Politics & Policy

Imperfect Storm

Poor George Tenet. Everyone has been quoting his infamous comment in the Oval Office that the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs was a “slam dunk.” As he has made clear in his book, At the Center of the Storm, and Sunday night’s 60 Minutes segment, Tenet considers this very unfair — “despicable,” even — since his comment supposedly wasn’t about the intelligence itself but about the ease with which the public presentation of the intelligence could be strengthened.

This is a distinction without a difference. If the underlying intelligence wasn’t reliable, why was Tenet so slam-dunk certain that the presentation of it could be improved? Tenet’s words became so widely cited not because Bush officials wanted to pin the war on him, as Tenet believes, but because it is the easiest way to make a thumbnail argument that there was a broad consensus behind the judgment that Saddam had WMDs. This is what Vice President Cheney was getting at when he quoted Tenet’s “slam dunk” remark during the Meet the Press appearance that Tenet angrily invoked last night.

Tenet shouldn’t be so offended when people quote his words, since they reflect an essential truth — that he indeed had no doubt that Saddam had WMDs. But Tenet is now engaged in a classic instance of self-serving Beltway memoir-writing, settling scores against Dick Cheney and the “neocons” who were allegedly impervious to the facts so diligently assembled by the CIA.

Tenet says that the war wasn’t really about weapons of mass destruction. It’s true that the case for war wasn’t built entirely on Saddam’s possessing WMDs — as the war’s supporters have long pointed out. But this was certainly the most important element in the case. The alarming 2002 National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq’s weapons capabilities was a key part of the debate prior to the war. When Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations — with Tenet sitting behind him — there was a reason he devoted so much time to talking about Saddam’s weapons programs. George Tenet might not like to be reminded that his CIA thought it was a slam dunk that Saddam had dangerous weapons, and that this played a decisive role in going to war, but there’s no getting around it.

Sunday night, Tenet gave the impression that any thought of Saddam and al Qaeda’s cooperating was pure fantasy. You never would have known that in October 2002 Tenet wrote a letter to Sen. Bob Graham that said: “We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al-Qa’ida going back a decade”; “Credible information indicates that Iraq and al-Qa’ida have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression”; “We have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qa’ida members, including some that have been in Baghdad”; “We have credible reporting that al-Qa’ida leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities”; and so on.

That was then. Now that the war has proved difficult and unpopular, Tenet feels safe in attacking its advocates. In a widely quoted anecdote, he says he saw Richard Perle exiting the White House on September 12, when Perle told him Iraq should be punished for the attack since it bore responsibility. Perle says this couldn’t have happened because he was in France at the time, as Bill Kristol has noted. (Tenet apparently has a problem getting the facts straight even in his post-CIA life).

Tenet is especially harsh on Dick Cheney’s supposed tendency to go beyond the intelligence. But when he warned that a Cheney speech about links between Iraq and al Qaeda went too far, it wasn’t delivered. As for President Bush’s controversial 16 words about the British learning that Saddam sought uranium from Niger, Tenet didn’t bother to read the State of the Union speech before it was delivered, and so didn’t advise the White House to keep them out.

The fundamental problem wasn’t that the administration wanted to go beyond the intelligence, but that the intelligence itself was flawed. George Tenet bears a large measure of responsibility for this, as he headed an agency that had no clandestine service to speak of and was unimaginative and plodding in its analysis. But some of his explanations for getting it wrong are sound, even if self-serving.

As he explained on 60 Minutes, intelligence is inherently uncertain, or it wouldn’t be intelligence. No one was attempting to lie about the intelligence; as he said, it would have been crazy to send Colin Powell with to the U.N. if the claims Powell made weren’t thought to be true. And in a line from his book that will be neglected, Tenet writes, “Intelligence professionals did not try to tell policy makers what they wanted to hear, nor did the policy makers lean on us to influence outcomes.”

Given the limits of our intelligence capabilities to this day, interrogations of terror leaders are crucial. Tenet says they have been more important than the information gathered by the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the CIA put together, and have saved American lives. He is adamant that the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques don’t amount to torture, and he is correct to note the difficulty of getting information from hardened thugs trained not to talk (but ready to ask for legal representation, as Khalid Sheik Mohammed did upon capture).

In the end, it was a mistake for President Bush to keep George Tenet on as CIA director after he took office in 2001, let alone award him a Medal of Freedom. Tenet was primarily a political player who didn’t understand what it took to revive the CIA. He presided over two debacles — 9/11 and the flawed intelligence about Iraq — and contributed to the administration’s dysfunction with his internal bureaucratic warfare. If he seemed defensive in his 60 Minutes interview, it was because he has a lot to be defensive about.


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