George Tenet, the head of the CIA from 1997-2004, has just published a book, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA. He was interviewed about it on 60 Minutes last night, and will be on Larry King tonight. I’m sure we’ll see him soon on Charlie Rose, The View, Live with Regis and Kelly, Jon Stewart’s show, and, if it was still on the air, you might see Tenet in animated form on Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
You probably know what this book’s all about, what makes it newsworthy: Tenet’s claim to have opposed the invasion of Iraq, and his denial that when he told President Bush that evidence of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs was a “slam dunk” that he really meant it was true. The NY Times’ Michiko Kakutani reviewed the book:
Alternately withholding and aggrieved, earnest and disingenuous, “At the Center of the Storm” is interesting less for any stunning new revelations than for fleshing out a portrait of the Bush White House already sketched by reporters and former administration members. Mr. Tenet depicts an administration riven by factional fighting between the State and Defense Departments, hard-liners and more pragmatic realists, an administration given to out-of-channels policymaking, and ad hoc, improvisatory decision-making.
“There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat,” he writes of a war that has already resulted in more than 3,300 American military deaths, at least 60,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and already cost more than $420 billion. Nor, he adds, was there “a significant discussion regarding enhanced containment or the costs and benefits of such an approach versus full-out planning for overt and covert regime change.”
Mr. Tenet’s book also ratifies the view articulated by former military, intelligence and Coalition Provisional Authority insiders that the White House repeatedly ignored or rebuffed early warnings about the deteriorating situation in post-invasion Iraq. Mr. Tenet writes that the C.I.A.’s senior officer in Iraq was dismissed as a “defeatist” for warning in 2003 of the dangers of a growing Iraqi insurgency, though it was already clear then that United States political and economic strategies were failing. Although the trends were clear, he adds, those in charge of policy “operated within a closed loop.” In that atmosphere, he says, bad news was ignored: the agency’s subsequent reporting, which would prove “spot-on,” was dismissed.
Tenet’s book has not gone down well with either Bush supporters or Bush foes. Arianna Huffington is one of many to ask the sensible question, “Why Didn’t George Tenet Just Resign?”
Poor George Tenet. Flogging his book, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, on 60 Minutes, Tenet tells Scott Pelley about how his phrase “slam dunk” was misused by the Bush administration. Tenet, you see, didn’t mean it was a “slam dunk” that Hussein actually had WMD, he only meant it was a “slam dunk” that a public case could be made that Hussein had WMD.
I can’t really see that the distinction matters, but Tenet apparently does. “I became campaign talk,” Tenet tells Pelley, “I was a talking point. ‘Look at what the idiot told us, and we decided to go to war.’ Well, let’s not be so disingenuous. Let’s stand up. This is why we did it. This is why, this is how we did it. And let’s tell, let’s everybody tell the truth.”
Great — except he’s about four years too late. Tenet seems to believe there’s a major distinction between lying and standing by silently while others lie, and then proudly receiving a Medal of Freedom from the liars.
And Christopher Hitchens reminds us in his Slate review that Tenet was not just ineffectual and wrong about the invasion of Iraq; he was ineffectual and wrong about 9/11. Hitchens recalls one of the creepiest things I remember reading about the immediate post 9/11 response. It was in Bush At War by Bob Woodward. Hitchens uses that quote as a launching pad for an irate attack on Tenet’s credibility and character:
…(I)t was a very favorably disposed chronicler (Woodward) who wrote this, in describing Tenet’s reaction on the terrible morning of Sept. 11, 2001:
“This has bin Laden all over it,” Tenet told Boren. “I’ve got to go.” He also had another reaction, one that raised the real possibility that the CIA and the FBI had not done all that could have been done to prevent the terrorist attack. “I wonder,” Tenet said, “if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.”
Notice the direct quotes that make it clear who is the author of this brilliant insight. And then pause for a second. The author is almost the only man who could have known of Zacarias Moussaoui and his co-conspirators—the very man who positively knew they were among us, in flight schools, and then decided to leave them alone. In his latest effusion, he writes: “I do know one thing in my gut. Al-Qaeda is here and waiting.” Well, we all know that much by now. But Tenet is one of the few who knew it then, and not just in his “gut” but in his small brain, and who left us all under open skies. His ridiculous agency, supposedly committed to “HUMINT” under his leadership, could not even do what John Walker Lindh had done—namely, infiltrate the Taliban and the Bin Laden circle. It’s for this reason that the CIA now has to rely on torturing the few suspects it can catch, a policy, incidentally, that Tenet’s book warmly defends.
So, the only really interesting question is why the president did not fire this vain and useless person on the very first day of the war. Instead, he awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom! Tenet is now so self-pitying that he expects us to believe that he was “not at all sure that [he] really wanted to accept” this honor. But it seems that he allowed or persuaded himself to do so, given that the citation didn’t mention Iraq. You could imagine that Tenet had never sat directly behind Colin Powell at the United Nations, beaming like an overfed cat, as the secretary of state went through his rather ill-starred presentation. And who cares whether his “slam dunk” vulgarity was misquoted or not? We have better evidence than that. Here is what Tenet told the relevant Senate committee in February 2002:
Iraq … has also had contacts with al-Qaida. Their ties may be limited by divergent ideologies, but the two sides’ mutual antipathy toward the United States and the Saudi royal family suggests that tactical cooperation between them is possible, even though Saddam is well aware that such activity would carry serious consequences.
As even the notion of it certainly should have done. At around the same time, on another nontrivial matter, Tenet informed the Senate armed services committee that: “We believe that Saddam never abandoned his nuclear weapons program.” It is a little bit late for him to pose as if Iraq was a threat concocted in some crepuscular corner of the vice president’s office. And it’s pathetic for him to say, even in the feeble way that he chooses to phrase it, that “there was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat.” (Emphasis added.) There had been a very serious debate over the course of at least three preceding administrations, whether Tenet “knew” of it or not. (He was only an intelligence specialist, after all.)
Despite this assault, Tenet stands to profit handsomely from this book, a fact that will not go unnoticed by others currently still serving the Administration. If a policy goes wrong or becomes unpopular, Tenet’s success shows that no mea culpas are necessary; anyone can distance themselves from unpopular decisions they helped make, even someone as high up as the Director of the CIA.
Still to come:
The Army I Wanted Wasn’t the Army I Had: Unknown Unknowns Known, By Donald Rumsfeld
Paul Wolfowitz: It Ain’t All About the WMDs, by Paul Wolfowitz
More Years of Magical Thinking, by Laura Bush
The Audacity of Audacity, by Dick Cheney
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy President, by George W. Bush
And it turns out none of them wanted to invade Iraq. Who knew!?