George Tenet's Twisted Intel

At the Center of the Storm: My Years In the CIA by George Tenet (Harper Collins, 576 pages)


Let's just leave "slam dunk" aside for a moment.

It's true that in his memoir, At the Center of the Storm, former Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet goes to elaborate rhetorical lengths in denying that he had intended to characterize Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction as a dead certainty when he used that infamous phrase. And, like much else in the book, Tenet's focus on the "slam dunk" quote is actually sneaky -- he serves to obscure the real issue at hand while oscillating between contrition and a fiery, if dubious, defense of his tenure. But there's another quote, less infamous but no less embarrassing, that's even more indicative of Tenet as a man and an official. That, of course, is, "Let's beat Villanova tonight!"

Don't know that one? On February 5, 2004, Tenet delivered what amounted to the first draft of this book in an address to his alma mater, Georgetown University. It was a tense moment: A week earlier, David Kay, the U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the WMD justifying the war were almost certainly a mirage. Tenet, fighting for his job, ambled to the podium and provided a testy, angst-filled defense. He argued that, despite the absence of the predicted stockpiles of weapons, it was too early to say that the CIA had failed the country -- a claim he deemed an unacceptable slander. Then, unexpectedly, as Tenet finished his speech, he enthusiastically wrapped himself in the embrace of Hoya Paranoia with his Villanova line -- a tasteful reminder that even though the war might go on, so too does a storied basketball rivalry.

Tenet's woo-Georgetown exclamation seemed a bit inappropriate, given the gravity of his speech's subject. But it was also typical. As At the Center of the Storm reminds, Tenet has always sought to ingratiate himself with his masters, whether Presidents Clinton and Bush or the GOP Congress, in order to protect himself and the CIA from criticism. It's no surprise that he would attempt to do the same to a group of college students sitting in judgment of him.

Tenet's own particular brand of ingratiation, on extensive display in his new book, involves the unctuous rhetorical tactic of conceding failure up front, only to hastily explain that, in fact, there were no real failures -- not on his part, not on his agency's part, and certainly not on President Bush's part. He's a master of the non-apology apology.

Take the most important Iraq-related example of massive failure on his watch: the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The NIE, which assessed that Iraq had vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and an ongoing nuclear weapons program, only exists because the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence requested it in September 2002, needing an authoritative intelligence judgment on the eve of the vote to authorize the war. In the book, Tenet concedes that he "didn't think one was necessary ... I was wrong." But his description of the process, and the substance, of the NIE serves to undermine the seriousness of his own confession.

Tenet places heavy emphasis on the "crash project" that the three-week NIE represented, and implies that weaknesses in the NIE are attributable to the time constraints faced by its chief author, National Intelligence Officer Bob Walpole. What Tenet should mention, of course, is that the very reason for the shortened timetable was the political constraints imposed by the Bush administration. The White House insisted in early September that a vote on the war authorization occur before the November congressional elections, so as to enable the Republicans to use the war question as a political cudgel against the Democrats. But he mentions no such thing. Instead, striving for a deflection, he chides then-Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham for "mak[ing] statements to the press chastising us for foot-dragging."

Additionally, he bristles at the panel's desire for an assessment of, in his characterization, "the effectiveness of planned U.S. covert and military actions in Iraq," This is a serious misrepresentation of what the committee asked for. Earlier that summer, Bob Graham, the Democratic chairman, requested and received from Tenet forecasts of what the Middle East would look like in the aftermath of an invasion of Iraq. Graham wanted the full committee to get a broader understanding of the implications of war rather than simply answers to the WMD question. Tenet, however, restricted the NIE to covering only WMD, and now disgraces himself further by implying that the committee attempted to meddle with war planning. There's an irony here: Later in the book Tenet trumpets the CIA's foresight in predicting the chaos of Iraq -- assessments that he stopped Congress from receiving when it counted.

If it sounds like Tenet isn't exactly preparing himself for contrition in his account of the NIE, that's because he isn't. It gets worse when he engages the famous issue of the aluminum tubes -- the linchpin of the case for an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Back in 2002, the Department of Energy's experts dissented from the view that the seized Iraqi tubes were meant for nuclear weapons; their view, of course, was ultimately vindicated. Yet Tenet spends much more time in his book defending the erroneous assessments of the CIA's less-expert analysts, who, he writes, "brought together ... experienced experts from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory -- people who had actually built centrifuges." Meanwhile, the DOE's representative at a crucial meeting, Tenet emphasizes, "was not a technical expert" -- even though his agency's intelligence wing consisted of nothing but.

Not that this should mean anything to Tenet, since, he writes, "Contrary to popular misconception, the NIE also gives full voice to those agencies that wanted to express alternative views." Nowhere in Tenet's new book can one find even a momentary contemplation of the idea that the NIE should have abandoned its conclusion about the Iraqi nuclear weapons program on account of the DOE's objection, rather than push that outlook to the margins as a dissenting view. Not even an accumulation of dead patients will stop Tenet from declaring the operation a success.

Tenet also gives an unsatisfactory explanation of how these dissents were scrubbed from the public version of the NIE -- a white paper issued roughly a week before the vote on the war, and the only version that senators could discuss with their constituents (and that members of the House could see). While the classified version said "most agencies" believed the tubes were for nuclear weapons -- and acknowledged that the DOE did not -- the unclassified version said merely that "most analysts" did, so no assessment based on agency or relevant expertise was possible.

Tenet writes in the book that "in the time allotted" -- Tenet, of course, would never characterize it as a timeline set by the White House -- it would not have been possible to declassify the NIE. Instead, "someone came up with the bright idea of taking an unclassified white paper that the [National Intelligence Council] had drafted months before on the same subject ... and modifying it for this purpose." He concedes that the white paper was "far too assertive," but then reaches heights of disingenuousness by emphasizing that "it did note that there were differences among specialists over issues such as the aluminum tubes." In other words, the NIE was tragically misread and misrepresented -- off the hook he and the president go.

Then there's the question of political pressure on the intelligence community. As he does at numerous points throughout the book, Tenet writes that with the NIE, "intelligence professionals did not try to tell policy makers what they wanted to hear, nor did the policy makers lean on us to influence outcomes." Yet the explanation Tenet provides for why the NIE turned out shabbily is that the timeline demanded it -- a timeline, as mentioned above, established by the White House. In February of 2002, Tenet had testified to Congress that the evidence for a continued Iraqi nuclear program consisted merely of "a significant number of nuclear scientists, program documentation, and probably some dual-use manufacturing infrastructure." Magically, that assessment morphed into something much more dire right before the war vote.

Tenet's repeated non-apology apologies serve, once again, to get Bush off the hook. But what's so perverse about At the Center of the Storm is that Tenet's continued excuse-making for the president now come years after the administration irrevocably tarnished his reputation.

His inoculation of Bush from blame is all the more troubling because Tenet is absolutely right about a central claim in the book: The intelligence wasn't determinative of the war. The Bush administration opted to invade Iraq because of a mélange of strategic reasons, for which the public case about weapons of mass destruction was merely, in Paul Wolfowitz's words, "the one issue that everyone could agree on." The proper word for this is "deceit." It's true enough that Tenet had little hope of salvaging his reputation through his memoir, given the overwhelming disrepute in which nearly everyone, left and right, holds him. But he should have devoted much more introspection -- and apology -- to the way in which his faithful service led him to turn intelligence work into policy advocacy. It wouldn't have been very cheerleader-like. But the college basketball season has long since ended.