Hardly the Whole Truth but…

by , June 03, 2007

If you want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about how the CIA and later the United States as a whole coped with the terrorist threat posed by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda and later invaded Iraq on specious grounds, this relentlessly self-justifying book by former CIA Director George Tenet is hardly the place to find it. If you are looking for tantalizing hints that, along with other sources, might help to fill out the picture, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA has some value and, having been co-written by former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow, it reads fairly well.

But you would do well to read more extensively, beginning with Michael Scheuer, formerly head of the CIA’s bin Laden shop, whose two books, Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, and Imperial Hubris, are more informative and offer better insight into the foolishness of the Iraq war. Or Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory, or Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, or Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City, or Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco, or Michael Isikoff’s and David Corn’s Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and the Selling of the Iraq War, or George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate, or Ivan Eland’s The Empire Has No Clothes, or Chuck Pena’s Winning the Un-War, or … well, you get the idea.

Just don’t take the present book as seriously as Mr. Tenet would like you to. The CIA as an institution should appreciate this book, as should almost every government agency, since Mr. Tenet sees most of them, however disingenuously, as good-hearted heroes doing their best to protects the American people. Here he is, for example, responding to an early story about how the FBI and CIA might have missed an opportunity prior to 9/11 because they weren’t cooperating:

"To me, what’s important to realize is that the watchlisting problem was not, as is so often claimed, an example of CIA and FBI not working with each other. Throughout this pre-9/11 period both agencies were coordinating closely. Louis Freeh and I worked very hard to overcome historical animosities and misunderstandings and to get both organizations to recognize that they were on the same team. Through two administrations, I had no closer relationships than with Louis Freeh, Bob Mueller, and their senior officers."

I wouldn’t be surprised if Louis, Bob and George really did get along swimmingly, and I’m reasonably sure they thought they made progress on the historic turf jealously between the CIA and the FBI. But I’m sure they’re relatively clueless about how things work in the deeper bowels of their bureaucracies.

Likewise, I’m prepared to believe that George Tenet had some success in rebuilding morale when he became director of the CIA in 1997 after President Clinton’s first choice, former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, turned out to be unconfirmable. Judging by the book and some of his numerous media appearances after it was published, he is a warm, gregarious people-pleasing kind of person. He was aware that as a former Senate staffer and assistant CIA director he did not have operational experience himself, so he deferred to long-time employees at an agency whose relevance was questionable in light of the end of the Cold War and whose morale had been further sapped by the disastrous tenure of John Deutch.

I’m also prepared to believe that during the late 1990s and right up to 9/11, the CIA and Tenet increased their awareness of the growing threat of al-Qaeda and jihadist terrorism, improved their professionalism, and tried to warn policymakers. As Bob Woodward has noted in his review, however, it is curious that in July 2001, when Tenet got intelligence about al-Qaeda that "literally made my hair stand on end," he and his folks thought they had finished their job when they got directly to then National Security Adviser Condi Rice rather than putting it directly to the president – whom Tenet was seeing almost every day, in a departure from the practice of most CIA directors.

What I seriously doubt, however, is that after 9/11 and President Bush’s growing determination (fed by Vice President Cheney and the neoconservative cabal) to attack Saddam Hussein whether traditional statecraft justified the attack or not, that Mr. Tenet, with his people-pleasing proclivities, was a good person to have at the helm of the CIA. He turned out to be much too much of an enabler.

The ideal has seldom been approached in practice, but the ostensible function of the CIA and other intelligence agencies is to provide the most reliable possible information to policymakers without fear or favor, whether it justifies the policymakers’ preferred course of action or not. In his book George Tenet protests too much that "the intelligence process was not disingenuous nor was it influenced by politics." But it clearly was, as more independent observers have documented, and Mr. Tenet, perhaps unintentionally, offers a number of instances.

There’s the fact that despite reservations he expresses now, and despite the fact that he had reservations about the backup then, that he sat behind Colin Powell during the ill-starred U.N. speech just prior to the war (he has been cropped out of that photo in the book), a most unusual thing for a supposedly independent analyst to do. He says he was physically exhausted after leaving the chamber, as well he should have been. Now he writes that "It was a great presentation, but unfortunately the substance didn’t hold up." Despite his protestations, he had plenty of reasons to have believed it back then as "the secretary of state was subsequently hung out to dry in front of the world, and our nation’s credibility plummeted."

And there’s the notorious October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that seemed to offer much more certainty about Saddam possessing chemical and biological weapons than previous NIEs on the subject. Tenet insists that the entire 90-page report offers disclaimers and caveats galore, but he had to know that few policymakers would read beyond the five-page summary, which exudes certainty. He offers a superficially detailed but not really candid report on how it was prepared and what was in it, then offers this remarkable admission:

"Given what we knew then [then, not later with hindsight], the NIE should have said:

"We judge that Saddam continues his efforts to rebuild weapons programs, that, once sanctions are lifted, he probably will confront the United States with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons within a matter of months and years. Today, while we have little direct evidence of weapons stockpiles, Saddam has the ability to quickly surge to produce chemical and biological weapons and he has the means to deliver them.

"We should have said, in effect, that the intelligence was not sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Saddam had WMD. The evidence was good enough to win a conviction in a civil suit but not in a criminal case. Would we have gone to war with such conclusions? I don’t believe the war was solely about WMD, so probably yes. But more accurate and nuanced findings would have made for a more vigorous debate – and would have served the country better."

While the book acknowledges numerous CIA failures, it insists that the CIA always did its level best and is almost beyond criticism. I think it unintentionally makes a pretty good case that many CIA analysts did a reasonable job and were alarmed that the administration was going way beyond what the intelligence suggested in its eagerness to go to war – but its top leadership, including Mr. Tenet, betrayed them, more eager to please the Bushies than to stick to what could really be known. He is said to have had doubts about the advisability of the Iraq war but he never expressed them. Nor did he express them right after he resigned, which might have been a service to the country.

In the latter part of the book, Tenet subtly distances himself from the administration, but the figure who comes in for direct and indirect criticism is not The Decider, but Vice President Cheney, perhaps the most reviled figure in American politics today. Some profile in courage.

Now, four years later, Tenet avers that "[w]e should enter into wars of choice only with the greatest reluctance, and then only after being completely honest with ourselves and the world about our rationale for undertaking such missions. It is not enough to know how to win wars; equally important is having the knowledge, and the will, to secure the peace."

Too bad he couldn’t bring himself to say such things to the people who counted, back when it might have counted.

Read more by Alan Bock