As leader of the CIA, Tenet fought for more resources, more manpower, and better technology. But he never began to address the fundamental problems of the agency either in the age of Clinton or in the age of Bush. Indeed, he was, or became, part of the problem himself. At a juncture of history when the agency’s real, crying need was to penetrate, or at a minimum to study closely the thinking of, adversaries like Iran or North Korea or Iraq—three countries where its coverage and understanding had been chronically inadequate— he now permits himself to boast that he “made it a priority to enhance the agency’s record on diversity” and to have “its workforce reflect a broad cross-section of our population.” In other words, he saw it as the CIA’s most pressing “business need” (his term) to turn its affirmative-action program, at least, into a truly “well-oiled machine”—albeit one running inside a government bureaucracy now indistinguishable from any other.
Tenet’s obtuseness on this narrow but noteworthy point goes hand in hand with a fundamental incoherence on the subject of national security. On the opening page of the book, setting the stage for much that is to come, he tells us how he went to the White House on the day after September 11, 2001, full of foreboding about the possibility of a “multi-pronged assault” on the United States. As he was entering, he writes, he encountered Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon’s Defense Board and “one of the godfathers of the neoconservative movement.” As the two crossed paths,
we made eye contact and nodded. I had just reached the door myself when Perle turned to me and said, “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.”
Tenet’s response: “I was stunned but said nothing.”
This opening sequence with Perle is just the starting point of a theme that winds its way across the book, according to which various American neoconservatives, “fixated” on or “obsessed” with Iraq, are said by Tenet to have drawn non-existent links between al Qaeda and Baghdad in order to justify a war against Saddam Hussein. But in fact, as has been widely noted, Richard Perle was stranded in Paris on September 12 when the White House conversation with Tenet allegedly took place. Although Tenet has subsequently acknowledged his error in dating, he has tried to buttress the substance of his charge by citing comments Perle made to Robert Novak on September 17 and a September 20 letter to the President signed by Perle and 40 others—in both of which, he says, Perle attributed direct responsibility for September 11 to Saddam Hussein.
Neither of these sustain Tenet’s charge. Both make a different point: that, in the words of the September 20 letter, “any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” This naturally raises the question of how Tenet himself did, and does, understand the ties between al Qaeda and Iraq. Or, to put it differently: were the neoconservatives irrationally “obsessed” with the issue, or was this murky but vitally important subject one that the CIA had neglected?
In his memoir, Tenet does acknowledge Saddam Hussein’s deep involvement with terrorism:
[T]here was no doubt that Saddam was making large donations to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and was known to be harboring several prominent terrorists, including Abu Nidal, a ruthless killer responsible for attacks on El Al ticket counters in Rome and Vienna in 1985, resulting in 18 deaths and injury to 120 people. Saddam also gave refuge to one of the individuals still being sought for the first World Trade Center bombing.
In a passage that speaks volumes, Tenet then also concedes that the CIA “had devoted little analytic attention to [this issue] prior to September 11,” and was therefore “not initially prepared for the intense focus that the administration put on the Iraq-al Qaeda relationship. ” Instead, he offers in apparent extenuation, the agency had been “consumed with the very hot war with Sunni extremists all over the world.”
This is confounding. A high proportion of those Sunni extremists were Palestinian suicide bombers whose families Saddam Hussein was rewarding. Abu Nidal himself, notwithstanding the secular ideology he came to embrace, was a Sunni. The individuals who carried out the first World Trade Center bombing, one of whom Saddam was sheltering, had been Sunni extremists. Not only were they Sunnis; they were the germ of the al-Qaeda organization. Yet Tenet, as if these dots could not be readily connected, blithely asserts that the CIA, “consumed” with “a very hot war with Sunni extremists all over the world,” did not find it worthwhile to study the relationship with Iraq. Incoherence seldom gets more incoherent than this.
It was only after a great deal of congressional and administration prodding that, nearly a year after September 11, the CIA finally began to look seriously at Iraq’s links to al Qaeda. In his memoir, Tenet now downplays what it found, claiming that the “intelligence did not show Iraq and al Qaeda had ever moved beyond seeking ways to take advantage of each other” and that “[w]e were aware of no evidence of Baghdad’s having ‘authority, direction, and control’ of al-Qaeda operations.”
Though Tenet disingenuously omits mentioning it in his memoirs, in October 2002, six months before the American invasion of Iraq, he wrote a letter to Bob Graham, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It stated (emphasis added throughout):
We have solid reporting of senior level contacts between Iraq and al Qaeda going back a decade.
Credible information indicates that Iraq and al Qaeda have discussed safe haven and reciprocal non-aggression. Since Operation Enduring Freedom [the military operations that commenced shortly after September 11, 2001], we have solid evidence of the presence in Iraq of al-Qaeda members, including some that have been in Baghdad.
We have credible reporting that al-Qaeda leaders sought contacts in Iraq who could help them acquire WMD capabilities. The reporting also stated that Iraq has provided training to al-Qaeda members in the areas of poisons and gases and making conventional bombs.
Iraq’s increasing support to extremist Palestinians, coupled with growing indications of a relationship with al Qaeda, suggest that Baghdad’s links to terrorists will increase, even absent U.S. military action....
In other words, having supplied the administration with building blocks of the case for war, Tenet now acts as if none ever existed.
One can understand why: among those building blocks, the most shoddily constructed was the CIA’s erroneous finding regarding the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Tenet’s ex-post-facto explanation for this particular error is that, “[i]n many ways, we were prisoners of our history. . . . Inevitably, the judgments were influenced by our underestimation [emphasis added] of Iraq’s progress on nuclear weapons in the late 1980’s—a mistake no one wanted to repeat.”
He is right about that. His analysts were prisoners of the past, their fingers burned by opposite misjudgments made by the CIA prior to the first Gulf war. But that hardly excuses him or the agency he headed a decade later for failing to perform its assigned job of assembling facts and laying out what it knew of them to be true, and, more crucially, what it did not know.
Laurence Silberman, the federal judge whom President Bush asked to investigate the CIA’s prewar performance, has put the issue well: “It would have been eminently justifiable [for the CIA] to have told the President and the Congress that it was likely that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction based on his past use, insufficient indications of destruction [of previously existing stocks], and his deceptive behavior” (emphasis added). Instead, piling uncertainty on top of guess, and conjecture on top of blunder, the CIA pronounced itself highly confident in its appraisal.