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Ex-Defense Secretary Gates Takes Aim At Obama In New Book

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama salute during a farewell ceremony for Gates on June 30, 2011.
Evan Vucci
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama salute during a farewell ceremony for Gates on June 30, 2011.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a book due out later this month, describes President Obama as "a man of personal integrity" who nonetheless was skeptical of his administration's "surge" strategy in Afghanistan and openly distrustful of the military leadership, The Washington Post and The New York Times report Tuesday.

The newspapers obtained copies of Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, scheduled for release under the Knopf imprint on Jan. 14. In it, Gates, 70, who has served every president since Nixon, with the exception of Bill Clinton, and was widely seen as an even-tempered team player, acknowledges that under the surface he was frequently "seething" and "running out of patience on multiple fronts" during his time in the Obama White House.

"All too early in the [Obama] administration," he writes, according to the Post's Bob Woodward, "suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials — including the president and vice president — became a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders."

Gates accuses Vice President Joe Biden of "poisoning the well" against the military leadership.

He says Obama didn't feel ownership of the war in Afghanistan and was anxious to exit the conflict. "I never doubted Obama's support for the troops, only his support for their mission," Gates writes.

In a September 2009 meeting with advisers to discuss Afghan policy, "I was deeply uneasy with the Obama White House's lack of appreciation — from the top down — of the uncertainties and unpredictability of war," he recalls.

"I came closer to resigning that day than at any other time in my tenure, though no one knew it," Gates writes, according to the Times.Gates said he made his desire to step down known to the president at the end of 2010 but was persuaded to stay until he finally resigned in mid-2011.

The Times writes:

"At a pivotal meeting in the situation room in March 2011, Mr. Gates said, Mr. Obama opened with a blast of frustration over his Afghan policy — expressing doubts about Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander he had chosen, and questioning whether he could do business with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai."

" 'As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy and doesn't consider the war to be his,' Mr. Gates writes. 'For him, it's all about getting out.' "

"Gates' criticisms are in sharp contrast to the public praise he heaped on his boss in the summer of 2010 while he was defense secretary. At the time, Gates said Obama was 'very thoughtful and analytical, but he is also quite decisive.' Likewise, in the same timeframe, Woodward says the president told him: 'Bob Gates has, I think, served me extraordinarily well. And part of the reason is, you know, I'm not sure if he considers this an insult or a compliment, but he and I actually think a lot alike, in broad terms.' "

And, according to the Times:

"Mr. Gates reveals the depth of Mr. Obama's concerns over leaks of classified information to news outlets, noting that within his first month in office, the new president said he wanted a criminal investigation into disclosures on Iran policy published by The New York Times."

"Mr. Gates, too, ordered a campaign to stamp out unauthorized disclosures, but grew rankled when White House officials always blamed the Pentagon for leaks. 'Only the president would acknowledge to me he had problems with leaks in his own shop,' Mr. Gates writes."

The Post writes:

"Gates offers a catalogue of various meetings, based in part on notes that he and his aides made at the time, including an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that he calls 'remarkable.'"

"He writes: 'Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.'"

"Earlier in the book, he describes Hillary Clinton in the sort of glowing terms that might be used in a political endorsement. 'I found her smart, idealistic but pragmatic, tough-minded, indefatigable, funny, a very valuable colleague, and a superb representative of the United States all over the world,' he wrote."

Update at 6:08 p.m. ET. White House Response:

NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden sent this response to reporters regarding Gates' book:

"The President deeply appreciates Bob Gates' service as Secretary of Defense, and his lifetime of service to our country. Deliberations over our policy on Afghanistan have been widely reported on over the years, and it is well known that the President has been committed to achieving the mission of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda, while also ensuring that we have a clear plan for winding down the war, which will end this year. As has always been the case, the President welcomes differences of view among his national security team, which broaden his options and enhance our policies. The President wishes Secretary Gates well as he recovers from his recent injury, and discusses his book.

"The President disagrees with Secretary Gates' assessment – from his leadership on the Balkans in the Senate, to his efforts to end the war in Iraq, Joe Biden has been one of the leading statesmen of his time, and has helped advance America's leadership in the world. President Obama relies on his good counsel every day."

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.