- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

AT THE CENTER OF THE STORM

By George Tenet

HarperCollins, $30, 549 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN

Has any high official ever succeeded in making a grander public spectacle of himself than George Tenet, the onetime director of central intelligence? Even friends and former admirers cringed at his abysmal, blame-everyone-else performance on the CBS show “60 Minutes” on the eve of the publication of the memoir at hand.

Fortunately, he comes across much better in “At the Center of the Storm” itself, although there are times when I wished to shout, ” …, Mr. Tenet, why didn’t you march into the president’s office and demand that he pay attention to the terrorist warnings that you were giving to his advisers? When the country blows up, the excuse that you ‘told Condi Rice’ is not going to fly.”

At issue is a threat Mr. Tenet received on July 10, 2001, about an imminent al Qaeda strike “that made my hair stand on end.” He hurried to the White House with an agency briefer identified as “Rich B.,” who told Dr. Rice, then the national security adviser, “There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months,” and it would be “spectacular.” Cofer Black, Mr. Tenet’s counterterrorism deputy, added, “This country needs to go on a war footing now.” Nothing happened. President Bush did not go to a “war footing,” and specific requests that Mr. Tenet made were ignored.

I find this episode extraordinarily puzzling. In the months after September 11, as the Bush administration headed toward war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq, media reports told of Mr. Tenet’s frequent attendance at White House strategy meetings. Several Old Boys (CIA retirees) I see regularly questioned at the time whether Mr. Tenet was being drawn into policy discussions that were none of the DCI’s business.

Their position, in a nutshell, was that Mr. Tenet should deliver whatever intelligence he had, and then leave, rather than staying around for a cup of coffee with Mr. Bush and whomever else. In any event, if he had such ongoing access to the president, why did he not insist on delivering the July 10 warning in person?

The explanation Mr. Tenet gave explains, in my view, the underlying reason that in the end, he proved unsuited for the job. The DCI, he explained to several TV interviewers, must stay in channels; thus he “reports” to the president through the national security adviser, who was Ms. Rice at the time.

Such an attitude reflects the bureaucratic mindset of a man who spent most of his career in staff positions, at the Senate Intelligence Committee and the National Security Council, and then as deputy DCI, before becoming DCI late in the Clinton presidency. As Washington hands well understand, staff people thrive in this town by not upsetting the boss. Mr. Tenet remained the ultimate staff man, even when he was the titular head of the nation’s intelligence establishment.

Another Tenet failing was pointed out to me by CIA alumni who were around at its creation in 1947 (albeit as very young pups, to be sure). The military intelligence services groused about having to share turf, and they did their dead level best to sabotage the new agency. They succeeded until October 1950, when the post of DCI went to Gen. Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, who had been Ike’s chief of staff during the European campaign.

Smith relished the sound of shattering crockery, and he had the reputation of “being a very even tempered man — he was always in a rage,” in the words of the late agency officer Ray Cline. Recently I’ve had occasion to read accounts of his exchanges with Pentagon officials as he battled the intruders, including his berating of another general, “[Expletive] you, [Anthony] McAuliffe, you haven’t learned anything since you were a major, and you were pretty stupid then!” The important point is that Smith assured CIA’s status of being the ultimate intelligence voice.

As Mr. Tenet whines at interminable length, he found himself bypassed and second-guessed with painful regularity by aides to Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. I suspect that a single bark by a Beetle Smith would have sent these two gents and their chief national security aides, Douglas Feith and Stephen Cambone, fleeing back down the Parkway to the safety of the Pentagon.

To be sure, all was not glum on Mr. Tenet’s watch. As he details in the first, pre-September 11 section of the book, he claims major credit for rebuilding an agency that had fallen on hard times since the mid-1970s. Of all the signs that troubled Mr. Tenet when he was named deputy DCI, “the one that stood out the most to me was this: the FBI had more special agents in New York City than CIA had clandestine officers covering the world.”

(I find this discovery rather peculiar, given Mr. Tenet’s service as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the panel with responsibility for keeping CIA in fighting form.)

To Mr. Tenet’s credit, he cites a number of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) prepared by agency analysts that detailed the growing strength and deadly ambitions of al Qaeda, each of which was passed through bureaucratic channels to the White House. A brief given to President Clinton in 1998 was titled, “Bin Ladin Preparing to Hijack US Aircraft and Other Attacks.” As Mr. Tenet writes, “Between April 1, 2001, and September 11, 2001, as many as 105 daily intelligence summaries were produced by the FAA [Federal Aviation Agency] for airline industry leaders. These reports were based on intelligence received from the intelligence community.” But the alerts went unheeded: Not until after September 11 were cockpit doors hardened and passengers banned from carrying box cutters aboard.

One operation in which Mr. Tenet takes justifiable pride was his dispatch of a small team of CIA paramilitaries to Afghanistan just after September 11 to prepare for an onslaught by special operations forces that put the Taliban to swift route — one of the most successful ventures in CIA’s history.

Mr. Tenet is perhaps most heated when flatly denying that he told President Bush that the fact Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk,” as reported by Bob Woodward in his book “Plan of Attack.” Mr. Tenet argues that the quote was out of context.

He writes that Bush was not satisfied with a presentation prepared for Secretary of State Colin Powell to put before the United Nations. Mr. Tenet chimed in that beefing up the paper with additional intelligence would be a “slam dunk.” Nonetheless, he says, Woodward’s book gave the public the impression that the decision to go to war hinged on those two words.

Again, a question: Is it the DCI’s duty to help an administration stage-manage a presentation to the UN? As did millions of other Americans, I watched Mr. Powell’s powerful presentation, and the fact that Mr. Tenet sat right behind him added credibility to what he said. I think Mr. Tenet erred in becoming a potted-palm part of the stage setting.

We now know that one key piece of “evidence” cited by Powell — the existence of mobile labs for WMDs — was a fantasy concocted by “Curveball,” an Iraqi in custody of the BND, the German intelligence service. The Germans thought the man was fabricating — he was a drunk and mentally unbalanced — and so told CIA officers. Nonetheless, information provided by “Curveball” was repeatedly cited in the run up to war.

Mr. Tenet gives a context for the conclusion by CIA, and most every other Western intelligence service, that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. Indeed, Saddam’s words themselves led to such a conclusion, through his frequent boasts about weapons at his command. After the first Gulf War, CIA was staggered to realize it had badly underestimated how close Saddam had come to a nuclear capability. This experience “had a profound effect on my views and those of many of our analysts. Given Saddam’s proclivity for deception and denial, we, too, were haunted by the possibility that there was more going on than we could detect.”

Mr. Tenet is at his most convincing when he relates, in detail, how the White House came to use the famed “sixteen words” pertaining to Iraq’s quest for yellow cake from Niger. He and other agency officers repeatedly told the White House the information could not be validated. Nonetheless, the yellow cake reference got into Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. Mr. Tenet makes a strong case that the White House, caught in a major political embarrassment, chose to make him the scapegoat.

Thus Mr. Tenet’s nine-year run as DCI ended unhappily. He thought back to advice given him by Sen. David Boren (R-Okl.), a mentor and former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. In 2001, Mr. Boren advised Mr. Tenet to remain as DCI for six months to help the Bush administration get up to speed. But he added, “Be careful, you are not one of the inner circle going back to the campaign. It doesn’t matter how the president may feel; if it suits that group, they will throw you overboard.”

One must feel a twinge of sympathy for the way Mr. Tenet was run out of office. He has the reputation of being a decent man who deserved a more graceful exit. But the facts remain that (A) he was not an intelligence professional and (B) he was not strong enough a DCI to do the job.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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