Monday, April 30, 2007

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own set of facts.” That cardinal rule of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan comes in for mention in George Tenet’s memoir “At the Center of the Storm.” An unusual kind of irony, then, that Mr. Tenet is now attempting to rehabilitate himself in official Washington, and so he must paint himself as a dissenter, a truth-teller, a man railroaded by the Bush administration. The memoirist’s natural tendency to recount the most favorable train of events thus takes on its own momentum. In Mr. Tenet’s case, this puts the man at war with large instances of known historical fact.

Here are some of the important ones. Most of Mr. Tenet’s legacy boils to two episodes and the train of events surrounding each: September 11 and the Iraq war. Mr. Tenet served as CIA chief from 1997 to 2004, a period which sandwiches the worst intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor. He did not parachute into the intelligence world. He was a career Hill intelligence professional who, by many tellings, not only successfully navigated the bureaucracy but, once atop the CIA, mastered the art of budgetary politics as he finessed competing intelligence factions, the White House and the changing political leadership over two very different presidential administrations headed by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. As intelligence chief over this period, and with a longevity bested only by Allen Dulles, Mr. Tenet is destined to bear some large part of this failure.

Regarding Iraq, we recall the image of Mr. Tenet most vividly from the United Nations in February 2003 as he sat unmoved behind Colin Powell during the then-secretary of state’s testimony regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Tenet’s presence was widely interpreted as a sign of approval of the analysis then being propagated: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a serious threat for its programs and propensities regarding weapons of mass destruction, and were a danger to the international order. Many foreign intelligence agencies, Democrats and Republicans subscribed to this analysis. A single phone call could have dispelled the idea that Mr. Tenet agreed. He did not make that phone call. Whether the phrase “slam dunk” was uttered in context or out is irrelevant. Mr. Tenet’s self-portrayal as truth-teller skeptical of the case for the Iraq war is beyond belief.

Mr. Tenet’s liberties are not always momentous; sometimes they are simply convenient. One is the phantom, September 12, 2001 encounter with the White House adviser Richard Perle which never happened. According to Mr. Tenet, Mr. Perle vowed: “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday.” But Mr. Perle was in France at the time, as he told the Weekly Standard, which reported as much yesterday. He claims that he never uttered such a sentence to Mr. Tenet, at any time.

A larger, institutional issue is whether any CIA director should air political differences with an administration so close to the events in question. We find it unwise. A president has little use for an intelligence director whose discretion is not guaranteed. Congress should consider barring CIA directors from such airings for a period long enough to preserve that trust. Certainly it is broken in Mr. Tenet’s case.

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