Tenet vs. Tenet

The Washington Times Weekly - - Editorials -

“Ev­ery­one is en­ti­tled to his own opin­ion, but not his own set of facts.” That car­di­nal rule of the late Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han comes in for men­tion in Ge­orge Tenet’s mem­oir “At the Cen­ter of the Storm.” An un­usual kind of irony, then, that Mr. Tenet is now at­tempt­ing to re­ha­bil­i­tate him­self in of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton, and so he must paint him­self as a dis­senter, a truth-teller, a man rail­roaded by the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. The mem­oirist’s nat­u­ral ten­dency to re­count the most fa­vor­able train of events thus takes on its own mo­men­tum. In Mr. Tenet’s case, this puts the man at war with large in­stances of known his­tor­i­cal fact.

Here are some of the im­por­tant ones. Most of Mr. Tenet’s legacy boils to two episodes and the train of events sur­round­ing each: Septem­ber 11 and the Iraq war. Mr. Tenet served as CIA chief from 1997 to 2004, a pe­riod which sand­wiches the worst intelligence fail­ure since Pearl Har­bor. He did not para­chute into the intelligence world. He was a ca­reer Hill intelligence pro­fes­sional who, by many tellings, not only suc­cess­fully nav­i­gated the bu­reau­cracy but, once atop the CIA, mas­tered the art of bud­getary pol­i­tics as he fi­nessed com­pet­ing intelligence fac­tions, the White House and the chang­ing po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship over two very dif­fer­ent pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tions headed by Bill Clin­ton and Ge­orge W. Bush. As intelligence chief over this pe­riod, and with a longevity bested only by Allen Dulles, Mr. Tenet is des­tined to bear some large part of this fail­ure.

Re­gard­ing Iraq, we re­call the im­age of Mr. Tenet most vividly from the United Na­tions in Fe­bru­ary 2003 as he sat un­moved be­hind Colin Pow­ell dur­ing the then-sec­re­tary of state’s tes­ti­mony re­gard­ing Iraq’s weapons of mass de­struc­tion. Mr. Tenet’s pres­ence was widely in­ter­preted as a sign of ap­proval of the anal­y­sis then be­ing prop­a­gated: Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Iraq was a se­ri­ous threat for its pro­grams and propen­si­ties re­gard­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion, and were a dan­ger to the in­ter­na­tional or­der. Many for­eign intelligence agen­cies, Democrats and Repub­li­cans sub­scribed to this anal­y­sis. A sin­gle phone call could have dis­pelled the idea that Mr. Tenet agreed. He did not make that phone call. Whether the phrase “slam dunk” was ut­tered in con­text or out is ir­rel­e­vant. Mr. Tenet’s self-por­trayal as truth-teller skep­ti­cal of the case for the Iraq war is be­yond be­lief.

Mr. Tenet’s lib­er­ties are not al­ways mo­men­tous; some­times they are sim­ply con- ve­nient. One is the phan­tom, Septem­ber 12, 2001 en­counter with the White House ad­viser Richard Perle which never hap­pened. Ac­cord­ing to Mr. Tenet, Mr. Perle vowed: “Iraq has to pay a price for what hap­pened yes­ter­day.” But Mr. Perle was in France at the time, as he told the Weekly Stan­dard, which re­ported as much on April 30. He claims that he never ut­tered such a sen­tence to Mr. Tenet, at any time.

A larger, in­sti­tu­tional is­sue is whether any CIA di­rec­tor should air po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences with an ad­min­is­tra­tion so close to the events in ques­tion. We find it un­wise. A pres­i­dent has lit­tle use for an intelligence di­rec­tor whose dis­cre­tion is not guar­an­teed. Congress should con­sider bar­ring CIA direc­tors from such air­ings for a pe­riod long enough to pre­serve that trust. Cer­tainly it is bro­ken in Mr. Tenet’s case.

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