Hawking his new book, At the Eye of the Storm, former CIA Director George Tenet bared his soul Sunday night to Scott Pelley of the CBS news magazine, 60 Minutes. Some preliminary thoughts about his jaw-dropping performance are in order.
#ad#1. Tenet met every morning with President Bush. Indeed, he was the point person at the national-security briefing — the daily session Bush, from the beginning of his presidency, has made a point of taking more seriously than his predecessor did. Tenet now claims that in the summer of 2001, he was convinced al Qaeda was on the verge of launching a spectacular, multiple-site attack against the United States. He was convinced the United States should take action against the terror network in its Afghanistan safe haven. But, he maintains he shared this information only with (then) National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, not the president.
Why, day after day after day, didn’t he advise the president of his suspicions? “Because,” Tenet says, “the United States government doesn’t work that way. The president is not the action officer. You bring the action to the national-security adviser and people who set the table for the president to decide on policies they’re gonna implement.”
Sure, Mr. Director. Just one question: What the hell goes on at the daily briefings?
2. Immediately after 9/11, Tenet’s first response was that (a) he knew for certain al Qaeda was responsible (“when you’ve been following this as long as I’ve been following this, when you’ve been thinking about multiple spectacular attacks. There was no doubt what had happened in my mind immediately”), and (b) bin Laden better watch out because “I’m gonna run you and all your bastards down. And here we come. Because the rules are about to change. Here we come; our turn now. Unleashed, authorities, money, direction, leadership; here we come, pal.”
Question: Why did it take 9/11 for that?
We knew Bin Laden had bombed the embassies in 1998. In October 2000, al Qaeda bombed the destroyer, the U.S.S. Cole, in Yemen. The Clinton people say they did not respond to the Cole attack because the intelligence community would not assure them that al Qaeda was responsible. Regardless of what Tenet and others may have been telling them, I find it impossible to believe that the Clinton people did not fully appreciate that al Qaeda was the culprit. But let’s assume, for argument’s sake, there really was some doubt. Was Tenet certain then, as he says he was the minute 9/11 happened, that al Qaeda did the Cole? And since the Cole bombing killed 17 U.S. naval personnel, why didn’t the rules change then? Why was our response to do … nothing.
3. As Bill Kristol has pointed out, Tenet has apparently fabricated a September 12, 2001, meeting with Richard Perle at which Tenet insists Perle said Iraq had to be made to pay for 9/11. (Tenet: “[Perle] said to me, ‘Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday, they bear responsibility.’ It’s September the 12th. I’ve got the manifest with me that tell [sic] me al Qaeda did this. Nothing in my head that says there is any Iraqi involvement in this in any way shape or form and I remember thinking to myself, as I’m about to go brief the president, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’” (Emphasis added).)
Leaving aside that Perle denies Tenet’s account, the meeting Tenet vividly recounts could not have happened. Perle was not in the United States on September 12; he was stranded outside the country, unable to return due to the closure of U.S. airspace. Keep that in mind: When Tenet recalls standing there with the manifest in his hand about to brief the president the day after the shocking 9/11 attacks, and then being thrown for a loop by Richard Perle (translation: rabid neocons) raving about Iraq, that never happened.
Now, if it’s possible, let’s give Tenet the benefit of the doubt and forget for a moment that he clearly has an ax to grind when it comes to Iraq. The fact remains that, like others in the intelligence community now running for the hills because Iraq has proved more difficult than they may have thought, Tenet is desperate to change the subject from Iraq’s complicity in jihadist terror to Iraq’s fingerprints on 9/11. He carefully tells Pelley that the CIA could never “verify” that Saddam’s regime had anything to do with 9/11. Not, mind you, that the CIA can categorically state that Iraq was uninvolved in 9/11; just that CIA (which, it turns out, can’t verify much of anything) could not verify Iraq’s involvement in those particular attacks.
Of course, that’s not the point at all. The point was whether Iraq was working with al Qaeda, not whether it was necessarily aware of and complicit in specific operations like 9/11. Al Qaeda exists — its singular purpose is — to carry out operations against the U.S. If you are helping al Qaeda at all, what on earth do you suppose you’re helping it do?
#ad#The issue is not rogue-state culpability for 9/11. After all, there’s no hard evidence that the Taliban was involved in 9/11. Yet we attacked and overthrew the Taliban — a military incursion even liberal Democrats say they supported — because the Taliban was aiding and abetting al Qaeda. No one contends that our rationale requires proof of direct Taliban involvement in 9/11.
Al Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan, not Iraq, so the evidence of Saddam’s assistance to the terror network is less blatant. But the principle is the same. Let’s pretend for a moment that there were no unresolved issues about Iraq and 9/11 — no possible meeting between Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001; no Ahmed Hikmat Shakir (an Iraqi intelligence operative) at the January 2000 Kuala Lampur meeting involving two of the 9/11 hijackers. That is, let’s pretend 9/11 never happened. There would still be the little matter of Iraq aiding and abetting al Qaeda. That is what the invasion of Iraq was about — the Bush Doctrine: You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists … especially if there’s good reason to think you might share WMDs with the terrorists (and remember Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2002 that CIA believed Iraq and al Qaeda were working together on both WMDs and conventional weapons).
This talk by Tenet and his cohort about whether Iraq had a role in 9/11 is a red herring. We don’t know that Iraq was uninvolved in 9/11, but we do know Iraq was involved with al Qaeda. The fact that other regimes, like Iran, may be even more involved with al Qaeda than Iraq is an argument for addressing those regimes, not for leaving Saddam in power.
4. In discussing President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union Address, CBS relates that, months earlier, the CIA had “knocked down” the contention that Saddam was trying to obtain uranium from Niger. Yet, CBS elaborates, the president made the claim anyway because Tenet was asleep at the switch. For his part, the pliant Tenet concedes that he did not thoroughly review the SOTU speech before it was given, and therefore that he “ultimately [has] to take my share of responsibility” for what the president said.
This is thoroughly disingenuous. And you can tell it is: While CBS piles on the innuendo, it never comes out and alleges that what the president said was false. It just leads you to believe it must have been. Simply stated, though, it is not true that the CIA ‘knocked down” the claim that Saddam was seeking uranium from Niger — not months before the 2002 SOTU, not ever. Indeed, the best intelligence assessment from both U.S. and British agencies, after comprehensive investigations in both countries, indicates that Saddam almost certainly did try to acquire uranium from Niger.
Now, it may well be that the proof of Saddam’s efforts to obtain uranium was not sufficiently strong to merit being mentioned in a SOTU address given the high standards for such a speech. To draw a law-enforcement analogy, many people are properly arrested based on probable-cause evidence that they have committed a crime, but they are never indicted for that crime because the evidentiary standard at trial is significantly higher: proof-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt. The fact that the prosecutor assesses that his proof is not strong enough to convict at trial doesn’t mean a defendant didn’t commit the crime, and doesn’t mean it was wrong to arrest him. Similarly, just because the administration now says it wishes the president had not alluded to Iraq and African uranium in the SOTU does not mean that what he said was untrue or that it has been “knocked down” by the CIA. To the contrary, it has never been proved false, and our best guess is that it was true. The misleading intimation that it was false and has been proved false is a huge part of the canard that Bush lied us into war. Shame on the administration for not vigorously defending itself, and shame on Tenet for allowing himself to be used in this fashion.
5. Tenet, as noted above, claims to remember a meeting with Richard Perle that apparently never happened; but also he claims not to remember a single meeting, in the long run-up to the Iraq invasion, in which the Bush administration seriously considered whether it was prudent to go to war with Iraq, as opposed to how we should go about war with Iraq. This seems ludicrously far-fetched.
We delayed military action on Iraq for months in order to try to get the Security Council on board. In the interim, Congress engaged a spirited debate on the merits of deposing Saddam. Doubtless, many people in the administration believed strongly that we should invade Iraq. But the thought that there was no consideration inside the administration of whether we’d be better off not doing so — at a time when that precise question was being weighed by both the nation and the world — is inane.
Still, this suggestion is presented, unchallenged, as if it were plausible. CBS obviously wants to believe it. But the question begs: Why do the Iraq naysayers never confront the counterfactual scenario of their dreams? If we had left Saddam in place, the sanctions would have disintegrated in short order — Security Council members France, Russia and China were bought and paid for in Oil-for-Food bribes. Once the sanctions had collapsed, Saddam would have been right back in business — his WMD programs ready to be up and running again (to the extent they were not running already) as he sat there with about $20 billion in Oil-for-Food profits and an ongoing relationship with al Qaeda (among many other jihadist groups).
If you want to say we shouldn’t have gone to Iraq, and should have anticipated the present chaos there, fair enough. But at least have the honesty to say you’d prefer the alternative: A Saddam Hussein, emboldened from having faced down the United States and its sanctions, loaded with money, arming with WMDs, and coddling jihadists.