George Tenet has a story to tell. With his appearance tonight on “60 Minutes” and the publication of his new memoir, “At the Center of the Storm,” the former director of central intelligence is out to absolve himself of the failings of 9/11 and Iraq. He’ll sell a lot of books, of course, but we shouldn’t buy his attempts to let himself off the hook.
My experience with Tenet dates to the late 1980s, when he was the sharp, garrulous, cigar-chomping staff director of the Senate intelligence committee and I was a junior CIA officer who briefed him on covert action programs in Afghanistan. Later, I worked directly for Tenet after he took over the CIA and I became the first chief of the agency’s Osama bin Laden unit. We met regularly, often daily. It’s impossible to dislike Tenet, who is smart, polite, hard-working, convivial and detail-oriented. But he’s also a man who never went from cheerleader to leader.
At a time when clear direction and moral courage were needed, Tenet shifted course to follow the prevailing winds, under President Bill Clinton and then President Bush — and he provided distraught officers at Langley a shoulder to cry on when his politically expedient tacking sailed the United States into disaster.
At the CIA, Tenet will be remembered for some badly needed morale-building. But he will also be recalled for fudging the central role he played in the decline of America’s clandestine service — the brave field officers who run covert missions that make us all safer. The decline began in the late 1980s, when the impending end of the Cold War meant smaller budgets and fewer hires, and it continued through Sept. 11, 2001. When Tenet and his bungling operations chief, James Pavitt, described this slow-motion disaster in testimony after the terrorist attacks, they tried to blame the clandestine service’s weaknesses on congressional cuts. But Tenet had helped preside over every step of the service’s decline during three consecutive administrations — Bush, Clinton, Bush — in a series of key intelligence jobs for the Senate, the National Security Council and the CIA. Only 9/11, it seems, convinced Tenet of the importance of a large, aggressive clandestine service to U.S. security.
Like self-serving earlier leaks seemingly from Tenet’s circle to such reporters as Ron Suskind and Bob Woodward, “At the Center of the Storm” is similarly disingenuous about Tenet’s record on al-Qaeda. In “State of Denial,” Woodward paints a heroic portrait of the CIA chief warning national security adviser Condoleezza Rice of pending al-Qaeda strikes during the summer of 2001, only to have his warnings ignored. Tenet was indeed worried during the so-called summer of threat, but one wonders why he did not summon the political courage earlier to accuse Rice of negligence, most notably during his testimony under oath before the 9/11 commission.
“I was talking to the national security adviser and the president and the vice president every day,” Tenet told the commission during a nationally televised hearing on March 24, 2004. “I certainly didn’t get a sense that anybody was not paying attention to what I was doing and what I was briefing and what my concerns were and what we were trying to do.” Now a “frustrated” Tenet writes that he held an urgent meeting with Rice on July 10, 2001, to try to get “the full attention of the administration” and “finally get us on track.” He can’t have it both ways.
But what troubles me most is Tenet’s handling of the opportunities that CIA officers gave the Clinton administration to capture or kill bin Laden between May 1998 and May 1999. Each time we had intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts, Tenet was briefed by senior CIA officers at Langley and by operatives in the field. He would nod and assure his anxious subordinates that he would stress to Clinton and his national security team that the chances of capturing bin Laden were solid and that the intelligence was not going to get better. Later, he would insist that he had kept up his end of the bargain, but that the NSC had decided not to strike.
Since 2001, however, several key Clinton counterterrorism insiders (including NSC staffers Richard A. Clarke, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon) have reported that Tenet consistently denigrated the targeting data on bin Laden, causing the president and his team to lose confidence in the hard-won intelligence. “We could never get over the critical hurdle of being able to corroborate Bin Ladin’s whereabouts,” Tenet now writes. That of course is untrue, but it spared him from ever having to explain the awkward fallout if an attempt to get bin Laden failed. None of this excuses Clinton’s disinterest in protecting Americans, but it does show Tenet’s easy willingness to play for patsies the CIA officers who risked their lives to garner intelligence and then to undercut their work to avoid censure if an attack went wrong.
To be fair, Tenet and I had differences about how best to act against bin Laden. (In the book, he plays down my recommendations as those of “an analyst not trained in conducting paramilitary operations.”) The hard fact remains that each time we acquired actionable intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts, I argued for preemptive action. By May 1998, after all, al-Qaeda had hit or helped to hit five U.S. targets, and bin Laden had twice declared war on America. I did not — and do not — care about collateral casualties in such situations, as most of the nearby civilians would be the families that bin Laden’s men had brought to a war zone. But Tenet did care. “You can’t kill everyone,” he would say. That’s an admirable humanitarian concern in the abstract, but it does nothing to protect the United States. Indeed, thousands of American families would not be mourning today had there been more ferocity and less sentimentality among the Clinton team.
Then there’s the Iraq war. Tenet is now protesting the use that Rice, Vice President Cheney and other administration officials have made of his notorious pre-war comment that the evidence of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction programs amounted to a “slam dunk” case. But the only real, knowable pre-war slam dunk was that Iraq was going to turn out to be a nightmare.
Tenet now paints himself as a scapegoat for an administration in which there never was “a serious consideration of the implications of a U.S. invasion,” insisting that he warned Bush, Cheney and their Cabinet about the risks of occupying Iraq. Well, fine; the CIA repeatedly warned Tenet of the inevitable disaster an Iraq war would cause — spreading bin Ladenism, spurring a bloody Sunni-Shiite war and lethally destabilizing the region.
But as with Rice and the warnings in the summer of 2001: Now he tells us. At this late date, the Bush-bashing that Tenet’s book will inevitably stir up seems designed to rehabilitate Tenet in his first home, the Democratic Party. He seems to blame the war on everyone but Bush (who gave Tenet the Medal of Freedom) and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell (who remains the Democrats’ ideal Republican). Tenet’s attacks focus instead on the walking dead, politically speaking: the glowering and unpopular Cheney; the hapless Rice; the band of irretrievably discredited bumblers who used to run the Pentagon, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith; their neoconservative acolytes such as Richard Perle; and the die-hard geopolitical fantasists at the Weekly Standard and National Review.
They’re all culpable, of course. But Tenet’s attempts to shift the blame won’t wash. At day’s end, his exercise in finger-pointing is designed to disguise the central, tragic fact of his book. Tenet in effect is saying that he knew all too well why the United States should not invade Iraq, that he told his political masters and that he was ignored. But above all, he’s saying that he lacked the moral courage to resign and speak out publicly to try to stop our country from striding into what he knew would be an abyss.
Powell has also been blasted for being a good soldier during the march to war rather than quitting in protest. The Bush administration would have been hurt by Powell’s resignation, but it might not have stopped the war. But Tenet’s resignation would have destroyed the neocons’ Iraq house of cards by discrediting the only glue holding it together: the intelligence that “proved” Saddam Hussein guilty of pursuing nuclear weapons and working with al-Qaeda. After all, the compelling briefing that Powell, with Tenet sitting just behind his shoulder, gave the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 could never have been delivered if Tenet had blown the whistle.
Of course, it’s good to finally have Tenet’s side of the Iraq and 9/11 stories. But whatever his book says, he was not much of a CIA chief. Still, he may have been the ideal CIA leader for Clinton and Bush — denigrating good intelligence to sate the former’s cowardly pacifism and accepting bad intelligence to please the latter’s Wilsonian militarism. Sadly but fittingly, “At the Center of the Storm” is likely to remind us that sometimes what lies at the center of a storm is a deafening silence.
Published: The Washington Post