A good discussion is emerging about whether former SecDef Robert Gates’ new book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War involves ethical breaches. The concerns raised involve Gates’ revealing confidential information, including private conversations with the most senior US officials, in publishing a tell-all book about a sitting President while still at war (e.g., Cass Sunstein’s criticism of Gates in Bloomberg, and Bret Stephens criticism in the Wall Street Journal). Cass takes the argument too far by asserting that “most of his disclosures add nothing of importance to the historical record.” If that were the case, the ethical question would be a lot easier to resolve. But, as my earlier post shows, the book contains lots of significant information about US policy and international affairs. So what is the answer to the ethical question? Did Gates act unethically, or irresponsibly, in publishing this memoir?

It is remarkable how the book itself takes a position on these questions: a self-contradictory one. Gates appears to disrespect such breaches of sensitive information, and he writes about the importance of keeping particular information confidential–information that Gates then discloses in the book.

1. Let’s start with what is surely the most puzzling passage in the book: Gates writes that he was “offended” by President Obama’s “suspicion that any of us” would write a memoir about sensitive matters. This passage follows immediately after Gates reveals the very sensitive matters to which the President referred. Gates writes:

“I was put off by the way the president closed the meeting.  To his very closest advisers, he said, ‘For the record, and for those of you writing your memoirs, I am not making any decisions about Israel or Iran. Joe you be my witness.’  I was offended by his suspicion that any of us would ever write about such sensitive matters” (p. 393).

It is quite bizarre that Gates inserts this paragraph in the middle of the memoir, and never discusses or attempts to reconcile its dramatic inconsistency with the very enterprise of his book project.

2. Gates tells us that when he took the job with Obama, “I had offered [the President-elect] some reassurance: ‘…you would never need worry about my working a separate or different agenda. As I have with other presidents, I would give you my best and most candid advice. Should you decide on a different path, I would either support you or leave. I would not be disloyal” (p. 272).

3. Gates praises General McChrystal’s intelligence chief Major General Michael Flynn for a report on US intelligence failures on the ground in Afghanistan. Gates then criticizes Flynn for publishing his analysis in a journal such that “our adversaries…could read about our deficiencies.” Notably, Gates does not address whether parts of his own book reveal similar information. And, indeed, for any adversaries reading Gates book, he lets them know that he thinks Flynn’s analysis of US deficiencies were “on the money” (p. 478).

4. Gates was relieved that a New York Times story included only a portion of a memo that he wrote on Israel and Iran, and not the more “militarily sensitive” parts of the document (p. 392). Gates then reproduces the more sensitive parts of the document (p. 391).

5. Gates says he defended the Pakistani government “in front of Congress and to the press to keep the relationship from getting worse.” Gates then suggests that he was fibbing: “I knew they were really no ally at all” (p. 477).

6. Gates tells us that the king of Saudi Arabia was “very cautious” about concealing “any kind of overt” military cooperation or planning with the US for fear that Iran would consider it an act of war. In the same passage, Gates reveals the content of a weapons deal and says that King Abdullah “explicitly told me that he saw the huge purchase as an investment in a long-term strategic relationship with the United States, linking our militaries for decades to come” (p. 395).

7. Gates quotes his own press statement at a January 2011 briefing in which he asserted that Julian Assange’s release of US secret documents incurred little damage for the US: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Awkward? Somewhat. But the longer-term impact? Very modest” (p. 428). Presumably Gates’ minimization of the impact was performed to serve US national interests. Gates, however, writes in the book that the Assange documents constituted a “disaster;” and Gates states that when, in November 2010, Assange “said on Twitter, ‘The coming months will see a new world, where global history is redefined.’ [Assange] made good on his threat” (p. 426).

8. Finally, Gates begins the final section of the book – his Acknowledgments — with an eerie line: “Above all, I wish to thank President Bush and President Obama for their trust and confidence in asking me to serve as secretary of defense” (p. 597).

The above list is taken from Gates’ book. It is also important to recall Gates’ strong statements about the release of sensitive information when he was in office:

“[O]ur military culture is one that on the battlefield places great responsibility on the shoulders of even junior servicemembers, to include entrusting them with sensitive information. The American way of war depends upon it.

But to earn and maintain that trust, we must all be responsible in handling, protecting and safeguarding our nation’s secrets.  For years there has been what I would call appropriate criticism of excessive classification and overclassification of information. However, this recent release of documents is a pointed reminder that much secret information is treated as such to protect sources of information, to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform, to deny our enemies the information about our military operations, and to preserve our relationships with friends and allies.

I spent most of my life in the intelligence business, where the sacrosanct principle is protecting your sources ….  That is one of the worst aspects of this, as far as I’m concerned:  Will people trust us?  … Will other governments trust us to keep their documents and their intelligence secret?  

You know, it’s a funny thing, and especially for a so-called realist, but it’s amazing how much trust matters in relationships, whether it’s with governments or with individuals around the world. And it seems to me that, as a result of this massive breach of security, we have considerable repair work to do in terms of reassuring people and rebuilding trust because they — clearly, people are going to feel at risk. … [T]his is one of the consequences of this kind of a breach … it is front and center for me.”

(Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, July 29, 2010)

Just Security‘s discussion of Gates’ book will continue. Especially if the above questions interest you, stay tuned for a post from Andy Wright later this week.