George Tenet Sings Toby Keith

From what he’s said about it, former CIA director George Tenet’s memoir sounds like a country song minus the good music. His “Sixty Minutes” interview made me think of that sorrowful line in one of Toby Keith’s songs: “Yeah, I wish somehow I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

Tenet’s book — “At the Center of the Storm” — says that the CIA predicted in August 2002 that anarchy would result in Iraq from an American invasion to topple Saddam. And Tenet apparently paints Vice President Cheney as the principal villain, intent on war with Iraq even before 9-11.

But Tenet’s book is also — according to an AP report — full of things such as lists of “unasked questions” including, “How would the presence of hundreds of thousands of US troops, and the possibility of a pro-West Iraqi government be viewed in Iran?” The book abounds with claims that there was never actionable intelligence in the Clinton years to capture or kill Usama bin Laden. Tenet writes of the day he sat behind Colin Powell while the Secretary of State made his Iraq WMD presentation to the UN (according to the AP story), “…that was about the last place I wanted to be…It was a great presentation, but unfortunately the substance didn’t hold up.” But Tenet told Sixty Minutes that he — Tenet — believed that Saddam did have WMD. Why, if he believed that, was he miserably uncomfortable sitting behind Powell?

Let’s assume that everything Tenet says in his book is true (which — demonstrably — they are not). What do they say about the CIA and Tenet himself?

Tenet was made CIA director by President Clinton in 1997 and continued in that post until he resigned in July 2004. When he took over at the CIA, Tenet supposedly launched a campaign to rebuild the agency’s capabilities. But — as a staffer (1985-1988) and then staff director (1988-1993) of the Senate Intelligence Committee — Tenet had participated in and influenced the process by which the CIA’s capabilities were dismantled.  That was his principal qualification for the job of CIA boss.

It was on Tenet’s seven-year watch that the CIA failed to “connect the dots,” in the 9-11 Commission’s famous characterization and got it wrong on Saddam’s WMD. And now his book claims that the CIA predicted post-Saddam Iraqi anarchy. But how? The AP report says the prediction was set forth in a line in a briefing book used at a Camp David meeting in August 2002. If Tenet had such strong doubts, wouldn’t he have done that with more than a line in a briefing book? He had the duty to either stop Powell’s UN presentation — and stop the president from deciding on military action — or resign.

But Tenet wasn’t that sure then, and he isn’t sure now. In the “Sixty Minutes” interview, Tenet said he believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Now he says he disagreed strongly about the imminence of the Iraq threat. Fine. But wasn’t it his job to get the information about the level of that threat so the president could make the best decision? Tenet failed utterly as US intelligence chief, but he may succeed as America’s quibbler in chief.

It’s a bit more than “unfortunate” that Powell’s UN presentation — based on CIA intelligence information — “didn’t hold up.” It’s the CIA’s job to give the President of the United States enough reliable information on which the president can make life-or-death decisions. In that the CIA failed then, as it had for decades before and is still failing now. Reading or talking about Tenet’s “revelations”, we’d better remember that the CIA’s string of strategic failures has hurt this nation enormously. The list — over almost fifty years of history — is illustrated by just a few examples. Cubans didn’t rush to the beaches to join the fight at the Bay of Pigs. The CIA was surprised when the Berlin Wall was built and again when it was torn down. They never predicted that the Soviet Union would fall. And the CIA didn’t discover and prevent the 1993 first attack on the World Trade Center or the1996 Khobar Towers bombing or the1998 embassy bombings in Africa or the 2000 attack on the USS Cole or, or, or.  Then came 9-11.  And on “Sixty Minutes”, Tenet’s arrogance went over the top. He actually said that on 9-11, “…nobody felt like we did that day.”  Well, Mr. Tenet, some felt worse.  Especially those who died in the burning, grinding hell that were the collapsing World Trade Center towers.

The gaps in the knowledge the CIA has about our enemies is so great that when he was Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld tried to create a parallel intelligence capability in the Pentagon that could be relied on to produce what our nation’s leaders need. In August 2006, Cong. Pete Hoekstra and the Republican staff of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence issued a report that said, in part, “…the United States lacks critical information needed for analysts to make many of their judgments with confidence about Iran and there are many information gaps.” Five years after 9-11, three years after the invasion of Iraq, the CIA is still unable to tell the president most of the things he needs to know about Iran, North Korea and the other nations that pose a danger to American security.

The politically activist media and Congressional Dems will make Tenet a hero. He’s finally — they will say — proving that the president lied us into war. There will be Congressional hearings — some behind closed doors to discuss classified information to be leaked selectively — and then calls for all involved, including Messrs. Cheney and Bush to resign or face impeachment. Tenet will be the star of many presidential campaign commercials next year. Look for him to take Michael Moore’s seat (next to Jimmy Carter) at the 2008 Democratic convention.

The political fires will burn brightly this year and next, but it’s highly likely that nothing will be done about the very real problem illustrated by the Tenet book and the Hoekstra report. The President of the United States needs what is euphemistically called “actionable intelligence”: information from inside the governments of our enemies, the command structure of terrorist groups, to decide how best to protect Americans at home and assert our interests abroad. The CIA, in its current form (and now years after the post-9-11 intelligence “reforms”) is still a one-eyed watchdog. The Director of National Intelligence, the “reform” recommended by the 9-11 Commission, has proved to be another layer of bureaucracy on top of an already-dysfunctional system.

I have written before and will again that much of what Congress did in its post-9-11 intelligence “reforms” needs to be undone, rethought, and redone in a manner that will result in better intelligence that the president can rely on. The threats we face now are many, but which is the most imminent? Which threaten lives and which are less serious? We cannot trust any president to make the right decisions when the intelligence community can’t provide the information on which they must be based.