- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sorry to take a week before writing on former CIA Director George Tenet’s book, “At the Center of the Storm, My Years at the CIA.” My bad: I actually took the time to read the book.

So while I should be opining about what those inside the Beltway think is important — Mr. Tenet feuding with Bushies — I am more concerned with the book’s compelling information on the likelihood of another industrial-strength terrorist attack within American borders.

As Mr. Tenet noted, al Qaeda biggie Ayman al-Zawahri called off a planned attack against the New York City subway system slated for the fall 2003 because he was holding out “for something better.” A key witness in Osama bin Laden’s in absentia trial for his role in the 1998 Kenya and Tanzania embassies bombings testified he had helped bin Laden try to obtain uranium in Sudan as far back as 1993. In August 2001, bin Laden hinted he already had the fissile material to make a nuclear bomb.

An al Qaeda paramilitary trainer told Egyptian officials that al Qaeda received “canisters containing nuclear material” from the Russians. The trainer later recanted — but that’s part of terrorist training, Mr. Tenet says, to confound the enemy.

The late Abu Musab Zarqawi ran a chemical and poison lab in Northern Iraq from May 2002 to 2003. Intelligence operatives learned al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia was negotiating for three Russian nukes. The Saudis found cyanide in an al Qaeda safe house. Cyanide was the chosen weapon for the planned New York subway attack.

To Mr. Tenet, the biggest threat from al Qaeda is nuclear. “They understand that bombings by cars, trucks, trains and planes will get them some headlines, to be sure. But if they manage to set off a mushroom cloud, they will make history.” And they want to make history.

To Beltway insiders, however, a pending threat to American security means nothing when there is an opportunity to allege Mr. Tenet’s CIA skewed its estimates to please President Bush. Or, as NBC’s Tim Russert asked Mr. Tenet on “Meet the Press” Sunday, “What if you said: ‘Mr. President, I can’t make the case any better. It’s not a slam dunk’?”

As Mr. Tenet told me over the phone Monday, “Some of the criticism implies that you [Mr. Tenet] knew the intelligence was wrong and you could have stopped it.” That criticism is simply misinformed. As Mr. Tenet wrote, “I believed [Saddam Hussein] had WMD, and I said so.” The CIA was convinced Saddam had biological and chemical weapons; the only doubt concerned whether he had nuclear weapons.

Also, the CIA knew Saddam had access to 550 tons of yellow cake — enough to produce 100 nuclear weapons — within Iraq’s borders. (Note: That’s independent of claims Iraq sought yellowcake in Niger.)

And, Iraqis believed Saddam had WMD. For months before the war began, embedded operatives met with Iraqi military officers. Mr. Tenet wrote, “Every military officer we debriefed told us that Saddam did indeed possess WMD.”

War critics may want to believe Mr. Tenet’s beef with President Bush reflects that Mr. Tenet did not believe Iraq WMDs were a “slam dunk.” Wrong. Mr. Tenet objected to the Bushies’ suggestion that the “slam dunk” answer provided “the seminal moment for steeling the president’s determination to remove Saddam Hussein and to launch the Iraq war.” As Mr. Tenet wrote, the “slam-dunk” meeting occurred in December 2002 — three months after Mr. Bush told the United Nations that Saddam should remove or destroy his WMD, and two months after Congress voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq. Mr. Tenet will accept the blame for WMD intelligence that turned out to be wrong — but not for nudging Mr. Bush into war.

Mr. Tenet does take to task some Bushies — most notably Vice President Dick Cheney and his former aide, convicted perjurer Lewis “Scooter” Libby — for overhyping the link between Saddam and September 11. Mr. Tenet makes the case.

Critics have said Mr. Tenet should take more responsibility for being wrong on WMD. Certainly Mr. Tenet did himself no favor when he suggested that Secretary of State Colin Powell might have given a more credible address to the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, if only Mr. Tenet and company hadn’t spent “two days getting the garbage out of a White House draft” written by Mr. Libby.

The book begins with a claim that Pentagon adviser Richard Perle wanted to go after Iraq on Sept. 12, 2001 — a claim Mr. Perle debunked by proving he was in France that day. But the book will not win Mr. Tenet many points among war critics and Washington insiders. You see, Mr. Tenet would not rewrite the record and pretend intelligence on WMD was willfully misleading. He won’t take Mr. Bush’s State of the Union sentence about Iraq trying to get yellowcake from Niger and twist it into proof positive the White House deliberately misled the public about Iraq’s nuclear capability — which somehow means Mr. Bush lied about chemical and biological weapons, too. If he blamed Mr. Bush for everything, Mr. Tenet would be a hero. Slam dunk.

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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