Tenet's House of Cards

A highly critical account of CIA operations — and of former director George Tenet  before the September 11 attacks — finally has surfaced Tuesday. Under orders from Congress, the CIA reluctantly released the once-secret 2005 findings of agency Inspector General John Helgerson.

While Tenet’s 2007 memoir, "At the Center of the Storm," patted himself on the back for recognizing the al-Qaeda threat before most people, Helgerson tells a different story.

He said Tenet, a Clinton’s appointee who resigned in 2004, never followed through on developing a comprehensive war plan against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

Helgerson reaffirmed the finding of a 2002 congressional inquiry by stating “The [Joint Inquiry] concluded that, before 9/11, neither the US Government nor the [intelligence community] had a comprehensive strategy for combating al-Qu’ida. It charged that the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) was either unwilling or unable to marshal the full range of [intelligence community] resources necessary to combat the growing threat to the United States.”

Tenet, the IG report said, "bears ultimate responsibility for the fact that so such strategic plan was ever created."

And Tenet failed to resolve a damaging, though unspecified, dispute between the CIA and the National Security Agency, which intercepts communications. For that, the IG said, a board should be appointed to decide disciplinary action.

Helgerson also rips into the agency’s Counter-Terrorism Center, the supposed hub in hunting bin Laden and developing a plan of attack saying of the so-called UBL Station — that, “Most of its officers did not have the operational experience, expertise and training necessary to accomplish their mission in an effective manner,”.

The IG said the CTC in the late 1990s never did a strategic assessment of the al Qaeda threat. In my book "Sabotage: America’s Enemies Within the CIA," I write that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s policy makers realized this after 9/11 and decided to do their own analysis of al Qaeda. The CIA bristled at such work and soon floated the charge that Pentagon policy chief Doug Feith and his men engaged in illegal activity. Like many such charges hurled against Bush people from the CIA, this charge was proven untrue. But the intended political damage was done.

More troubling, Helgerson found, the CTC did not do a comprehensive assessment of bin Laden himself between 1993 and 9-11.

 Helgerson concluded, "The agency and its officers did not discharge their responsibilities in a satisfactory manner."

Previously, a joint congressional inquiry and then the 9/11 commission laid out a series of CIA failures that allowed al-Qaeda terrorists to carry out their plot and kill nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

But the Helgerson report comes from within the bowels of an agency in deep denial over its dysfunction. And the criticism of Tenet is surprisingly blunt.

But there will be no board of inquiry at the CIA

In 2004, Porter Goss, Tenet’s successor, rode to the rescue. In an olive branch to a rebellious bureaucracy, Goss rejected Helgerson’s recommendation. There would be no one held accountable for 9/11 lapses. A lot of good it did Goss, a former CIA spy who sponsored a scathing criticism of the CIA’s clandestine service when he headed the House Intelligence Committee. As reported in "Sabotage," the bureaucracy leaked to the news media negative stories about Goss and his staff until the White House lost confidence in its first appointed CIA director and fired him.

To make his case against the Counter Terrorism Center, Helgerson retraces a story already told by the congressional joint investigation in 2002.

It’s the infamous case of hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar. The CIA tracked the al Qaeda terrorists from Malaysia to the United States. But that’s all it did. It failed to notify the FBI, who could have put the two under surveillance as they continued the plot. And it failed to add them to a dysfunctional terror watch list that was supposed to alert law enforcement agencies to unsavory characters.

The IG tells us of greater failures. The CTC received intelligence reports that Khalid Sheik Muhammad, the 9/11 mastermind, was sending terrorists into the United States and was a senior al Qaeda operative. The unit "did not recognize the significance of reporting," the IG said in understated terms. In other words, the CTC failed to act.

To his credit, Tenet worked to get the CTC access to raw intercept transcripts kept at the NSA at Fort Meade, Md. But the CTC failed again. It sent one officer there for a while in 2000 to read them, then lost interest.

The bottom line: President Bush inherited a depleted CIA in 2001, done in by President Clinton’s deep budget cuts that savaged the clandestine service. Even Tenet, Clinton’s director and Bush holdover, acknowledged in his book that the CIA was in "Chapter 11" by decade’s end.

The CIA hierarchy has bristled at criticism from Congress, independent commissions and Goss. Director Michael Hayden stayed to form, issuing a memo to the work force saying he had fought to keep the IG report secret.

"I want to make it clear that this declassification was neither my choice nor my preference," he told his employees. "I thought the release of this report would distract officers serving their country on the front lines of a global conflict. It will, at a minimum, consume time and attention revisiting ground that is already well plowed."

Tenet, too, lashed out, calling Helgerson’s conclusions "flat wrong."

"The IG fails to understand how intensely I pushed the counter-terrorism issue because he failed to interview either me or policymakers from either the Clinton or Bush administrations on this matter," Tenet said. "The CIA IG owed it to the nation and the men and women of the intelligence community to do a better job."