When Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, Richardson didn't do the dirty deed.Rather, he resigned in protest.
And when the same command came to Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus, Ruckelshaus didn't go dutifully along.
He, too, refused the odious order, resigning even as the White House fired him.
"There wasn't any question in his mind or mine," Ruckelshaus said, recalling the decisions he and Richardson made back in October of 1973 to defy the president.
"What I was being asked to do by the president was fundamentally wrong," he told me. "I just couldn't do it."
When Peter Edelman, an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, disagreed with Bill Clinton's decision to sign a welfare-reform bill because he felt it would hurt poor people, Edelman didn't put career ahead of conscience.
Instead, he resigned in protest.
"I just found in my gut that I couldn't stay there and be involved with the implementation of that policy," Edelman says. "It was as simple as that."
There's something deeply admirable about people high up in the pantheon of power and prestige willing to put principle ahead of position.
Now comes the sorry example of George Tenet, former director of Central Intelligence, who helped the Bush administration make and market its argument for war with Iraq.
A man who left office meekly, long after the war was a fait accompli, Tenet now tells us -- in a book that has earned him a multi million-dollar advance -- that privately he had qualms about the Bush administration's conduct, including its manipulation and misrepresentation of intelligence.
Having given Bush and Cheney cover as they built a fraudulent case for an ill-conceived invasion -- and then having accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in what looked for all the world like a reward for his loyalty -- Tenet portrays himself as a man who struggled inside the government to counsel caution to ideologues intent on war.
Certainly the former CIA director doesn't bear primary responsibility for this foreign-policy fiasco. That distinction lies with Bush, Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz & Co.
Yet if the careerist Tenet had had courage and convictions, he might well have slowed, and perhaps even changed, the march to war.
Ron Suskind, author of "The Price of Loyalty" and "The One Percent Doctrine," has offered some of the most perceptive accounts of the way this administration has operated, particularly post-9/11.
"If Tenet had stood up and said there is no connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda and that when it comes to WMD, what we are relying on is supposition and not real evidence as traditionally defined, it would have made it extremely difficult for this administration to go forward based on the way American history had been written up to that point," Suskind said in an interview.
That, however, is not what Tenet did. Instead, by his own admission, he kept quiet, issuing no public alarms as the truth was twisted to build the case for war.
"No one had elected me to go out and make speeches about how and where I disagreed on thorny issues," he writes.
When a CIA analyst expressed concerns about working on the October 2002 intelligence estimate that would obviously be used to marshal support for war, Tenet told him: "Look, we don't make policy. Our job is to tell the people who do what we know and what we think. It's up to them to decide what to do about it."
But Tenet's many rationalizations notwithstanding, "If the Bush administration was misrepresenting the intelligence the CIA was expressing, he had an obligation to let us know that," says US Senator John Kerry.
That's exactly right.
And despite Tenet's anger at having Bush's team of world-class buck-passers point to his now-infamous "slam dunk" comment about WMD, his own account -- that his remark wasn't about the certainty that Iraq had WMD but rather about strengthening the marketing of that claim -- is long leagues short of exculpatory.
Pressed Wednesday on CNN about whether he should have spoken out or resigned before the war began, Tenet replied: "I know that we acquitted our responsibilities consistent with our values."
That statement, pregnant with unintended irony, is all too obviously accurate.
It is both the truth and the tragedy of George Tenet.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is email@example.com.
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