Robert Gates has been an extraordinarily distinguished public servant. A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he has worked for eight presidents, serving as defense secretary under both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. The nation owes him a deep and enduring debt of gratitude. But his new memoir, “Duty,” raises troubling ethical questions.
A former public official has a special obligation — in fact a duty — not to betray the confidence of a sitting president, especially in the area of national security. Even if private conversations involve people who are no longer in office, the official should hesitate before using them to embarrass or attack those with whom he worked closely — certainly if his own motivations include selling books, settling scores, justifying his own positions or even defending his place in history.
Of course, Gates isn’t the first person to reveal private discussions, but betrayals of confidence don’t become justified merely because they have precedents.
Gates announces, on his very first page, that he will discuss “political wars with the White House, occasionally with the presidents themselves — more with President Obama than with President Bush.” Consistent with that announcement, he discloses a large number of confidential conversations.
For example, Gates reports that Bush said he wished he had fired Donald Rumsfeld, Gates’s predecessor as secretary of defense, “a couple of years earlier.” He describes sharp disagreements within the Bush administration about whether to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (and specifically mentions the role of adviser Ed Gillespie, who was concerned about the effects on “the Republican base”). With respect to the conduct of the Iraq War, he lays out his various disagreements with Bush and General David Petraeus (among others).
He quotes John Podesta, the head of the Obama transition team after the 2008 election, as saying that “the Obama team tend to be control freaks” when it comes to dealing with the news media. Naming names, he offers detailed accounts of divisions within the Obama administration about how to handle the Arab Spring and the unrest in Egypt. He provides a similarly detailed account of confidential deliberations about the war in Afghanistan. (Disclosure: I am serving on the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies. My wife, Samantha Power, who worked on the national security staff in the Obama administration’s first term, is now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.)