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Tenet's Defense of the Indefensible

by Melvin A. Goodman

George J. Tenet's At the Center of the Storm is a self-serving and misleading account of his role in helping the Bush administration make its private and public case to go to war against Iraq. As the director of central intelligence, Mr. Tenet did not share the convictions of such hard-liners in the administration as Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but he - along with senior CIA leaders - facilitated the path to war by providing intelligence to the White House and Congress that presented a false picture of Iraq's intentions and capabilities.

Mr. Tenet's major obligations in the run-up to war were making sure that assumptions on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and possible links to terrorism were rigorously examined and that challenges to assumptions were fully explored. By doing neither, Mr. Tenet and the agency violated the intelligence community's norms of ethical tradecraft.

The CIA used flawed intelligence in its belated National Intelligence Estimate and unclassified White Paper in October 2002. Mr. Tenet himself wrote a letter to the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee affirming the existence of ties between Iraq and al-Qaida. In January 2003, the CIA failed to stop President Bush from making a false statement in his State of the Union speech, charging Saddam Hussein with trying to obtain uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons program. Later in the month, Mr. Tenet participated in the preparation of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's phony case for war to the United Nations in February 2003.

In his book, Mr. Tenet argues that the estimate on Iraqi WMD was flawed because his agency lacked sufficient time to prepare a comprehensive document. This claim is specious on two levels. First, Mr. Tenet, knowing in summer 2002 that the administration was marching toward war with Iraq, should have demanded an estimate from his National Intelligence Council. He shouldn't have waited until September, when Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Bob Graham of Florida demanded an estimate. Second, there is no reason to accept Mr. Tenet's claim that lack of time was a factor. The flawed analysis that appeared in the estimate was used to make Secretary Powell's specious case to the United Nations four months later. Furthermore, Mr. Tenet and his managers publicly made the case for the estimate after its flaws had been revealed.

It is particularly troubling that Mr. Tenet interpreted his "slam dunk" remark to the president as an assurance that the CIA could "strengthen the public presentation" for war. As director of central intelligence, Mr. Tenet's obligation was to make sure the administration had the intelligence it required to debate a decision to go to war. This obligation is particularly important in the case of a pre-emptive war, which requires strong intelligence if it is to be justified. Mr. Tenet totally failed in his responsibility to scrutinize all the intelligence used to make the case for war. Furthermore, it is not the business of the CIA director to help make a public case for war.

Because Mr. Tenet lacked a background in intelligence analysis, he relied heavily on a deputy, John McLaughlin, who was a career intelligence analyst. But instead of giving Mr. Tenet proper guidance, Mr. McLaughlin relied on single-source and poorly sourced intelligence to make the case for war, and he ignored credible intelligence that pointed to an absence of WMD in Iraq.

The claim that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his nuclear capability was based upon a single source - an intelligence fabrication. Similarly, the sole source for claims about mobile biological laboratories was unstable and untrustworthy. And the sole source for links between Iraq and al-Qaida had been tortured and abused in his interrogations and eventually recanted.

Mr. Tenet and Mr. McLaughlin knew the United States lacked the intelligence case to go to war, but they were prepared to go along with the administration and even to provide the public case to do so.

As various congressional committees and presidential commissions have concluded, the CIA was egregiously wrong on virtually every aspect of Iraqi WMD: nuclear, chemical and biological. There was no credible intelligence on links between Iraq and al-Qaida. The congressional oversight process failed to do its job of scrutinizing this intelligence, and most of the media failed to permit contrarian voices to be heard.

The pattern of illicit tradecraft points to a larger problem within the intelligence community that will not be fixed by recent developments such as the creation of an office for the director of national intelligence, greater centralization of the intelligence process, and placing the management of the intelligence community in the hands of the military.

We are witnessing a terrible loss of life and resources in Iraq. Until we create a CIA that is willing to speak truth to power, we will continue to suffer terrible losses.

Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun

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