite probable that he was not privy to all policy development decisions or his advice and counsel was dismissed in favor of political expediency which may have been the reason for his decision to leave.

    I would like to point out that Marshall was not a great field general and not always the best judge of field commanders. Many of his strategic decisions led to diminished morale, loss of cohesion among units and cost a great deal of American lives during WWII. Had he gotten his way on Operation Overlord, the outcome or cost of WWII in terms of American lives might have been much worse.

    But Marshall was a superb organizer with the skills to create a huge fighting army virtually overnight coupled with the guts to challenge the prevailing group think surrounding Roosevelt’s lend lease plan. His elevated stature among world leaders cannot be disputed. We often create mythical heroes and like to forget and forgive the failings of such great historical figures. I do not know George Marshall’s motivations but it is plausible that Marshall’s decision to not publish a memoir was based partly on his belief that his own failures would be exposed and not wholly on not wanting to. . . “undermine people still at work in government and in the military”. This statement does not suggest that his choice was to protect the Commander in Chief but to not disclose facts that could be embarrassing to anyone. It might just come out that he (Marshall) ordered McArthur to . . .”feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th parallel”. Was it ethical for Marshall to give such an order only to condemn him later when Truman learned of McArthur’s actions to cross the 38th parallel? Perhaps the millions that were offered was simply too low for him to relinquish his high place in history.

    With all that said, I simply seek to understand to whom Gates owes his loyalty; to the President or to the people. As the nation’s Defense Secretary, he serves at the will and pleasure of the President. As such, he owes a duty of loyalty to the President. He also owes a duty of loyalty to the people equal to that of the President; otherwise the President could not fulfill his duty to the people. If a sitting President makes decisions based on self-serving political calculus rather than on the national interests should the advice and counsel of professionals he claims to be his advisors be silenced by virtue of the office? I am not sure.

    How do we distinguish between those anonymous inside sources that provide “factual” information to news reporters who are the foundation of the Fourth Estate and those who publish books after leaving service? Are the anonymous sources breaching an ethical duty as well? If not, why do they need to require anonymity?

    You made the following statement to which I tend to generally agree:

    “Former Defense Secretary Gates, like the others, was given an opportunity to serve his country in a high executive branch position. He was privy to policy discussions and the inner workings of the administration. He was trusted. To reveal details of his tenure while the administration he worked for is still in office, done in a way designed to provoke criticism and embarrass his former associates and boss, is the height of disloyalty, and a breach of implicit confidentiality.”

    “The honorable and ethical way to write such a book would be to wait until it could not actively interfere with the work of the Executive Branch. The people may have a right to know, but they do not have a right to know everything immediately.”

    My only problem with this statement is just how far does such a loyalty extend if material information regarding the motivations behind policy development will never see the light of day resulting from unwavering loyal behavior; and if that the person believes that failure to disclose such motivations and behaviors will place the nation in peril in the near term.

    I might be more inclined to accept the premise that waiting to write the critique if the administration was more open and transparent. Unfortunately, elections are won and lost not by having an informed public but by managing, controlling, and parsing the information available to the public. This administration seems to be quite adept at managing the message, at least until recently. I would have loved to have had C-SPAN televise all the meetings the President had with health insurance and pharmaceutical executives. We will never know what they were promised or with what executive actions were they threatened.

    I do agree with your statement that “People in high policy-making positions must be able to be themselves, express opinions, and have productive meetings with the confidence that those they work with are not collecting notes for a future Book-of-the-Month sellout.”

    However, it can be argued that those in high policy-making positions should not be shielded from former insider’s criticism even while in office if the insider’s criticism is founded in the belief that the policy maker is making decisions based on self/party interest and not national interest; especially if the costs and consequences of such policies are borne by the electorate and not the policy maker.

    Reason tells us that we, the electorate, cannot formulate an intelligent decision about the efficacy of a policy or an administration if we never hear any countervailing points of view from people who are actually involved in the process. The information Gates provides is one person’s opinion and his reflections on the operations of the administration. Intelligent people can take it or leave it; they can accept his point of view as factual or reject it; but to suggest that publishing perceptions and different policy points of view are off limits until after the administration leaves office and can no longer suffer any political consequences of its methods and motives seems to me quite unethical.

    I do appreciate the fact that you are consistent in your treatment of Gates and O’Neil. That’s the most ethical thing I have seen recently.

  7. Gates is breaking the trust; if his conscious bothered him about what was going on his first step was tell the President. If they could not come to an understanding he should have left the administration. Actions like these by top officials weaken the nation; both allies and enemies will take note of this. I want to blame the President and his lack of leadership for driving him to this but that would be a poor excuse for Gates character flaw. Because of the classified nature of much of his interaction I doubt there will be any real blows done to the administration but the end result is it will hurt our nation and that trust will take a long time to rebuild.

  8. Jack,

    It would be fascinating to hear your thoughts on comparing and contrasting Gates to Patrick Gray.

    As Deep Throat, he served the public interest by exposing activities that were out and out illegal. But isn’t the fact that he served the public interest simply consequentialism? Does knowing about illegality justify speaking to reporters rather than to prosecutors?

    Gray hid behind anonymity, Gates put himself on the line publicly.

    Is there an ethical difference among telling tales out of school depending on whether it uncovers criminality (Gray), uncovers incompetence (O’Neill), or uncovers policy disagreements?

    At what point would you choose to draw an ethical line between loyalty and omertà?

    (Yes, I’m leaving the topic yet again to chase after related issues).

  9. One quote from the book: “difficulties within the executive branch were nothing compared with the pain of dealing with Congress. … 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”

    The criticism of Congress is OK, surely, from a former official?

      • ….or to know anything else in the book. That is to say

        8. Early publication maximises all his utilities, political and personal.
        Assuming that the reviewers have put forward all the most newsworthy items already, the book is broadly predictable personal opinion. The short time delay betweeen resignation and publication gives currency to his opinion and makes the book newsworthy. But opinion is cheap, and releasing predictable opinion does no new harm. He thus extends his political influence, and makes his points, at little cost or risk. He can keep the maximum amount of his stock of skeletons in the closet, for now

        Clever, arguably unethical, but immune. And the material should go down well on the after dinner circuit.

  10. Okay, okay. Gates’ book — published at this time — has its ethical problems. But what about the “whistleblower” concept? In legal terms (I think), Gates could have RESIGNED “NOISILY” without writing a book, been on all the news and talk shows and gotten his major points out.

    We all know now that this Administration is one of the least “transparent’ in recent history, despite all the promises. It is frightening to even consider what we don’t know. And between the Administration and the media, Obama has been “covered” too well. And too bad for us..

    Question: What is the oath of office for a Secretary of Defense? Anybody know? Does he pledge loyalty to the people of the United States or to his immediate boss? Whistleblowers are necessary and have done much good, especially in the private sector. Gates should have held the book, but taken the whistleblower route.

    And discussion of other “disloyal” administration appointees who wrote books that damaged the chances of their president’s re-election is wasted time and thought. We’re stuck with Obama now ’til the very end (only hoping it turns out to be only the end of his administration and not something worse), and we might as know what we’re facing. Obama is in “damage control” mode, of course: probably not one scintilla of thought of change in behavior or process. He is NOT honest, able, competent, or visionary. Simply a narcissist who’s been protected for too long.

    Hey Jack, why don’t you offer an ethics seminar for the White House???

    • He is not a whistleblower. He is a top administrative official who is not reporting illegal activities but confidences and perceptions he had while part of the inner circle. As reprehensible as some of those may be none of it is illegal. He decided to cash in based on his access to that inner circle, that to me makes anything he may say suspect as he has already proven that he is untrustworthy, puts money over integrity and based on that any salacious detail that may drive sales up is suspect.

      I cannot stand this President; I distrust him and his administration and I think he is an awful leader. Anything nefarious that this administration may be involved in needs to be brought to light, but what Gates did was not the way and only diminishes his credibility.

      • Both you and Elizabeth refer to the Obama administration as being one of the “least transparent” in recent history and/or how he isn’t to be trusted and apparently conducts “nefarious” business on a routine basis. Could either or both of you give solid examples of what you mean? That is, material that is based on solid facts from unbiased sources and not just conspiracy theory drivel or honest differences of political opinion that one side disingenuously puffs up into a faux travesty.

        I ask because I see a LOT of manufactured anti-Obama claims that turn out to be gross misinterpretations of the facts, fair criticisms or questions needing answers that are instead inflated into some grotesque Frankenstein Monster of wild exaggerations or even out-and-out conspiracy theories that utterly muddle the original question beyond all recognition, or even just plain old anti-Obama lies that his enemies have long since accepted as “proven” and thus endlessly repeat (such as all this Birther nonsense or the claim he’s a secret Muslim) even in the face of having been thoroughly debunked years ago.

        Now, if Obama really has done “nefarious” things I want to hear about them, but not from some rightwing (or leftwing for that matter) nutjob site where, even if the get the facts right in this particular case, have long since lost any credibility (and certainly aren’t worth the effort to fact check their claims after a likely long history of producing lies and propaganda).

        Basically, there is a lot of garbage out there and I wonder if either of you (or anyone else) can point me to solid and reasonable sources of information on unethical conduct on the part of the Obama Administration (especially if it is clearly far beyond “standard practice” of administrations over the past few decades).

        Thanks in advance!

        P.S. I am not interested in Pro-Obama sites/sources that may be guilty of shooting sunshine up our skirts, but just those who would criticize him fairly with solid evidence of committing ethical violations (if not worse).

        • Tell you what, Allan, why don’t you do your homework and Search for “transparency” on Ethics Alarms. You will find, many, many examples, and I didn’t blog on all of them. Here, I’ll get you started with an early one:

          The obvious example even you should be aware of was the Affordable Care Act, which the administration carefully kept vague, and Obama repeatedly lied about what it would mandate. Or perhaps you missed Obama’s illegal negotiations for the release of Sgt. Bergdahl, while not being transparent with Congress. There are so many, many examples, and you somehow missed all of them.

          The issue, as I think you know, is not whether this is the least transparent, but that its performance is miserable for one that was promised to be the MOST transparent. Thus it wasn’t even transparent about its transparency.

          Willful blindness is a terrible thing. You have my sympathies.

    • Elizabeth, this is the oath. As you can see, no oath of personal loyalty (thank goodness…Hitler made all of his officers swear loyalty to HIM personally).

      . . . as outlined in the Constitution and specified in the United States Code, 5USC3331.
      “I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

  11. Separately from this GateGate circus, an unrighteous unethical act even with the intention to later become a greater more noble result does not in principle make the action ethically acceptable. Yet, sometimes and in some case I think it is necessary. I am not suggesting it is in this case necessary or unnecessary.

    As a political agnostic and critic of the two ‘criminal oligarchy’ party system in America I like seeing the political elites getting burned at every opportunity big and small. I do not obediently accept others defining what is patriotic, loyalty, duty, in the nation’s good, etc. I respect moral soldiers more than I do good soldiers.

    America was not attacked on September 11th because they hate us for our so-called freedoms. Give me a break; that Washington DC propaganda myth is only fit to be swallowed by lemmings. They hit us because we meddle in their lives with the result being the current state of affairs.

  12. Isn’t there ANY kind of non-disclosure obligation on high-rollers like Gates – and I mean, obligation by way of an “executed instrument,” with explicit, comprehensive restrictions, including lengthy time periods of effectivity – such that what Gates did would be a breach with real, unavoidable, severely adverse personal liabilities?

    I apologize for my ignorance; I suppose I should know the answer, considering jobs I have had. But gad: If the JFK assassination details can be muzzled for decades, then surely there ought to be ways to keep all this palace intrigue’s laundry-stench out of the for-profit (to anyone) market until the palace-occupiers are dead, or nearly dead.

    Or must the nation keep packs of hungry dogs at the ready 24/7, for “great leaders” to disincentivize this naked, getcha-gotcha “capitalism?”

    • Non-disclosure requirements for classified information are an exit requirement and he would have had to do one for the classified information he had access to. As far as I have seen on the news none of what is reported is classified. It is a different story with non classified information, he is a public official, his business and that of the rest of the executive are not necessarily protected from FOIA requests or disclosure but Executive Privilege is fairly far reaching as it pertains to the cabinet and the White House office. With that said Executive Privilege generally protects work products; memos, meeting minutes, agendas and such that originate out of the White house office. Executive Privilege is not enforceable on the individual but is on the office. I don’t think that once that office holder leaves there is any official way to muzzle them so long as classified information is not being disclosed.

    • II apologize for my ignorance; I suppose I should know the answer, considering jobs I have had. But gad: If the JFK assassination details can be muzzled for decades, then surely there ought to be ways to keep all this palace intrigue’s laundry-stench out of the for-profit (to anyone) market until the palace-occupiers are dead, or nearly dead.
      Different story, what Gates is disclosing may have national security implications but it is all more in a political nature and not function or policy. With JFK information not only was it protected due to the criminal investigation but there were additional concerns on disclosure of investigation methods, sources, secret service procedures, national security and the like. Really not a comparable situation.

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