The neoconservatives around Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and their media allies bear the principal blame for bringing about the invasion of Iraq. As they cannot temperamentally consider themselves in any way culpable and they need a fall guy for the resulting catastrophe, they are now in a virtual feeding frenzy trying to denigrate former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet. Unfortunately, not-quite-penitent George is far from blameless, though a critique of his actions should not be construed as an exoneration of Perle, Feith, Wolfowitz, and company. Tenet truly deserves everything he is getting, even when it comes from neocon CIA critics who always feared that the agency would successfully "speak truth to power" and upset their plans to reinvent the Middle East.
Tenet, whose lackluster performance should be considered one of the lowest of many low points in making the case for war, had only one legitimate role in the lead-up to the events of March 2003. It was to provide the president and other policymakers with the most reliable and nuanced intelligence available to assist in making decisions that literally involved life and death. The director should have been judgmentally neutral, not favoring intelligence based on any perceptions of policy imperatives and not dismissing information that went against those perceptions. Whenever analysis was based on information that was suspect, it should have been submitted to the White House with caveats or dissents providing alternative interpretations.
George Tenet now keeps repeating “I believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,” as if that should settle the matter. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter what Tenet “believed,” because his job was to be able to distinguish between reliable fact-based intelligence and bogus information cooked up to support a preexisting policy. Tenet was both intelligent and experienced enough to accomplish this key task, but he chose not to because he wanted to become a "player" on the White House team. Now he has to live with himself with the sure knowledge that hundreds of thousands of deaths have resulted from his cowardice. Tenet’s book In the Center of the Storm (and his flurry of media interviews to hawk it) provides a version of reality that just does not square with the facts facts that are readily available to anyone.
In the world of the Washington policymaker, the basic document that provides the consensus of the intelligence community on issues of concern to the United States is the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). George Tenet signed off on an October 2002 NIE on Iraq that stated that "Iraq has continued its weapons of mass destruction programs in defiance of UN resolutions and restrictions [it] has chemical and biological weapons if left unchecked, it will probably have a nuclear weapon during this decade." All of those assertions proved to be untrue, but each strengthened administration efforts to make a case for war with Iraq. Tenet knew, or should have known, the following:
That Iraq did not have a weapons of mass destruction program would not have been welcome news for the White House, which was maintaining just the opposite, so efforts were made to find intelligence that would support the administration position. Between January 2000 and September 2001 a source called "Curveball" provided information on the Iraqi weapons program, particularly on mobile biological and chemical weapons labs. Curveball was an Iraqi taxi driver who had studied engineering and who claimed, falsely, to be the former head of Iraq’s bioweapons program. He was a convicted embezzler and may have been the brother-in-law of an aide to known intelligence fabricator Ahmed Chalabi. He was regarded by the German intelligence service the Bundesnachrichtendienst, which was debriefing him, as an "out of control" mentally unstable alcoholic. CIA Chief of European Division Tyler Drumheller warned the agency’s senior management on numerous occasions that the information that came from him was unreliable and now states that his complaints about Curveball are fully documented in CIA archives if anyone has any doubts. In November 2002, UN weapons inspectors also tried to confirm the Curveball information and were unable to do so. Tenet nevertheless used the Curveball intelligence in the NIE. Curveball was also the source of many of the misstatements made by former Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN on Feb. 5, 2003, when Tenet sat behind Powell to bolster his case. Tenet, in his defense, denies that there were any warnings about Curveball, but Drumheller insists that "everyone in the chain of command knew exactly what was happening."
The influence of the bad intelligence continued even after the invasion of Iraq. In May 2003 CIA analysts working for Tenet produced a report stating that a trailer discovered earlier in the month was a bioweapons lab such as had been described by Curveball. President Bush, on a trip to Poland at the time, declared on the basis of the analysis that the Iraqi WMD had been found. The report proved to be inaccurate, and it was quickly determined that the trailer had been used to inflate weather balloons. Carl Ford, head of State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), aware that the Curveball information had long since been discredited, personally confronted Tenet about the report, saying afterward that "it is clear that they [Tenet and his deputy John McLaughlin] had been personally involved in the preparation of [the] report." He added that "it wasn’t just wrong, they lied," and then went on to say that "they should have been shot."
Tenet’s credibility on the broader issue of manipulating the intelligence to support the White House decision to go to war has also been questioned. On July 23, 2002, the then head of the British foreign intelligence service Sir Richard Dearlove had his staff prepare a report, referred to as the "Downing Street Memo," on his meetings with Tenet a few days before. The document, which was eventually leaked to The Sunday Times of London, has been curiously underreported by the mainstream media in the U.S. According to the memo,
"There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
The memo is not particularly ambiguous and indicates that the intelligence would have to be construed so as to support the decision to go to war, a distortion of the usual process where the intelligence is viewed as both objective and policy-neutral.
Finally, there is the issue of al-Qaeda and its connection with Saddam Hussein. On 60 Minutes on April 29, Tenet conceded that there had been absolutely no connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda, an assertion that he repeated to Wolf Blitzer on the following night. That there was no connection should have been evident from the exhaustive CIA inquiry into the fictional April 2001 meeting of 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta with Iraqi intelligence officials and also from the reports coming from Iraq’s foreign minister. Also, it might have been common sense to assume that Saddam would have had little to do with a group that was philosophically dedicated to overthrowing him. Nevertheless, Tenet told Congress on Feb. 11, 2003, that Iraq was harboring senior members of al-Qaeda, that it was providing training in document forgery, bomb-making, poisons, and gases, and that there was a cadre of two dozen Egyptian Islamic Jihad members working for al-Qaeda associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, operating out of Baghdad with the connivance of the Iraqi government. In an earlier letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Oct. 7, 2002, Tenet stated that there was solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda going back a decade and that al-Qaeda had sought Iraqi help in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. For good measure, he added that Iraq was training al-Qaeda members "in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs." None of the above was true. An evidently uncomfortable Tenet explained to Blitzer that "Well, you have to get to the subordinate clause," adding that "we were sloppy in that letter."
George Tenet’s book includes a visual metaphor for his failure as director of central intelligence. A photo of Colin Powell at the UN with Tenet sitting behind him has been cropped to eliminate Tenet, again distorting the public record. Perhaps Tenet finally realized that, in sitting stoically behind Powell, he had squandered the CIA’s most precious asset its credibility.