In Defense of George Tenet

Former CIA director George Tenet is being lashed by both the pro-war neoconized Right and the antiwar Left, taking so many of the slings and arrows of a truly outrageous fortune that he’s beginning to resemble a portrait of Saint Sebastian. Indeed, there is something saint-like about his public demeanor: the air of suffering is palpable as he explains what went wrong at the top in the run-up to war. He is like a Christian in the Roman arena as the faces the hostility of the interviewers, who cast an unusually jaundiced eye on his critique of the Bush administration and the role played by the CIA in the prelude to the disastrous invasion of Iraq. It’s as if the incisive interrogation, the sort of queries we never heard from “mainstream” journalists before the war, had been held in reserve for this moment.

Now that it’s time to fix the blame for a perfectly predictable failure, the real authors of this catastrophe – the neoconservative clique that hijacked American foreign policy in the wake of 9/11 – are eager to pin responsibility on the CIA. The great irony of this is that the opposition to the Iraq misadventure within the government was centered at Langley. Which was precisely why Vice President Dick Cheney and his now-indicted co-conspirator and chief of staff, Scooter Libby, had to schlep over there constantly to stand over the analysts until they came up with the “right” sort of “intelligence” on Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” and alleged links to al-Qaeda. The neocons hate Tenet and the organization he headed and still defends – all the more so, now, for anecdotes like this, in which he says he encountered Richard Perle, the day after 9/11, coming out of the White House:

“He said to me, ‘Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday, they bear responsibility.’ It’s September the 12th. I’ve got the manifest with me that tell me al-Qaeda did this. Nothing in my head that says there is any Iraqi involvement in this in any way shape or form and I remember thinking to myself, as I’m about to go brief the president, ‘What the hell is he talking about?'”

I note that in the CBS transcript of the 60 Minutes interview with Tenet there is now a link to Perle’s denial, published in the Weekly Standard, in which the neocon “Prince of Darkness” says he was in France at the time and couldn’t get back because all aircraft were grounded. Tenet says he may have gotten the timing wrong, but stands by his account of their encounter. One wonders if CBS will also include a link to this clip from CNN, taped five days after 9/11, at the end of which Perle opines that, even if we can’t prove it according to the “standards of our civil society that we enjoy,” the Iraqis deserve some rough justice because “we do know that Saddam Hussein has ties to Osama bin Laden.”

Perle has told so many lies that it’s a wonder he has the nerve to get up in public and utter a single word, and if it’s his word against Tenet’s, I know which one to believe. Can’t you just see him slinking out of the White House, implicitly flashing his influence in the face of the sidelined CIA director?

In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, a mighty battle of bureaucratic wills took place within the U.S. government. On one side were the CIA and a good deal of the national security bureaucracy, including the State Department‘s intelligence bureau, urging caution. On the other side were the sub rosa, ad hoc neocon-run operations, such as the Office of Special Plans, WHIG, and other improvisations that constituted, in effect, what Bob Woodward – citing Colin Powell – described as “a separate government.”

This parallel government, run out of the office of the vice president, had its own intelligence-gathering operation, in effect, its own CIA, which was responsible for most of the more extravagant claims that constituted the “talking points” of a White House hell-bent on war. They cherry-picked “nuggets” of raw intelligence, garnered from dubious sources, and fed them to a gullible media corps and the American public – indeed, a great many people persisted in believing Saddam Hussein had planned and carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks long after any Iraq-9/11 connection had been thoroughly debunked.

The idea that Saddam Hussein was the real mastermind behind 9/11 has long animated the hard-core neocons who wielded such influence in the councils of state during the run-up to war. The CIA dismissed this theory as utter nonsense and pointed to Osama bin Laden as the real culprit – as was pretty obvious, at least to me, a few hours after the attacks. In any case, what were in effect two rival intelligence agencies – the neocons’ parallel CIA versus the real, legally constituted CIA – were engaged in a battle from which only one could emerge victorious. As David Corn pointed out in an excellent piece in the LA Weekly, published in 2003, the neocons have always taken a dim view of Tenet and his organization:

“The CIA is a rogue institution. It undermines national security. It was dishonest about the threat from Iraq. It hid the truth from the American public. It has plotted against other parts of the government. It has betrayed the country.

“That’s not the latest lefty screed against the spooks. This critique is the central point of a new book written by a darling of the neoconservative claque running much of President Bush’s foreign policy. In Bush vs. the Beltway, Laurie Mylroie, an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute (neocon HQ), offers a j’accuse-like indictment summed up by this slim volume’s subtitle: ‘How the CIA and the State Department Tried To Stop the War on Terror.’ Mylroie charges that a conspiracy of head-in-the-sand intelligence analysts and don’t-rock-the-boat foreign service apparatchiks covered up, ignored and dismissed evidence that Saddam Hussein orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and that al-Qaeda has been a front for Iraqi intelligence. …

“Mylroie’s theories might not deserve much attention except for the fact she has influential admirers. Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, R. James Woolsey, a former CIA director, and Christopher Hitchens, the leftist writer turned Wolfowitz fan, have endorsed her book. Her past work has been hailed by former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick (the godmother of the neocons) and Wolfowitz. Several years ago, Mylroie co-wrote a book on Saddam Hussein with New York Times reporter Judith Miller.”

I’ll leave Mylroie to the tender mercies of Peter Bergen: suffice to say that the neocons considered themselves to be the CIA’s mortal enemies. The agency, you see, was concerned with finding out the truth, or at least as close an approximation to it as possible while still serving the president’s agenda – which was, of course, a war with Iraq. But even this minimal concern for at least the appearance of truthfulness was too much for the gang in Cheney’s office, which was determined to force-march the nation to war as soon as possible. The shooting had to start before the lies began to unravel, and therefore time was of the essence: the web of deception they had woven was a delicate structure, apt to disintegrate under prolonged scrutiny. Ultimately, the trail of deceit would lead right back to the neocons – but not before they accomplished their goal of getting us into Iraq.

The Saddam-9/11 meme was the second most popular weapon in the War Party’s propaganda arsenal, with the alleged threat of Iraqi nukes being number one: the “mushroom cloud” theme song sung by the chorus of public officials pushing for war has been widely noted – and those infamous “16 words” are still reverberating in our ears, underscoring the utter falsity of the administration’s case for war. Tenet says he fought to keep references to Iraq’s alleged efforts to procure uranium from Niger out of the president’s public pronouncements and simply failed to read Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech until it was too late. Since Bush’s allegation was based on forged documents that somehow made it into the U.S. intelligence stream and landed on the president’s desk, one has to ask: who put it there? Who made sure it was included in the speech?

Rep. Henry Waxman, I believe, wants to know the answers to these questions. His government oversight committee’s inquiry into how and why the Niger uranium forgeries got past the vetting process – and set up the president for a resounding fall when the hoax was exposed a few weeks later – could prove very interesting. Perhaps a little too interesting for Condoleezza Rice, who is refusing a subpoena from the committee to testify about this matter and others.

This seems an awfully confrontational approach to take to what ought to be a routine matter – unless, of course, more is at stake here than meets the eye. What does Condi have to hide?

I am very sympathetic to the view of ex-CIA employees, among them our own Philip Giraldi, and also Michael Scheuer, who fiercely maintain that Tenet did not do enough to protect the CIA from its internal enemies, and that he should have resigned rather than submit to the manipulation of intelligence to push a preordained agenda. However, in fairness, it has to be said that the decision to go to war had already been made by the president: the neocons held the trump card. If one takes into consideration the rather old-fashioned view that the president’s appointees must, out of loyalty, serve their boss, then Tenet’s behavior – although I don’t endorse it; indeed, I find it reprehensible – is perfectly understandable.

He did what he could, within the very limited parameters open to him, to prevent the worst – and failed. If neoconservative domination of U.S. policy-making after 9/11 can be likened to a foreign invasion – and it can, in more ways than one – then Tenet was a patriot fighting as best he could against the occupiers. His problem was that he was fighting a rearguard action, severely limited in what he could do by the overwhelming power of a chief executive intent on making war on Iraq. The neocon coup was an accomplished fact, and it was all Tenet could do to preserve the CIA from wholesale dismemberment in the intra-bureaucratic battle that dominated prewar Washington.

Now the neocons are trying to blame him for the disaster they were so instrumental in creating. These pied pipers of deception, who dominated the airwaves, as Bill Moyers recently pointed out, brazenly lying about everything from Saddam’s alleged nuclear arsenal to his supposed responsibility for 9/11, are still trying to destroy the CIA, as well as divert attention away from their own misdeeds.

Scooter Libby didn’t “out” Valerie Plame just because he was mad at her husband: the neocons in government considered the CIA their deadly enemy, as David Corn makes all too clear. In this context, it’s easy to see why Scooter, a key figure in Washington’s neocon network, wouldn’t balk at exposing them and their extended networks, including their families, to mortal danger.

After all, the CIA was intent on guarding American national security and advancing American interests, while the neocons had other loyalties: ideological, political, and supranational. That’s why they destroyed Valerie Plame’s career. It’s why they utilized easily debunked forgeries as “evidence” of Iraq’s nonexistent nuclear program – a classic “disinformation” tactic of the sort a foreign intelligence service might employ. This is not just a metaphor: the neocons have long-standing and extensive connections with Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, whose ties to foreign intelligence agencies, including the Iranians, are well-known. There’s a reason why the U.S. raided Chalabi’s Iraqi headquarters, an event that Perle and the gang over at the Weekly Standard reacted to like the snakes of Ireland famously reacted to St. Patrick. The CIA hated Chalabi and knew him for the fraud he was and is, yet the neocons pushed him, funded him, and made sure his fantastic fabrications got on the front page of the New York Times (thanks to Judy Miller), supplying the administration with a good deal of its talking points.

As in the case of the Niger uranium forgeries, the neocons’ parallel intelligence-gathering operation did an end run around the CIA, and Chalabi’s lies came tumbling out of the mouths of U.S. officials, much to Tenet’s consternation. When is the Democratic Congress going to investigate Chalabi?

Faced with an administration that, post-9/11, had been subjected to a de facto coup d’état, in which the neocons had the president on their side, Tenet did his best to protect the CIA from the depredations of the coup plotters intent on purging the government of war critics. What’s amazing is that the thoroughly discredited neocons still are strenuously engaged in that effort – and are meeting with no small amount of success. In the context of their plans to launch an attack on Iran, the CIA remains an obstacle on the road to war: the assault on Tenet is part of that general effort. After all, the CIA is resisting the neocons’ efforts to portray Iran’s nuclear program as an imminent threat, estimating that it’ll be a good 10 years before Tehran can succeed in making a usable nuke.

Whether Tenet should or should not have resigned in protest, I’ll leave that to CIA insiders to fight over. What matters is that Tenet points an accusing finger at the cabal centered in the vice president’s office and the higher civilian reaches of the Pentagon, and rightly so. Except for Scooter Libby, these people have yet to face the music, or any consequences – and yet there are a lot more Scooter types out there, unindicted co-conspirators in the plot to lure us into war under false pretenses. Now they are compounding their crimes, going after their old enemies in the CIA – even as their lie factory begins to crank out a new series of elaborate deceptions aimed at convincing us to go to war with Iran.

Regardless of Tenet’s own personal responsibility for the disaster that befell us in Iraq, the story he has to tell is valuable – provided we learn the proper lesson from it. Not that the CIA needs to be “reformed,” or that we didn’t plan enough for the occupation – nothing could have ameliorated the consequences of a policy that was essentially wrong. No “plan” could have contained the horrific outbreak of “postwar” violence and utter chaos that is now enveloping “liberated” Iraq. The lesson Tenet has to teach us is the relative ease with which it is possible for a very small group of people to seize the reins of government in America. Given the extreme concentration of power in the executive branch when it comes to matters of war and peace, a cabal that has the president’s ear can wreak enormous damage on American interests – and the natural resistance of patriots within the government to their dominance can’t always be counted on to succeed. This, indeed, is one of the enormous risks of our interventionist foreign policy: coupled with the extreme centralization of policy-making in the realm of foreign affairs, it is a danger not only to our republican institutions, but to the peace of the world.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].