While the natural human fascination with gossip and backbiting among our rulers guarantees media coverage and best-seller status for George Tenet's new memoir, the former CIA director cannot achieve absolution in print or on television. His clumsy attempts to shift the blame to Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and their rebuttals are titillating but ultimately pointless. He is right about them, of course, but they are right about him, too.
History will absolve none of them. With thousands of Americans and Iraqis dead and national honor permanently tarnished, there is more than enough blame to go around.
As a group of former intelligence officers observed in a letter they sent to Tenet upon the publication of "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA," his outrage over the misleading propaganda that led to the war is belated and utterly self-serving. During the critical months between September 2002 and March 2003, in the midst of that White House campaign, he was nothing but the useful tool of those he now criticizes.
From the beginning, Tenet knew that his colleagues in the White House and the National Security Council were concocting a case for war that went far beyond any reliable intelligence about Saddam Hussein's arsenal and intentions. He knew that his best field officers and most competent analysts didn't believe the warnings about an Iraqi "mushroom cloud." He also knew that they had no convincing evidence of ties between Saddam and al Qaeda.
Yet while Cheney and Rice lied dramatically on national television, persuading the majority of Americans that Iraq was indeed behind the 9/11 attacks, Tenet maintained a discreet silence—except when he was enabling them.
Now, however, Tenet hopes to be seen as the truth-teller among those prevaricators. Promoting his book on "60 Minutes" on Sunday evening, he vehemently denounced the White House spinning of 9/11 to justify the war. At one point, CBS correspondent Scott Pelley suggested that he should have pushed back harder against that spin, reading from a speech in which the president warned that "we need to think about Saddam Hussein using al-Qaida to do his dirty work." Pelley then asked: "Is that what you [were] telling the president?"
The former CIA chief replied indignantly. No, he said, "we didn't believe al Qaeda was going to do Saddam Hussein's dirty work." Why, then, did he emphasize the alleged connections between al Qaeda and Iraq when he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2003? The answer is that he knew what the White House wanted, and he delivered the message that helped to sell the war.
Tenet played the stooge over and over again during those months. In October 2002, he signed the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a fatally skewed assessment of the dangers posed by that ruined country. In January 2003, he let the White House pretend that Iraq was seeking to obtain uranium from Africa. And in February 2003, as Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a series of bogus assertions to the United Nations and forever disgraced himself and his country, Tenet sat behind him in silent, nodding confirmation of those falsehoods.
Perhaps the most pitiful argument mustered by Tenet to defend himself today is his attempt to rebut the "slam-dunk" anecdote. President Bush and other members of the administration have said that the CIA director assured them the intelligence proving the existence of Saddam's terrible arsenal was unassailable. He whines that his basketball cliche has been misinterpreted, because he was only promising the president that a strong argument could be made, not that the information itself was perfect. More plausibly, he also notes that the decision to invade had been reached long before that little warmongering pep rally in the Oval Office.
But so what? Tenet sat and listened as the president told us, untruthfully, that no such decision had been made—and that war would only be waged as a "last resort." He doesn't deny encouraging Bush's war salesmanship, even though he doubted the wisdom of that policy and the process that had led to it. His fitful protests against the worst lies uttered by Cheney and Rice had no effect because he refused to risk his own position on behalf of truth.
Bleating about his damaged reputation, Tenet sounds much like Powell, whose loyalty to the president overruled duty to the country. Tenet got a medal and a multimillion-dollar book contract, but he forfeited his honor, and that cannot be retrieved.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.
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