An officer in the Air Force, Robert Gates rose through the ranks to become director of the CIA under president George H.W. Bush. He then became secretary of defense (2006-11) under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. His career as a civil servant covered the Cold War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1996, he published his memoir "From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War." He retired in 2011 and was awarded the presidential Medal of Freedom.
The 70-year-old is chancellor of the College of William and Mary, his alma mater. He will be part of the Robert Morris University Pittsburgh Speaker Series at Heinz Hall 8 p.m. Wednesday. For speaker series tickets and information on upcoming speakers, call 412-392-4900 or go to www.pittsburghspeakersseries.org.
Which caused you the most angst: being secretary of defense or director of the CIA?
Oh, I think easily being secretary of defense. When I became secretary of defense we were involved in two wars, and neither were going well. Every week it was my responsibility to sign papers that would send men and women into harm's ways. ... I had to sign condolence letters to their families. There were a relatively small number of CIA officers who were killed while I was deputy director and director. Every one is an individual tragedy, but the numbers were bigger particularly in the course of these two wars. The funerals at Arlington, the visits to the hospitals were especially difficult for me.
I imagine you had to be especially good at compartmentalizing your life considering the positions you held.
Yes, and I would say my wife and my kids played a big part in helping me do that. My wife had her own career, but she basically kept home as a sanctuary. We virtually never talked about my work, whether I was in the CIA or the defense department. The same was true when I would see my grown children. We would focus on family things. It helped me keep the balance.
Were you ever concerned about your family's security?
No, not really. We had security living in our house both when I was director of the CIA and secretary of defense and a lot of security measures around, so I never worried about it.
How did you deal with decisions that challenged your moral compass?
I think that is more likely to happen as director of the CIA. I considered my job as secretary of defense as quite straightforward in terms of the rules that we had to follow. The CIA obviously plays by a different set of rules, and I was there at the height of the Cold War and the end of the Cold War. I will say things were different before 9/11.
I think some of the challenges have become more difficult after 9/11 as we fought a different kind of enemy. There were unwritten rules between us and the Soviets, for example, that KGB and CIA officers wouldn't kill each other. I think there were fewer moral issues, if you will, or challenges to the moral compass during the Cold War than perhaps some of the things that happened after 9/11. I guess the one area a lot of people would point to during the Cold War was when the United States allied and worked with a number of despotic governments, a number of authoritarians. The CIA was part of it, but it was a U.S. government policy to cooperate with them. It wasn't just CIA.
So it was a choice between the better of two evils?
Everybody sort of had to choose up sides in the Cold War. So we would end up dealing with strong men in the Middle East like [President Hosni] Mubarak and some of his predecessors in Egypt, [Manuel] Noriega in Panama, the Shah of Iran [and] some of the dictators in South Korea until it became a thriving democracy.
What do you miss about being in the loop?
Nothing! [laughing] Absolutely nothing. The only thing I miss is the opportunity to mingle and kick back with the men and women in uniform. That is what kept me in the job and it's the only thing I miss.
Ignorance is bliss.
Bliss is not getting a 3 o'clock in the morning phone call every day.
What worries you that should worry the rest of us?
I don't think I have a different set of worries than most people in the country. My own view is that right now the biggest national security threat to the United States is in Washington, D.C., in 2 square miles encompassing Capitol Hill and the White House. If those guys can't figure out a way to work together and get our national finances back in order and begin to address our serious problems such as immigration and infrastructure, I think we've got trouble ahead as a country. The troubles right now are transitory, but only if the folks in Washington figure out a way to work together.
As far as the NSA bugging allies, does that always go on and why?
I would point out two things: First of all, when President Obama became president he wanted to keep his BlackBerry. All the security officials told him he couldn't. Finally they gave him a super-reinforced BlackBerry and limited the number of people he could communicate with on it. Why do you think they did that? Because so many governments around the world intercept communications.
The first President Bush, who was famously known for calling up foreign leaders, I would tell him: "Mr. President, you need to remember you are on a party line. There are probably going to be a least six countries that are listening in on your telephone call." That's 25, 30 years ago, so this is not exactly new stuff.
Frankly, I feel like we are kind of swimming in an ocean of hypocrisy here. The other side of that coin is with respect to domestic affairs, I think the reviews that the Congress has underway in terms of what's being done, what's the balance between privacy and security and protecting us against terrorists, evaluating that is important. If NSA has gone beyond the rules, gone beyond at some point what was authorized by the president or the Congress, it should be held accountable. Everything I am aware of that they were doing is entirely appropriate. I think some of these online outfits know a lot more about us as individuals than NSA does. But, reviewing it and making sure our leaders are comfortable with where the balance is is an important thing.
What about you, did you have strict parents? What was your childhood like?
Growing up in Kansas was idyllic for a kid. I had some firm rules I had to abide by, and the consequences of not abiding by them were meaningful, shall I say [laughing]. But within that framework, I was given an extraordinary amount of freedom to explore and learn and do things. We had a very close and affectionate family.
Did your parents talk politics at the table?
My father did, yeah. My father was a rock-red Republican. But, my mother's whole side of the family were Democrats. So as I joke, I learned bipartisanship at an early age.
Patricia Sheridan: email@example.com or 412-263-2613. Follow her on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/pasheridan.