Seeking Shelter From the Storm
How could the nation's intelligence agencies, with their multibilliondollar secret budgets, their thousands of employees in over 100 countries across the globe, their vast networks of all-seeing eyes and ears in the skies, and clusters of informants below, have failed to anticipate and prevent the attacks of September 11, 2001, or find that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction?
The unforgivable flaw in George Tenet's alternatively fascinating, infuriating, important, and self-serving book is his failure to explain in any depth, as only he could have, these two colossal failures that occurred during his tenure as director of Central Intelligence.
"At the Center of the Storm" (Harper-Collins, 506 pages, $30) does not lack merit. It should be required reading on how government works, or doesn't. But those seeking insight into how and why the "intelligence community" failed in its two most vital missions will be disappointed.
Mr. Tenet is understandably furious that his career has been encapsulated in the phrase "slam dunk." But no matter how he attempts to explain what he really meant by it, this book will not prevent the words he admits having uttered with respect to what he calls "marketing" the case for Iraqi WMD — which he insists the CIA considered rock solid — from dominating his obituary.
Mr. Tenet does not believe that the country was "lied" into the Iraq war by neoconservatives who twisted WMD intelligence, or "fixed" it, as Britain's senior intelligence chief is said to have alleged inaccurately, Mr. Tenet writes. On this point, Mr. Tenet is emphatic: "We told the president what we did on Iraq WMD because we believed it." "Those who say that we cooked the books or knowingly let the administration say things that we knew to be untrue are just wrong," he insists. There was no pressure on his analysts, Mr. Tenet says, to produce the WMD intelligence that war advocates wanted, despite his complaints about "Scooter" Libby's frequent visits to the Agency. "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," he says in another passage. "The consistency of our views on these weapons programs was carried forward to two presidents of different political parties who pursued vastly different courses of action."
Credulous readers will read these statements one way, skeptics another. Yet, as Mr. Tenet candidly and painfully acknowledges, "the core" of his analysts' judgments that Iraq had chemical and biological stockpiles and might soon have a nuclear bomb "turned out to be wrong, wrong for a hundred different reasons that go to the heart of what we call our ‘tradecraft' — the best practices of intelligence collection and analysis."
As a reporter who was widely criticized for having written several articles based on those flawed estimates, I was particularly eager to read more in Mr. Tenet's account about the "hundred reasons" how and why the system so catastrophically failed, and what he did to prevent future failures. Alas, he has next to nothing new to say on this crucial score.
The real subject of this book is Mr. Tenet's wounded pride. "At the Center of the Storm," like its author, is blunt and occasionally profane, witty, deeply combative, emotional, defensive, and scornful of its critics, several of whose attacks on the 506-page book appeared within 48 hours of its publication.
Instantly and universally attacked by both the left and the right, and even by some of his own CIA colleagues, Mr. Tenet rails against the concoction of a mythical history by administration critics that the road to war was paved with lies rather than by incompetence, myths which have become gospel mainly though their endless repetition in the mainstream press and the blogosphere. As a result, he laments, often justifiably, that both he and the agency he led have been smeared.
But Mr. Tenet's book is ultimately unsatisfying, and not, as some critics say, because he and his co-author and a former CIA colleague, Bill Harlow, cashed in on an estimated $4 million book advance and told secrets — since precious few have been divulged here. Rather, the book disappoints mainly because it fails to explore the systematic intelligence crisis that puts us all at risk.
An equally serious flaw is his decision to absolve President Bush, this self-proclaimed "decider," of responsibility for his catastrophic management of a war that Mr. Tenet slyly suggests he personally opposed. No matter how much empathy he has for a president who, like him, often speaks from the "gut" — "whether it's his ‘bring ‘em on' or my slam dunk" — Mr. Tenet should not have argued, as he did on "60 Minutes," that Mr. Bush is not an "action officer," and hence, is somehow not to blame for the loss of life and moral standing incurred on his watch.
There are many villains in his book: Dick Cheney, who repeatedly distorted national intelligence estimates, but whom Mr. Tenet only rarely publicly or privately challenged; Mr. Libby, who was "relentless in asking us to check, recheck, and recheck" intelligence about possible connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda; "Condi" Rice, who has denied that Mr. Tenet gave her a "hair-on-fire" warning that Al Qaeda was likely to strike America; and the neocons — Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and then Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith, who in his own hostile review of Mr. Tenet's book in the Wall Street Journal, accuses the author of "suppressing" and "cherry-picking" intelligence, the very analytical sins for which Mr. Tenet blames Mr. Feith.
Mr. Bush, however, emerges in his book as a compassionate but largely passive figure whose intentions were often unclear. At a White House meeting in September, 2002, for example, "the president still appeared less inclined to go to war than many of his senior aides," Mr. Tenet writes. Roughly 100 pages later and three months before the Iraq war begins, however, the president, in a rare speaking role in Mr. Tenet's account, asks General Tommy Franks, then the chief of U.S. Central Command, how he will secure law and order in post-war Iraq. "It's all taken care of, sir," the feckless Gen. Franks is said to reply. "I have an American officer who will be lord mayor of every city, town, and hamlet," he says, the military equivalent of "slam dunk."
"That simply did not turn out to be the case," Mr. Tenet ruefully observes, as if this were news. But he does not say how and when Mr. Bush went from being a war skeptic to a war booster, or what he did to verify that Gen. Franks had realistic post-war plans in place. In fact, Mr. Tenet claims that although he briefed the president each morning, six days a week, for over four years on threats to the nation, he never heard him or his national security team discuss such vital issues as "the imminence of the Iraqi threat," whether it was "wise to go to war," or when such a war should start.
Such failings overshadow the book's more illuminating passages. Among them is Mr. Tenet's vivid account of the post-September 11 panic among senior officials in Washington who feared that Al Qaeda would strike again, concerns that set the stage for the disastrous misadventure in Iraq.
Another highlight is Mr. Tenet's chilling description of the proliferation network run by A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's bomb, who for over a decade sold nuclear components and bomb designs to North Korea, Iran, and Libya, among others. Mr. Tenet lists the agency's dogged surveillance and disruption of this network as one of its proudest achievements. But he is unwilling, or unable, given the CIA censorship of the book, to provide new information about that effort. Equally unnerving is Chapter 14, which describes Al Qaeda's efforts to acquire chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in its own quest to achieve "shock 'n' awe." These chapters challenge analysts who now argue that the threat of unconventional terrorism is overblown.
"Intelligence has established beyond any reasonable doubt," Mr. Tenet writes, that Al Qaeda and like-minded groups intend to strike America again, and may well succeed. This "specter of a nuclear-capable terrorist group," he writes, "causes me sleepless nights."
He also quibbles with the bipartisan 9/11 Commission's broad indictment of the intelligence community for its lack of "imagination" and innumerable management and analytical failings. "When policies are inadequate and warnings are not heeded," Mr. Tenet writes, essentially dismissing the critique, "it is not ‘failure of imagination' on the part of intelligence professionals that harms American interests and the American people." Meanwhile, his ossified bureaucracy, by many accounts, continues to resist "open-source" information and oppose the transparency that the 9/11 Commission argued would dramatically enhance its effectiveness.
Nor does Mr. Tenet discuss at any length the even more severe condemnation of the bi-partisan commission that investigated the CIA's WMD estimates on Iraq. In their 2005 report, Laurence Silberman and Chuck Robb conclude that the community was "dead wrong" in most of its pre-war judgments about Iraqi WMD because it could not collect solid information, failed to conduct "rigorous analysis" of the limited information it did gather, and did not clarify "just how much of its analysis was based on assumptions, rather than good evidence." Whether or how Mr. Tenet tried to remedy such profound failings of management, culture, and operating style, he does not say. He is no "Jack Welch," he adds defensively, as if Mr. Welch were the management genius he pretends to be.
Instead, Mr. Tenet takes refuge (but little comfort, he admits) in the fact that other national intelligence agencies also fell for Saddam Hussein's bluff that he possessed such weapons, and that the agency wrote papers that accurately predicted both the threat Al Qaeda posed and the chaos that might engulf postwar Iraq.
Reporting then from Washington, I remember being impressed by Mr. Tenet's "declaration of war" against Osama bin Laden in 1998. But I also recall the findings of a joint Senate-House committee a year after September 11: Despite his declaration, the panel's report concluded, there was "no massive shift in budget or reassignment of personnel to counterterrorism" within the intelligence community Mr. Tenet led until after September 11.
When his friend and ally Colin Powell was asked to present America's case for war before the United Nations, Mr. Tenet says that he stayed up until 2 a.m. the night before the event getting White House-provided "crap" out of the speech. "It was a great presentation, but unfortunately the substance didn't hold up," he writes without irony. As a result, he says, foreshadowing his own fate, Mr. Powell was "hung out to dry in front of the world and our nation's credibility plummeted." But it was Mr. Tenet sitting behind Mr. Powell who provided the clothesline.
Mr. Tenet repeatedly tries to distance himself from catastrophes he helped create. While acknowledging that he "did not oppose the president's decision to invade Iraq," he hints that he considered this decision unwise. Yet invariably, he portrays himself, in the words of one national security expert, as "the cat that drops the mouse on the doorstep and then walks away."
While his portrait of the factionalism and distrust within the Administration's inner circle is depressing, so, too, is Mr. Tenet's alleged self-serving passivity in the guise of intelligence neutrality. He was never a policy maker, he contends, merely a provider of intelligence — "just the facts ma'am."
In some cases the claim is simply incredible. Mr. Tenet, after all, was a member of the policy-making "Principals Committee" — the White House inner circle. Though the word "torture" never appears in his index, he was an architect of the CIA's notorious interrogation techniques that have mocked America's claim to be a civilized democracy that abides by national and international law. Although he defends the procedures by arguing that, after September 11, the CIA was on "new ground — legally and morally," he fails to explain what precisely the agency has done to detainees in its custody, or how such repulsive, counterproductive, and illegal conduct was instrumental in "preventing the death of American citizens."
This is an angry book, written after the White House blamed him for the mess it created. Mr. Tenet portrays himself as the latest in a series of "fall guys." But where was he when those policies were being adopted and implemented? Why did he do and say so little at the time? And why, if he could not bring himself to criticize the president he served, did he not quietly resign? He contemplated resigning earlier, he now says, but the president asked him to stay. Only those who remain silently loyal, or at least avoid a ruckus when they go, receive Medals of Freedom.