George Tenet is not going to let himself become the fall guy for the September 11 intelligence failures, according to a former intelligence officer and a source friendly to Mr. Tenet.
A scathing report by Inspector General John Helgerson criticized the former CIA director and a score of other agency personnel for their failure to develop a strategy against al Qaeda. The report, delivered to Congress this week, recommends punitive sanctions for Mr. Tenet, former Deputy Director of Operations James L. Pavitt and former counter-terrorist center head J. Cofer Black. Mr. Tenet’s response to the report is a 20-page, tightly knitted rebuttal of responsibility prepared with the aid of a lawyer, according to the friendly source.
Mr. Tenet’s decision to defend himself against the charges in the report poses a potential crisis for the White House. According to a former clandestine services officer, theformerCIAdirector turned down a publisher’s $4.5 million book offer because he didn’t want to embarrass the White House by rehashing the failure to prevent September 11 and the flawed intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Tenet, according to a knowledgeable source, had a “wink and a nod” understanding with the White House that he wouldn’t be scapegoated for intelligence failings. The deal, one source says, was sealed with the award of the Presidential Freedom Medal.
Now that deal may be off. Mr. Tenet’s rebuttal to the report is detailed and explicit. In defending his integrity as CIA director, Mr. Tenet treads perilously close to affirming the account of Richard Clarke, the former NSC terrorism official whose public disclosure of the Bush administration’s delay in adopting a strategy against al Qaeda stirred controversy last summer.
The IG report is the result of a 17-month investigation by a team of 11 CIA officials. The Senate and House intelligence oversight committees requested the report, which follows in a CIA tradition of analyses of past mistakes in order to prevent recurrences. After double-agent Aldrich Ames was unmasked, the CIA inspector general produced a detailed account of the agency’s failure to protect its Soviet spies. That report, which was made public, prompted sweeping changes in CIA counterintelligence practices.
In contrast, the IG report and Mr. Tenet’s 20-page rebuttal are classified. This is a departure from past CIA practice. There is much about the IG report that is unusual. It was completed, according to multiple intelligence sources, by July 2004. Acting CIA Director John McLaughlin passed this hot potato to his successor, Porter Goss. As chairman of the House intelligence committee, Mr. Goss had lead the joint congressional inquiry into September 11 and called for the inspector general’s report.
In an abundance of fairness, Mr. Goss gave agency personnel whose performance was criticized by the IG time to review files and respond in their own defense. This one-year delay in its issuance, coupled with the decision to classify the report, give ammunition to partisan critics.
This isn’t about avoiding sanctions. Insiders agree that career-ending letters of reprimand are about the most severe punishment CIA officials will face. Messrs. Tenet, Pavitt and Black have all left the agency. What is at stake for them is personal honor and their legacy in failing to prevent September 11.
In criticizing Mr. Tenet for lack of a strategy to fight al Qaeda, the IG report goes to the heart of the September 11 failure. Mr. Tenet’s defense inevitably leads to the sensitive issue of the CIA briefings of the president and other senior officials in the summer of 2001.
In deciding not to become the fall guy, Mr. Tenet has made a fateful decision. The latest salvo in the ongoing wars between the CIA and the White House may be about to burst. Until now, Mr. Tenet has kept silent about what Mr. Bush knew and when he knew it. Mr. Tenet’s decision to defend his own role in September 11 puts the White House back in the spotlight. The only way he can push off responsibility is to push it higher up the ladder.
Under normal conditions, Karl Rove would already be taking pre-emptive action. But he is neutralized until the Valerie Plame leak probe ends. That leaves it to the president’s allies on Capitol Hill to keep Mr. Tenet’s rebuttal under wraps. With the families of September 11 victims demanding disclosure, this will not be easy.
CIA Director Goss is between a rock and a hard place. He will be criticized for covering up if he does nothing. But if he follows the IG’s recommendation to convene formal hearings as a prelude to sanctions, Mr. Tenet himself may go public to defend his reputation. The $4.5 million book offer may soon be back on the table, and this time Mr. Tenet might take it.
John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He writes frequently on terrorism and national security.