In December, 2001, I participated in discussions between two Pentagon officials and Iranians who claimed knowledge of Iranian-sponsored efforts to kill Americans in Afghanistan. We met in Rome, Italy over several days. The discussions were approved by Stephen Hadley, the deputy national-security adviser, and the two Defense department officials’ travel was approved by their superiors. The American ambassador in Rome was fully informed in advance, and fully briefed afterwards. The conversations produced detailed information about the identities, locations, and plans of Iranian-trained terrorists in Afghanistan. This was passed on to the proper authorities at the DoD, and I was later told by military officers that the information likely saved American lives.
Now comes the former director of central intelligence, George Tenet, with several pages about the meeting in his new book. He does not mention that American lives were saved, nor does he seem at all interested to learn that there were well-informed sources who were willing to help the American government. Nor, for that matter, is he much interested in the facts at all. His account is repeatedly wrong. He is wrong about the Iranians, wrong about the Americans, wrong about what was discussed, and wrong about the official status of the meeting. He misdescribes the Iranians as “dissidents” living overseas. He misidentifies the two Pentagon officials as subordinates of Under Secretary Douglas Feith (one of Tenet’s many bête noires), but only one of them was in Feith’s shop. He says it “sounded like an off-the-books covert-action program trying to destabilize the Iranian government,” when the discussion was about Iranians in Afghanistan, not overthrowing the mullahs, and the meeting had been formally approved by the deputy national-security adviser (knowing Stephen Hadley, I presume he had the approval of his boss, Condoleezza Rice). Tenet calls it “Son of Iran-contra,” with which it had nothing in common save for the marginal involvement of Manoucher Ghorbanifar, who helped bring the Iranians to Italy, but was not a source of information. Someone might have reminded Tenet that Iran-Contra had to do with providing weapons to Iran in exchange for hostages, while the Rome meeting was about Iranian efforts to kill Americans in Afghanistan. Some parentage! He’s wrong about other things as well, some of which Ed Morrissey and Bill Kristol have pointed out.
On at least one occasion, Tenet conjures an event out of thin air. He says that on 9/12, he ran into Richard Perle coming out of the White House. According to Tenet, Perle said to him: “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.” Nicely crafted, but wrong again. Unluckily for Tenet, Perle was in France that day.
This is our CIA at work, and unfortunately it’s what we’ve come to expect: the same organization that has been justly excoriated by commission after commission for its lack of understanding of the threat against the United States. Tenet reached his conclusions, and launched a bureaucratic tantrum, without talking to anyone present at the Rome meeting. Neither he nor his associates, nor anyone from his publisher, Harper/Collins, ever asked me about it, and when rumors began to circulate a few years ago, I insisted on recounting the actual facts to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
On Tenet’s own account, it never entered his mind that we might have found excellent sources of information, let alone that the responsible course of action was to continue to talk to them. Instead, he demanded an end to any contacts with the Iranians who had provided the life-saving information, and threatened legal action against those who had listened to the Iranians, checked their information, and then passed it on to our soldiers on the battlefield. Predictably, nothing came of Tenet’s threat; not even the most zealous prosecutor could get excited about a fully approved conversation that enhanced our national security. Tenet acted like a man who cared more about controlling information than about getting it. If anyone should be held to account in this matter, it is he, not those he targeted.
Indeed, the real crime in this affair is the CIA’s unwillingness to accept and pursue good information about Iran. They failed to carry out their mission, and that failure has undoubtedly cost American lives in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The same goes for Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was Tenet’s coconspirator in the campaign to shut down the channel, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who directed his employees to avoid all contacts with Iranians.
It’s as if CIA just doesn’t want to know anything bad about Iran. When there’s information about the mullahs’ ongoing war against us, they often either downplay it or, as in this case, attack the messengers. This is not new. For at least four years, CIA has demonized those of us who insisted that Iran was at the center of the terror war in the Middle East, and that the Islamic Republic, along with their Syrian puppets, supported terrorists of all sectarian hues in Iraq, whether Sunni, Shiite, Marxist, or tribal. The accuracy of our claims — and the portentous errors of CIA analysts — are documented on our front pages most every day. Why did CIA keep insisting that Sunnis and Shiites were very unlikely to work together? In part, because they banned information that showed their template was wrong and stigmatized anyone who suggested it.
I also suspect that George Tenet’s ire was stirred up when he was told that the Iranians in Rome refused to talk to anyone from CIA, preferring military people. I happen to believe they were right, but that’s beside the point. Good information saves lives. Who cares about the names of the people who sit in the room to get that information? A serious director of central intelligence would have said “So be it,” and sent Americans in uniform to debrief the Iranians. And maybe even arranged for a small medal for the Pentagon officials who did the job Tenet was paid to do.