Tenet Tries to Shift the Blame. Don’t Buy It.

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By Michael F. Scheuer

Ge­orge Tenet has a story to tell. With his ap­pear­ance tonight on “60 Min­utes” and the pub­li­ca­tion of his new mem­oir, “At the Cen­ter of the Storm,” the for­mer di­rec­tor of cen­tral intelligence is out to ab­solve him­self of the fail­ings of 9/11 and Iraq. He’ll sell a lot of books, of course, but we shouldn’t buy his at­tempts to let him­self off the hook.

My ex­pe­ri­ence with Tenet dates to the late 1980s, when he was the sharp, gar­ru­lous, ci­gar-chomp­ing staff di­rec­tor of the Se­nate intelligence com­mit­tee and I was a ju­nior CIA of­fi­cer who briefed him on covert ac­tion pro­grams in Afghanistan. Later, I worked di­rectly for Tenet af­ter he took over the CIA and I be­came the first chief of the agency’s Osama bin Laden unit. We met reg­u­larly, of­ten daily. It’s im­pos­si­ble to dis­like Tenet, who is smart, po­lite, hard-work­ing, con­vivial and de­tail-ori­ented. But he’s also a man who never went from cheer­leader to leader.

At a time when clear di­rec­tion and moral courage were needed, Tenet shifted course to

fol­low the pre­vail­ing winds, un­der Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton and then Pres­i­dent Bush — and he pro­vided dis­traught of­fi­cers at Lan­g­ley a shoul­der to cry on when his po­lit­i­cally ex­pe­di­ent tack­ing sailed the United States into dis­as­ter.

At the CIA, Tenet will be re­mem­bered for some badly needed morale-build­ing. But he will also be re­called for fudg­ing the cen­tral role he played in the de­cline of Amer­ica’s clan­des­tine ser­vice — the brave field of­fi­cers who run covert mis­sions that make us all safer. The de­cline be­gan in the late 1980s, when the im­pend­ing end of the Cold War meant smaller bud­gets and fewer hires, and it con­tin­ued through Sept. 11, 2001. When Tenet and his bungling op­er­a­tions chief, James Pavitt, de­scribed this slow-mo­tion dis­as­ter in tes­ti­mony af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks, they tried to blame the clan­des­tine ser­vice’s weak­nesses on con­gres­sional cuts. But Tenet had helped pre­side over ev­ery step of the ser­vice’s de­cline dur­ing three con­sec­u­tive ad­min­is­tra­tions — Bush, Clin­ton, Bush — in a se­ries of key intelligence jobs for the Se­nate, the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and the CIA. Only 9/11, it seems, con­vinced Tenet of the im­por­tance of a large, ag­gres­sive clan­des­tine ser­vice to U.S. se­cu­rity.

Like self-serv­ing ear­lier leaks seem­ingly from Tenet’s cir­cle to such re­porters as Ron Suskind and Bob Wood­ward, “At the Cen­ter of the Storm” is sim­i­larly disin­gen­u­ous about Tenet’s record on al-Qaeda. In “State of De­nial,” Wood­ward paints a heroic por­trait of the CIA chief warn­ing na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Con­doleezza Rice of pend­ing alQaeda strikes dur­ing the sum­mer of 2001, only to have his warn­ings ig­nored. Tenet was in­deed wor­ried dur­ing the so-called sum­mer of threat, but one won­ders why he did not sum­mon the po­lit­i­cal courage ear­lier to ac­cuse Rice of neg­li­gence, most no­tably dur­ing his tes­ti­mony un­der oath be­fore the 9/11 com­mis­sion.

“I was talk­ing to the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and the pres­i­dent and the vice pres­i­dent ev­ery day,” Tenet told the com­mis­sion dur­ing a na­tion­ally tele­vised hear­ing on March 24, 2004. “I cer­tainly didn’t get a sense that any­body was not pay­ing at­ten­tion to what I was do­ing and what I was brief­ing and what my con­cerns were and what we were try­ing to do.” Now a “frus­trated” Tenet writes that he held an ur­gent meet­ing with Rice on July 10, 2001, to try to get “the full at­ten­tion of the ad­min­is­tra­tion” and “fi­nally get us on track.” He can’t have it both ways.

But what trou­bles me most is Tenet’s han­dling of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that CIA of­fi­cers gave the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion to cap­ture or kill bin Laden be­tween May 1998 and May 1999. Each time we had intelligence about bin Laden’s where­abouts, Tenet was briefed by se­nior CIA of­fi­cers at Lan­g­ley and by op­er­a­tives in the field. He would nod and as­sure his anx­ious sub­or­di­nates that he would stress to Clin­ton and his na­tional se­cu­rity team that the chances of cap­tur­ing bin Laden were solid and that the intelligence was not go­ing to get bet­ter. Later, he would in­sist that he had kept up his end of the bar­gain, but that the NSC had de­cided not to strike.

Since 2001, how­ever, sev­eral key Clin­ton coun­tert­er­ror­ism in­sid­ers (in­clud­ing NSC staffers Richard A. Clarke, Daniel Ben­jamin and Steven Si­mon) have re­ported that Tenet con­sis­tently den­i­grated the tar­get­ing data on bin Laden, caus­ing the pres­i­dent and his team to lose con­fi­dence in the hard-won intelligence. “We could never get over the crit­i­cal hur­dle of be­ing able to cor­rob­o­rate Bin Ladin’s where­abouts,” Tenet now writes. That of course is un­true, but it spared him from ever hav­ing to ex­plain the awk­ward fall­out if an at­tempt to get bin Laden failed. None of this ex­cuses Clin­ton’s dis­in­ter­est in pro­tect­ing Amer­i­cans, but it does show Tenet’s easy will­ing­ness to play for pat­sies the CIA of­fi­cers who risked their lives to gar­ner intelligence and then to un­der­cut their work to avoid cen­sure if an at­tack went wrong.

To be fair, Tenet and I had dif­fer­ences about how best to act against bin Laden. (In the book, he plays down my rec­om­men­da­tions as those of “an an­a­lyst not trained in con­duct­ing paramil­i­tary op­er­a­tions.”) The hard fact re­mains that each time we ac­quired ac­tion­able intelligence about bin Laden’s where­abouts, I ar­gued for pre­emp­tive ac­tion. By May 1998, af­ter all, al-Qaeda had hit or helped to hit five U.S. tar­gets, and bin Laden had twice de­clared war on Amer­ica. I did not — and do not — care about col­lat­eral ca­su­al­ties in such sit­u­a­tions, as most of the nearby civil­ians would be the fam­i­lies that bin Laden’s men had brought to a war zone. But Tenet did care. “You can’t kill ev­ery­one,” he would say. That’s an ad­mirable hu­man­i­tar­ian con­cern in the ab­stract, but it does noth­ing to pro­tect the United States. In­deed, thou­sands of Amer­i­can fam­i­lies would not be mourn­ing to­day had there been more fe­roc­ity and less sen­ti­men­tal­ity among the Clin­ton team.

Then there’s the Iraq war. Tenet is now protest­ing the use that Rice, Vice Pres­i­dent Cheney and other ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have made of his no­to­ri­ous pre-war com­ment that the ev­i­dence of Iraq’s sup­posed weapons of mass de­struc­tion pro­grams amounted to a “slam dunk” case. But the only real, know­able pre-war slam dunk was that Iraq was go­ing to turn out to be a night­mare.

Tenet now paints him­self as a scape­goat for an ad­min­is­tra­tion in which there never was “a se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion of the im­pli­ca­tions of a U.S. in­va­sion,” in­sist­ing that he warned Bush, Cheney and their Cabi­net about the risks of oc­cu­py­ing Iraq. Well, fine; the CIA re­peat­edly warned Tenet of the in­evitable dis­as­ter an Iraq war would cause — spread­ing bin Ladenism, spurring a bloody Sunni-Shi­ite war and lethally desta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion.

But as with Rice and the warn­ings in the sum­mer of 2001: Now he tells us. At this late date, the Bush-bash­ing that Tenet’s book will in­evitably stir up seems de­signed to re­ha­bil­i­tate Tenet in his first home, the Demo­cratic Party. He seems to blame the war on ev­ery­one but Bush (who gave Tenet the Medal of Free­dom) and for­mer sec­re­tary of state Colin L. Pow­ell (who re­mains the Democrats’ ideal Repub­li­can). Tenet’s at­tacks fo­cus in­stead on the walk­ing dead, po­lit­i­cally speak­ing: the glow­er­ing and un­pop­u­lar Cheney; the hap­less Rice; the band of ir­re­triev­ably dis­cred­ited bum­blers who used to run the Pen­tagon, Don­ald H. Rums­feld, Paul D. Wol­fowitz and Douglas J. Feith; their neo­con­ser­va­tive acolytes such as Richard Perle; and the die-hard geopo­lit­i­cal fan­ta­sists at the Weekly Stan­dard and Na­tional Re­view.

They’re all cul­pa­ble, of course. But Tenet’s at­tempts to shift the blame won’t wash. At day’s end, his ex­er­cise in fin­ger-point­ing is de­signed to dis­guise the cen­tral, tragic fact of his book. Tenet in ef­fect is say­ing that he knew all too well why the United States should not in­vade Iraq, that he told his po­lit­i­cal masters and that he was ig­nored. But above all, he’s say­ing that he lacked the moral courage to re­sign and speak out pub­licly to try to stop our coun­try from strid­ing into what he knew would be an abyss.

Pow­ell has also been blasted for be­ing a good sol­dier dur­ing the march to war rather than quit­ting in protest. The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion would have been hurt by Pow­ell’s res­ig­na­tion, but it might not have stopped the war. But Tenet’s res­ig­na­tion would have de­stroyed the neo­cons’ Iraq house of cards by dis­cred­it­ing the only glue hold­ing it to­gether: the intelligence that “proved” Sad­dam Hus­sein guilty of pur­su­ing nu­clear weapons and work­ing with al-Qaeda. Af­ter all, the com­pelling brief­ing that Pow­ell, with Tenet sit­ting just be­hind his shoul­der, gave the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil in Fe­bru­ary 2003 could never have been de­liv­ered if Tenet had blown the whis­tle.

Of course, it’s good to fi­nally have Tenet’s side of the Iraq and 9/11 sto­ries. But what­ever his book says, he was not much of a CIA chief. Still, he may have been the ideal CIA leader for Clin­ton and Bush — den­i­grat­ing good intelligence to sate the for­mer’s cow­ardly paci­fism and ac­cept­ing bad intelligence to please the lat­ter’s Wil­so­nian mil­i­tarism. Sadly but fit­tingly, “At the Cen­ter of the Storm” is likely to re­mind us that some­times what lies at the cen­ter of a storm is a deaf­en­ing si­lence.



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