“If you can’t say something positive about someone, don’t say anything.” This was drummed into me by my Irish grandmother and, as was the case with most of her admonishments, it has stood me in good stead. On occasion, though, it has been a real bother—as when I felt called to comment on George Tenet’s apologia, In the Center of the Storm , coming soon to a bookstore near you.
On the verge of despair, I ran into an old classmate of Tenet’s from PS 94 in Little Neck, Queens, N.Y. Help at last. He told me that George was more handsome than his twin brother Billy, and that his outgoing nature and consummate political skill got him elected president of the student body.
Positive enough, Grandma? Now let me add this.
George Tenet’s book shows that he remains, first and foremost, a politician—with no clue as to the proper role of intelligence work. He is unhappy about going down in history as “slam-dunk Tenet.” George protests that his famous remark to President Bush on Dec. 21, 2002 was not meant to assure the president that available intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a “slam dunk.” Rather, he meant that the argument that Saddam Hussein had such weapons could be readily enhanced to slam-dunk status in order to sell war on Iraq.
Yesterday evening on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Tenet explained what he meant when he uttered those words—the words he says have now been distorted to blame him for the war in Iraq. What he says he meant was simply:
“We can put a better case together for a public case.” (sic)
Tenet still doesn’t get it. Those of us schooled in the craft and ethos of intelligence remain in wide-mouthed disbelief, perhaps best summed up by veteran operations officer Bob Baer’s recent quip:
“So, it is better that the ‘slam dunk’ referred to the ease with which the war could be sold? I guess I missed that part of the National Security Act delineating the functions of the CIA—the part about CIA marketing a war. Guess that’s why I never made it into senior management.”
George’s concern over being scapegoated is understandable. But could he not have seen it coming? Not even when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked him in the fall of 2002 whether he had created a system for tracking how good the intelligence was compared with what would be actually found in Iraq? The folks I know from Queens usually can tell when they’re being set up. Maybe Tenet was naive enough to believe that his friend the president (“President Bush and I are much alike,” he writes) would protect him from the likes of Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney even when—as was inevitable—someone would have to take the fall. Or did George actually believe Cheney’s insight that U.S. forces would be greeted in Iraq as liberators, and that at that point, the absence of the weapons of mass destruction would not matter?
Now George is worried about his reputation. He told “60 Minutes”:
At the end of the day, the only thing you have…is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor, and when you don’t have that anymore, well, there you go.
I immediately thought back to former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s response when he was asked if he regretted the lies he told at the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003. Powell said he regretted that speech because it was “a blot on my record.”
So we’ve got ruined reputations and blots on records. Poor boys. What about the 3, 344 American soldiers already killed in a war that could not have happened had not these poor fellows deliberately distorted the evidence and led the cheering for war? What about the more than 50,000 troops wounded, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians whose deaths can be attributed directly to the invasion and its aftermath. There are blots, and there are blots. Why is it that Tenet and Powell seem to inhabit a different planet?
Despite all this, they still have their defenders…or at least Tenet does. (Powell’s closest associate, Col. Larry Wilkerson, decided long ago to turn state’s evidence and apologize for his and Powell’s role in the intelligence and policy fiasco, but Powell has tried to remain above the battle. He may, I suppose, be writing his own book.)
Saturday on National Public Radio Tenet’s deputy and partner in crime, John McLaughlin, went to ludicrous lengths reciting a carefully prepared list of “all the things that the CIA got right,” while conceding that it (not “we,” mind you, but “it”) performed “inadequately” in assessing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Hewing to the George W. Bush dictum of “catapulting the propaganda” by endlessly repeating the same claim (the formula used so successfully by Joseph Goebbels), Tenet manages to tell “60 Minutes” five times in five consecutive sentences: “We don’t torture people.” Like President Bush, however, he then goes on to show why it has been absolutely necessary to torture people. Do they take us for fools? And Tenet’s claims of success in extracting information via torture are no more deserving of credulity than the rest of what he says.
His own credibility aside, Tenet has succeeded in destroying the asset without which an intelligence community cannot be effective and informed policy making is at grave risk—trustworthiness. That is serious. He seems blissfully oblivious to the damage he has done—aware only of the damage he accuses others of doing to his “personal honor.”
If any good can come out of the intelligence/policy debacle regarding Iraq, it would be the clear lesson that intelligence crafted to dovetail with the predilections of policymakers can bring disaster. The role that Tenet, McLaughlin and their small coterie of malleable managers played as willing accomplices in the corruption of intelligence has made a mockery of the verse chiseled into the marble at the entrance to CIA headquarters: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Had Tenet been tenaciously honest, his analysts would have risen to the occasion. And there is a good chance that they could have helped prevent what the Nuremburg Tribunal called the “supreme international crime”—a war of aggression—a war that Tenet and his subordinates knew had nothing to do with the “intelligence” adduced to “justify” it, as Tenet now admits in his book.
No director of the CIA should come from the ranks of congressional staff, since those staffers work in a politicized ambience antithetical to substantive intelligence work. Tenet is Exhibit A. When he was nominated for the job, outside observers deemed it a good sign that, as a congressional staffer, Tenet had been equally popular on both sides of the aisle. But for intelligence professionals, this raised a huge red flag.
As we had learned early in our careers, if you consistently tell it like it is, you are certain to make enemies. Those enjoying universal popularity are ipso facto suspect of perfecting the political art of compromise—shading this and shaving that. However useful this may be on the Hill, it sounds the death knell for intelligence analysis.
Tenet also lacked experience in managing a large, complicated organization. Such experience is a sine qua non.
Finally, it is mischievous myth that the CIA director must cultivate a close personal relationship with the president. Nor should the director try, for it is a net minus. The White House is not a fraternity house; mutual respect is far more important than camaraderie. A mature president will respect an independent intelligence director. The latter must resist the temptation to be “part of the team” in the same way that the president’s political advisers are part of the team. Overly close identification with “the team” can erode objectivity and cloud intelligence judgments. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, like Cheney a frequent visitor to CIA headquarters in 2002 to “help” with the analysis on Iraq, told the press that Tenet was “so grateful to the president [presumably for not firing him after Sept. 11, 2001] that he would do anything for him.” That attitude is the antithesis of what is needed in senior intelligence officers.
Much is at stake, and it will be an uphill battle to bring back honesty and professionalism to the analysis process and impede efforts to politicize the intelligence product. In an institution like the CIA, significant, enduring improvement requires vision, courage, and integrity at the top. It has been almost three decades since the CIA has been led by such a person.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington. His responsibilities during his 27-year service as a CIA analyst included chairing National Intelligence Estimates and preparing the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).