Politics & Policy

Torture on 60 Minutes

There is no reason why George Tenet shouldn’t promote his book, At the Center of the Storm. And every reason why those who have now heard him in action should wonder: How did such a man, so vain, so emotional, so unreasoning, become head of the CIA?

Scott Pelley of CBS did fine work in attempting to explore Tenet’s theses, but found himself at the outset of the interview dealing with a melodramatist unsuited for the role of historian. Self-pity ruled: “People don’t understand us, you know,” Tenet started in. “They think we’re a bunch of faceless bureaucrats with no feelings, no families, no sense of what it’s like to be passionate about running these bastards down.”

If all that Tenet was saying was that a lot of people who do tedious work are underappreciated, he is right about the CIA, as also about garbage collectors and schoolteachers. There is a role for passion, clearly, when hunting down the kind of people who want to explode bombs in New York City. But a key to success in clandestine operations is sobriety. A friend analogized the point for me years ago: “A surgeon doesn’t look down on the ruptured appendix and say, ‘I’ll get you, you son of a bitch.’”

What 60 Minutes wanted to know was: What happened that led to so much misinformation in 2003?

Begin with the president’s State of the Union address, in which he spoke of uranium being purchased in Niger to facilitate nuclear operations in Iraq. In fact, it wasn’t so.

Pelley: The CIA had knocked down that uranium claim months before. The agency even demanded it be taken out of two previous presidential speeches. How did it get through the third time?

Tenet: I didn’t read the speech. I was involved in a bunch of other things. … [I] handed it to my executive assistant. I said, “You guys go review this and come back to me if I need to do anything.”

Well, his guys either didn’t review it, or did but didn’t think the boss needed to be told for gawd’s sake to do something about the president of the United States preparing, in a State of the Union address, to tell a story the CIA had already shown to be untrue.

Tenet said he had made a mistake. Pelley didn’t ask him what measures he took to instruct or remove his executive assistant.

On to “slam dunk.” The basketball metaphor can be understood in varying ways. The term, used by Tenet in talking with the president, has been taken as meaning that he thought operations against Iraq would be easy to execute.

Pelley: What did you mean by “slam dunk”?

Tenet: I guess I meant that we could do better. I mean, you know, so …

Pelley: Do better?

Tenet: We can put a better case together for a public case. That’s what I meant. That’s what this was about.

Tenet managed to explain nothing.

Tenet said that he feared massive al Qaeda attacks and told Condoleezza Rice that he thought it was time for preemptive action in Afghanistan, but nothing came of it.

Pelley: You’re meeting with the president every morning?

Tenet: Yeah.

Pelley: Why aren’t you telling the president, “Mr. President, this is terrifying. We have to do this now”?

Tenet: The United States government doesn’t work that way.

Pelley wanted to explore the question, When the CIA thought it had hard information, how did it get such information?

Pelley: Suspects were questioned under new, so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” said to include sleep deprivation, extreme cold and “water boarding,” which causes a severe gag reflex as water is continuously poured over the face.

Tenet: We don’t torture people. Let me say that again to you, we don’t torture people. OK?

Pelley: Come on, George. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed?

Tenet: We don’t torture people.

Pelley: Water boarding?

Tenet: We do not — I don’t talk about — techniques.

Tenet wanted to introduce another perspective: “No, listen to me. No, listen to me. I want you to listen to me. So the context is it’s post-9/11. I’ve got reports of nuclear weapons in New York City apartment buildings that are going to be blown up, planes that are going to fly into airports all over again. I’m struggling to find out where the next disaster is going to occur. … I know that this program has saved lives. I know we’ve disrupted plots.”

Pelley: But what you’re essentially saying is some people need to be tortured.

Three times Tenet repeats that the CIA does not engage in torture, and three times Pelley presses the question. “You call it in the book, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’”

Tenet: Well, that’s what we call it.

Pelley: I mean, that’s a euphemism.

Tenet: I’m not having a semantic debate with you.

The testimony reveals the CIA run by a man who cannot think straight, advising the national security adviser, who went on to make false allegations, and the vice president, who made more false allegations, and the president, who took ill-considered actions.

© Universal Press Syndicate

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