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At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA
By George Tenet (with Bill Harlow)
Harper Collins, 549 pages, $30
'You can't make music if you don't blow your own horn," New York City journalist - and blowhard - Jimmy Breslin once said. Breslin wasn't thinking of spies. Their successes have often gone unpublicized, while their failures got lots of ink.
Until recently. George Tenet is not the first "spook-in-chief" to kiss and tell. But he may be the angriest. Lambasted for failing to anticipate al-Qaida's attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center - and for supplying the faulty intelligence that culminated in the US invasion of Iraq, Tenet fights back in At the Center of the Storm, a shrewd, self-serving and sobering account of his tenure as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Tenet begins with his appointment in 1997. He almost certainly exaggerates his role in the Middle East peace process, at the Wye River and Camp David summits. At Wye River, Tenet seems to believe, his threat to resign if the US agreed to an Israeli demand to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard stiffened the backbone of president Bill Clinton. Before the president decided to keep Pollard in custody, Tenet fretted that his ultimatum had become the roadblock to peace. He need not have worried.
At Camp David in 2000, Tenet indicates that his 15-minute conversation with Yasser Arafat convinced the PLO leader to return to the stalled negotiations. But when the talks collapsed, Tenet concludes that Arafat was the principal obstacle to peace, always "laying down a marker that would allow him to say no."
The remainder of At the Center of the Storm deals with CIA counterterrorism before 9/11; the plots foiled around the world by the CIA after 9/11; the agency's "finest hour" - its covert operations during the war with Afghanistan; the CIA's evaluation of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein; and the "blame game" that followed. Tenet gives a "free pass" to President George W. Bush, who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. But he presents a devastating critique of administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, who were determined to take the country to war with minds unsullied by the facts.
Tenet documents CIA warnings to presidents Clinton and Bush about Osama bin Laden's plans to strike inside the US. Civil aviation was a "particularly attractive target," the agency noted as early as 1997. Plans were developed to kidnap or kill the al-Qaida leader, but real time intelligence was not good enough to make them operational. On July 10, 2001, CIA analysts briefed Rice that a "spectacular attack" was coming within weeks or months. They asked for authority to take the fight against al-Qaida to Afghanistan. But, Tenet writes, "the bureaucracy moved slowly." The go-ahead was granted - on September 17, 2001.
Tenet does acknowledge intelligence failures, though he tends to divert attention to other agencies. Interagency coordination of airline security, border control and visa policies was poor. Two hijackers were not watch listed until August 23, 2001, well after they might have been barred from entering the country. The now-famous Phoenix memo, which raised concerns about terrorists training at flight schools, was not circulated throughout the intelligence community. And the FBI did not search the luggage of Zacarias Moussaoui, which contained letters linking him to 9/11 planners, even though French authorities had identified him as a dangerous Saudi-based extremist and a CIA officer warned that "if this guy is let go, two years from now he will be talking to a control tower while aiming a 747 at the White House."
After 9/11, according to Tenet, as the CIA made war on terrorism, the White House laid plans to invade Iraq. Wolfowitz and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, pressed agency analysts for evidence linking Saddam with al-Qaida - and "never seemed satisfied with our answers." They asked Tenet to withhold or withdraw a white paper on "Iraqi Support of Terrorism" and expressed frustration with CIA skepticism that Muhammad Atta had met with Iraqi representatives in Prague.
The rhetoric of the Bush administration, public and private, Tenet emphasizes, was "considerably ahead of the intelligence." In a speech not cleared by the CIA, Cheney claimed there was "no doubt" that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told British, French and German officials in September 2002 that "war is not optional." Feith demanded a meeting with CIA officials to make what he called an "open and shut case." "This is complete crap," Tenet thought. The US was about to go to war using "Feith-based analysis."
Tenet admits that the CIA produced "flawed analysis" on Iraq. The agency deemed credible information gathered from sources it had reason to believe were suspect - on aluminum tubes "intended" for uranium enrichment, "yellow cake" from Niger and mobile trailers designed to produce biological weapons. The National Intelligence Estimate on biological weapons conveyed an "air of certainty" when the evidence was anything but certain. "We got it wrong," Tenet explains, rather lamely, "partly because the truth was implausible."
His assertions that intelligence reports were not influenced by politics are even less persuasive. Some CIA analysts, he acknowledges, did view "grillings" by Wolfowitz, Libby and Feith as pressure. And the pattern of CIA screwups suggests a tendency, conscious or unconscious, to avoid antagonizing the administration. Did Tenet really fail to read the advance text of Bush's 2003 State of the Union Address, which included the erroneous reference to Niger? Did Tyler Drumheller fabricate his claim that he warned Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, that "Curveball," the source of the information about mobile trailers, was unreliable and possibly insane? Perhaps.
But Tenet did participate in a meeting in the Oval Office in December 2002 to "market" the war. Seeking to provide secretary of state Colin Powell with an "Adlai Stevenson moment" at the UN - a reference to ambassador Stevenson's dramatic revelations in 1962 about Soviet missiles in Cuba - Bush and Cheney, in effect, asked Tenet to write "the talking points." And he did. Strengthening the public presentation, Tenet told the president, was a "slam dunk." Tenet insists that the phrase, which he doesn't remember uttering, had no impact on policy because Bush had already decided to go to war. But that's not the point. The CIA director had chosen not to speak the truth.
The White House, Tenet believes, fed the "slam dunk" quotation to journalist Bob Woodward to deflect blame for the war onto the CIA. And so, in July 2004 Tenet resigned. Before he left office, he writes, he should have "pounded the table harder" to make the case that de-Ba'athification, the dissolution of the Iraqi army and attempts to anoint Ahmed Chalabi would alienate national and religious sensitivities and "give oxygen to the rejectionists." But he didn't. Until now. When it's too late.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.