In July, 1997, George Tenet proudly took the oath of office at the 18th director of central intelligence of the United States. Just more than a year later, he became starkly aware of the inadequacies of the U.S. spy apparatus.
On Aug. 20, 1998, President Clinton wanted to strike at Osama bin Laden for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in east Africa. If bin Laden could not be killed, what assets of his might be destroyed? And more importantly, what were the information and targeting options available?
Not only had the CIA been unable to provide warning about the embassy attacks, but now Mr. Tenet had to admit the CIA had no human intelligence (HUMINT) available at any of three key al Qaeda sites. Because of the lack of HUMINT on the ground, the CIA lacked firsthand on-scene intelligence and strike capability at all three sites.
Surveillance was largely provided by satellites and communications intercepts. In addition to these limited information collection systems, the president also had only limited low-risk strike assets. The strike option chosen: Tomahawk cruise missiles launched hundreds of miles away.
Mr. Tenet was stunned by the ineffectiveness of the operation. Although Tomahawks hit all three targets, almost no enemy terrorists were killed. He knew he needed more and better HUMINT.
On Aug. 21, 1998, the San Francisco Chronicle published an “Open Forum” op-ed of mine describing the rising threat of terrorism and the need to shift defense and intelligence priorities. “We are living in a new strategic environment that we do not yet fully understand,” I said. “Increased intelligence resources may be needed.”
George Tenet already understood the new post-Cold War strategic environment and the ever-increasing threat of terrorism. He already had started revitalizing U.S. intelligence.
Mr. Tenet may be remembered by history as one of the finer CIA directors. His predecessor had been disgraced because he took home the nation’s most highly classified secrets in his laptop computer, then downloaded that information into home systems with connections to the internet. He left a demoralized and problem-ridden CIA.
In the first four years of Mr. Tenet’s tenure at the CIA, revitalization of U.S. spy capabilities progressed, no scandals rocked the CIA and agency morale soared.
Then terrorists struck the United States on September 11, 2001. George Tenet went to work to become the focal point of intelligence coordination for the “War on Terror.”
Former Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Richard J. Kerr said: “People probably underestimate the impact that George Tenet has had on counterterrorism since September 11. I think he has held a lot of things together, held a lot of pieces together, and kind of acted as the senior guy in government. In that area, he has really performed incredibly well.”
Yet apparent failures in intelligence make a judgment of Mr. Tenet, from this close perspective in history, mixed at best.
Critics say the CIA should have known about and prevented the disaster of September 11, 2001. They also say the CIA exaggerated Saddam Hussein’s weapon of mass destruction efforts, thus taking the nation to war under false pretenses.
Should the CIA have warned us of September 11? Perhaps. But warning would almost certainly have required penetration of al Qaeda by U.S. intelligence. Mr. Tenet knew the inadequacies of the U.S. spy system, which particularly lacked spies able to penetrate a sophisticated network like al Qaeda.
HUMINT is not a Yale graduate from Langley in a room full of Arab terrorists. Spies have to be cultivated like small plants before they can grow into giant redwoods capable of penetrating such a secret web as bin Laden’s.
The training, nuanced cultural adeptness, and the ability to gain the confidence of the terrorists takes time. This kind of effort may take a decade or a lifetime. Despite Tenet’s appreciation for the severity of the problem, he did not have sufficient time to complete the repair effort.
During seven years as CIA Director, George Tenet made the revitalization of America’s spy capability a number one priority. The plants aren’t redwoods as yet. But Tenet started the seedlings.
Tenet is also criticized for the apparent overstatement of Iraq’s weapon of mass destruction (WMDs) programs. The president sent his secretary of state, with George Tenet, to the United Nations in March 2002, to explain the CIA’s intelligence on Iraq’s WMDs. And Bob Woodward quoted Mr. Tenet as telling the president the case for existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programs was a “slam dunk.”
Subsequently, critics say, many CIA assertions on Iraqi capability turned out to be “thin” or just wrong. Time will tell.
Then there was the bombing at Khobar Towers, the 1991 bombing at the World Trade Center, the bombings of USS Cole, and the U.S. Embassies at Kenya and Tanzania.
History will judge George Tenet. But if the CIA has proved guilty of overstating Saddam’s WMDs, or other intelligence failings or negligence during the seven years of Mr. Tenet’s tenure, Mr. Tenet will be indicted, at least by historians.
But he may yet be remembered as the father of America’s 21st-century spy apparatus.
Mr. Carey is president of International Defense Consultants Inc. in Arlington, Va.