George Tenet is a man of passion. One of the things he is most passionate about is never seeing unflattering portrayals of himself in the press. Hence he managed to be the second-longest-serving CIA director in history, despite presiding over massive intelligence failures.
Tenet is livid over the frequent quoting of his statement in the Oval Office prior to the war that the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam-dunk.” Absent his saying those words — or, presumably, them being reported — Tenet says he might not have written his new book, At the Center of the Storm. Alas, Tenet felt forced to take a $4 million advance for a book settling scores against his bureaucratic enemies and putting his failures in the best possible light. Poor, poor George.
Tenet doesn’t dispute that he said “slam-dunk,” although he doesn’t remember saying it, displaying the Washington art of never recalling anything inconvenient. He says his remark was taken out of context, the other Washington dodge for anyone quoted saying something he wishes he hadn’t.
Tenet maintains that he meant that strengthening the public case that Saddam Hussein had WMDs was a slam-dunk, not the intelligence itself. This is a distinction with a difference only to someone trying to slither out of what he said. Actually, Bob Woodward correctly reported the context in his original account, noting that “the meeting was for presenting ‘The Case’ on WMD as it might be presented to a jury.” Also, as Woodward writes, “a public case for war could hardly be a ‘slam-dunk’ if the CIA director did not believe that the underlying intelligence was also a ‘slam-dunk.’”
Nonetheless Tenet told 60 Minutes that he called a White House official after the Woodward report appeared and complained that the leak was “the most despicable thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” If so, Tenet has lived a sheltered life, because there are many more despicable things to hear in the world than someone quoting George Tenet in an unwelcome way. “There are no private conversations, even in the Oval Office,” Tenet complains — on Page 363 of his insider tell-all Washington memoir.
Tenet should get over it. Being at the center of a major national embarrassment is going to be embarrassing. He quotes an underling for the proposition that his remark “was no more than a passing comment.” This doesn’t matter. He could have whispered it or used sign language, the comment still reflected the certainty that the intelligence community had about Saddam’s WMDs.
We all now know that that certainty was misplaced, but — especially given the way the CIA’s clandestine service had been degraded — it was understandable that we got it wrong. It wasn’t a matter of lying or making the intelligence fit the case for war, but of good-faith assumptions based on incomplete information.
In a book that is hard on Bush-administration hawks, Tenet writes, “Intelligence professionals did not try to tell policymakers what they wanted to hear, nor did the policymakers lean on us to influence outcomes.” He notes that the CIA underestimated Saddam’s progress toward a nuke before the first Persian Gulf War. That surely colored Dick Cheney’s view and “had a profound impact on my views and those of many of our analysts.”
Tenet argues that WMDs weren’t really that important to the administration’s case for war. He’s right that it wasn’t the only reason, but it was central. Tenet writes that it was believed if Saddam had to produce his own fissile material, he might produce a nuclear weapon in the “2007 to 2009” period (in other words, right about now). If he got the fissile material from elsewhere, “it would not be hard for the regime to make a weapon within a year.”
For an American president considering that information in the post-9/11 environment, the case for military action against Saddam had to be close to a … well, choose your own basketball metaphor.
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate