If they question why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied.
Mercifully, the flurry of media coverage of former CIA director George Tenet hawking his memoir, At the Center of the Storm, has abated. Buffeted by those on the right and left who see through his lame attempt at self-justification, Tenet probably now wishes he had opted to just fade away, as old soldiers used to do.
He listened instead to his old PR buddy and “co-author” Bill Harlow who failed miserably in trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. By this point, they may be having second thoughts.But, hey, $4 million is a sizable sum, even if split two ways. But, aside from the money, what else could they have been thinking?
Tenet’s book is a self-indictment for the crimes with which Socrates was charged: making the worse cause appear the better, and corrupting the youth.
But George is not the kind to take the hemlock. Rather, with no apparent shame, he accepted what one wag has labeled the “Presidential Medal of Silence” in return for agreeing to postpone his Nixon-style “modified limited hangout” until after the mid-term elections last November.
The $4 million advance that Tenet and Harlow took for the book marked a shabby, inauspicious beginning to the effort to stitch together what remained of Tenet’s tattered reputation.
Here in Washington we are pretty much inured to effrontery, but Tenet’s book and tiresome interviews have earned him the degree for chutzpah summa cum laude. We are supposed to feel sorry for this pathetic soul, who could not muster the integrity simply to tell the truth and stave off unspeakable carnage in Iraq.
Rather, when his masters lied to justify war, Tenet simply lacked the courage to tell his fellow citizens that America was about to launch what the post WWII Nuremberg Tribunal called the “supreme international crime”—a war of aggression.
Tenet’s pitiable apologia demonstrates once again not only that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but that the corruption befouls all those nearby.
For those of prurient bent, the book offers a keyhole-peep into a White House of ill repute, with Vice President Dick Cheney playing at his chess board, moving sniveling pawns like Tenet from one square to another.
Someone should have told the former CIA director that unprovoked war is not some sort of game. Out of respect for the tens of thousands killed and maimed in Iraq, it is time to start calling spades spades. It was a high crime, a premeditated felony to have taken part in this conspiracy.
Not surprisingly, few of Tenet’s talk-show hosts were armed with enough facts to pierce the smoke and the arrogant now-you-listen-to-me approach from Bill Harlow’s PR toolbox.
Whether out of ignorance or just habit, celebrity interviewers kept cutting Tenet more and more slack. Understandable, I suppose, for they, like Tenet, were enthusiastic cheerleaders for the attack on Iraq.
And so, affable, hot-blooded George was allowed to filibuster, bob, weave, and blow still more smoke. Tenet should not be behind a microphone, but behind bars.
With nauseating earnestness, Tenet keeps saying:
“I believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
This is a lie. And no matter how many times he says it (after the dictum of his master, George W. Bush, who has stressed publicly that repetition is necessary to “catapult the propaganda”), Tenet can no longer conceal the deceit.
Indeed, the only other possibility—that he is (as he complains) being made the useful “idiot” on whom Vice President Dick Cheney and others mean to blame the war—can be ruled out .
Tenet was indeed useful to Cheney and Bush, but he is no idiot. Those who do not rely exclusively on the corporate media for their information know Tenet for what he is—a charlatan. A willing co-conspirator, he did for Bush and Cheney what propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels did for Hitler.
The key difference is that Goebbels and his Nazi collaborators, rather than writing books and taking sinecures to enrich themselves, were held accountable at Nuremberg.
Tenet knew there were no WMD. Secret British documents reveal not only that Tenet told his British counterpart the intelligence was being “fixed” around the policy. They also show that Washington and London developed a scheme to “wrongfoot” Saddam Hussein by insisting on the kind of U.N. inspections they were sure he would reject, thus providing a convenient casus belli.
Saddam outfoxed them by allowing the most intrusive inspection regime in recent history. At the turn of 2002-03, U.N. inspectors were crawling all over Saddam’s palaces, interviewing his scientists, and pursuing every tip they could get from Tenet—and finding nothing.
What did satellite imagery show? Nothing, save for the embarrassingly inconclusive photos that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed on Feb. 5, 2003 at the U.N.
Were there any photos of those biological weapons trailers reported by the shadowy Curveball? None. And so “artist renderings” were conjured up to show what these sinister trailers might look like.
At least the renderings produced by the CIA graphics shop were more professional than the crude forgeries upon which the fable about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa was based.
And the Cheney-Rice-Judith Miller story about aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment got bent hopelessly out of shape as soon as genuine scientists (as opposed to the Tenet’s stable of malleable engineers) got hold of them.
Exactly four years ago, amid the euphoria of Mission Accomplished and the incipient concern over the trouble encountered in finding WMD, then-deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz told writer Sam Tanenhaus of Vanity Fair that the Iraq’s supposed cache of WMD had never been the most important casus belli. It was simply one of several reasons:
“For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on...Almost unnoticed but huge is another reason: removing Saddam will allow the U.S. to take its troops out of Saudi Arabia...”
Evidence of Absence
Who needs real evidence as opposed to allegations of WMD, when the name of the game is removing Saddam?
But how to explain the blather about WMD in the lead-up to the war, when not one piece of imagery or other intelligence could confirm the presence of such weapons? Easy. Apply the Rumsfeld dictum: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
And then explain further that the lack of evidence proves nothing but how clever the Iraqis have become at hiding their weapons. Don’t laugh; that’s what Rumsfeld and the neocons said.
That foolishness had run its course by March 2003 when, despite the best “leads” Tenet could provide and the intrusive inspection regime, the U.N. inspectors could find nothing. It was getting downright embarrassing for those bent on a belli without an ostensible casus, but by then enough troops were in place to conquer Iraq (or so thought Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz).
At that point Bush told the U.N. to withdraw its inspectors promptly and let them watch the fireworks of shock and awe from a safer distance on TV. (What is really shocking is that President Bush continues to claim that Saddam threw out the inspectors. But, again, he has “catapulted” it so often that most Americans do not realize it is a lie.)
How did the White House conspirators think they could get away with all this? Don’t you remember Cheney saying we would be greeted as liberators?
We would defeat a fourth-rate army, remove a “ruthless dictator,” eliminate an adversary of Israel, and end up sitting atop all that oil with permanent military bases and no further need to station troops in Saudi Arabia.
At that point, smiled the neocons, what spoilsport is going to try to make political points by insisting: Yes, but you did this on the basis of forgery, fakery; and where, by the way, are the weapons of mass destruction?
Granted that over recent weeks George Tenet has shown himself a bit dense. There is nevertheless, simply is no defense on grounds of gross ineptitude or momentary insanity. He clearly played a sustained role in the chicanery.
Okay; if you insist: let’s assume for a moment that Rumsfeld did succeed in convincing Tenet that the reason there was no evidence of WMD was because the Iraqis were so good at hiding them. What then?
Sorry. None of this let’s Tenet off the hook. There was, in fact, no absence of well-sourced evidence that Saddam’s WMD had all been destroyed shortly after the Gulf War in 1991—yes, all of them.
Selective Use of Evidence
In 1995, when Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, defected with a treasure trove of documents, he spilled the beans on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. There were none. He knew. He was in charge of the chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs and ordered all such weapons destroyed before the U.N. inspectors could discover them after the war in 1991.
He told us much more, and the information that could be checked out was confirmed.
The Condoleezza-must-have-just-missed-this-report excuse won’t wash, because Newsweek acquired a transcript of Kamel’s debriefing and broke the story on Feb. 24, 2003, several weeks before the war, noting gingerly that Kamel’s information “raises questions about whether the WMD stockpiles attributed to Iraq still exist.”
It was the kind of well-sourced documentary evidence after which intelligence analysts and lawyers lust. But the mainstream press dropped it like a hot potato after Bill Harlow (yes, Tenet’s co-author), in his role as CIA spokesperson, angrily protested (a bit too much) that the Newsweek story was “incorrect, bogus, wrong, untrue.”
It was, rather, entirely correct and documentary in nature. Curiously, the name of Hussein Kamel shows up on a listing of Iraqis in the front of Tenet’s book, but nowhere in the text. Tenet and Harlow apparently decided to avoid calling attention to the fact that they suppressed information from a super source, preferring instead to help the White House grease the skids for war.
In late summer 2002, CIA operatives had a signal success. They recruited Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and had him working in place – for the U.S.
Proud of their successful recruitment of a senior Iraqi official, officers of CIA’s clandestine service, immediately sought and were given an early meeting with President Bush and his senior advisers.
The information Sabri had already passed to us had checked out well. Naively, the agency officers were expecting sighs of relief as they quoted him saying there were no WMD in Iraq.
The information went over like a lead balloon, dispelling all excitement at the high-level penetration of the Iraqi government. The CIA officials were told there was no interest in further information from this high-level source: “It’s not about intelligence any more. This is about regime change.”
Director Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin, played a direct role regarding the notorious “Curveball,” a former Iraqi taxi driver and convicted embezzler whom German intelligence deemed a mentally unstable alcoholic, who was "out of control."
Unlike the unwelcome reporting from the Iraqi foreign minister, Curveball provided very welcome, if bogus, information on alleged mobile laboratories producing biological weapons in Iraq—grist for the “artist renderings” for Powell’s U.N. speech.
It was all a crock. And Tenet and McLaughlin both knew it, because Tyler Drumheller, then-chief of European operations, gave them chapter and verse before Powell's speech.
The normally taciturn, but recently outspoken former director of State Department intelligence, Carl Ford, has noted that both Tenet and McLaughlin took a personal hand in writing a follow-up report aimed at salvaging what Curveball had said. Ford spared no words: The report “wasn’t just wrong, they lied...they should have been shot."
Nor can Tenet expunge from the record his witting cooperation in the cynical campaign to exploit the trauma we all felt after 9/11, by intimating a connection with that heinous event and Saddam Hussein.
If, as Tenet now concedes, no significant connection could be established between Saddam and al-Qaeda, why did he sit quietly behind Powell at the U.N. as Powell spun a yarn about a "sinister nexus" between the two.
That sorry exhibition destroyed what was left of the morale of honest CIA analysts who, until then, had courageously resisted intense pressure to endorse that evidence-less but explosive canard.
Worth a Thousand Words
George Tenet's book includes a photo that is a metaphor for both the primary purpose of his memoir and its unintended result. Most will remember the famous photo of Colin Powell briefing the U.N. Security Council, with Tenet and then-U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Negroponte sitting staunchly behind him.
Well, on a centerfold page large enough to accommodate the familiar shot, the photo has been cropped to exclude Tenet altogether and include only Negroponte’s shoulder and nose (which, mercifully, he was not holding at the time.)
This is an incredibly adolescent attempt to distance Tenet from that scandalous performance, even though he was the one most responsible for it. The cropping also suggests that Tenet and Harlow are only too aware that by including spurious “intelligence” in Powell’s speech and then sitting stoically behind him as if to "validate" it, Tenet visibly squandered CIA's most precious asset – credibility.
“It was a great presentation, but unfortunately the substance didn’t hold up,” writes Tenet/Harlow, without any trace that they appreciate the consequential enormity of the deception.
In a Feb. 5, 2003, Memorandum for the President regarding Powell’s speech that day, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity gave him an “A” for presentation, and a “C-” for content. (If we knew then what we know now we would of course have flunked him outright.)
We warned the President that intelligence analysts were “increasingly distressed at the politicization of intelligence...and finding it hard to be heard above the drumbeat for war.” That a war of choice was on the horizon was crystal clear—as were the consequences.
We urged the President to “widen the discussion beyond...the circle of those advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be catastrophic.” We take no comfort in having called it right. Others did too. It was a no-brainer.
Failure in Professionalism
Tenet’s tell-some-but-not-all book is unwittingly self-incriminating in another key respect.
What may be less than fully clear to most readers is that, in his zeal to indict others and exculpate himself, Tenet reveals confidential discussions in the White House, not shrinking from quoting the President. This is thoroughly unprofessional, and does immeasurable harm to intelligence officers’ ability to do their job.
Any President has a right to expect that his comments/questions will be kept in strictest confidence. It is the height of irresponsibility for them to appear in a book, particularly while the President in question is still in office.
Presidents need to have confidence they can share their thoughts candidly and discreetly with senior intelligence officers, without their remarks becoming public. Breaches of this confidence destroy the conditions necessary for intelligence to garner trust and for the President to make the best use of the expertise available in the intelligence community.
That Tenet sees fit to violate that confidentiality for petty personal gain reflects poorly on his respect for the high office he held and the premium that must be put on trust and confidentiality. Those of us privileged to brief the President’s father and other senior national security officials never violated that trust the way Tenet has now done.
Regularized personal access by CIA officers to the most senior national security officials did not begin until former director and then-Vice President George H. W. Bush persuaded President Ronald Reagan to authorize the sharing of the President’s Daily Brief in one-on-one morning briefings for the Vice President, the secretaries of state and defense, and the President’s national security adviser.
(With White House approval, we later added the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as a daily customer.) These early morning briefings were conducted by us senior analysts who prepared the PDB (and badgered the drafter/analysts with all manner of questions) the day and night before.
We were trusted professionals steeped in substance and just a secure telephone call away from the analysts we knew could provide additional trustworthy detail if needed.
Truth to Power
Our ethos, our job was to speak unvarnished truth to power, irrespective of the policy agendas of the officials we briefed. We were trusted to do that, and the last thing we needed was a CIA director looking over our shoulder—particularly one, like Tenet, not well schooled in the need to keep intelligence and policymaking separate.
During the Reagan presidency, Director William Casey rarely joined us for the PDB briefings and did no pre-publication review. The director had quite enough on his plate. It was a dual job involving herding the cats of a scarcely manageable multi-agency intelligence community, while trying to manage one agency (CIA) itself conceived with a serious birth defect.
A serious flaw in the National Security Act of 1947 gave the CIA director not only responsibility for preparing unvarnished intelligence, but the additional duty to “perform other such functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct”—like running “secret” wars, as in Nicaragua; overthrowing governments, as in Iran, Guatemala, Chile; and applying President Bush-favored “alternative” methods of interrogation in violation of international law and U.S. Army law, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Each of the two scarcely compatible CIA jobs were full-time challenges, and during my 27-year career I had a front-row seat watching nine directors, most of whom did their best to act with integrity and honesty, despite that structural fault. This in addition to the community-wide responsibilities which posed a management challenge of huge proportions.
Tenet all but admits he was not up to that management challenge. I’m “no Jack Welch,” is the way he puts it in his book.
Equally unfortunate, he picked inexperienced managers distinguished only by their malleability, their subservience to the perceived needs of the next level up. Perhaps the best case in point is John McLaughlin, the quintessential go-along-to-get-along functionary.
McLaughlin very rarely made use of his prerogative as statutory deputy in charge of the intelligence community and did not become much involved in operations. What he did do was worse still, shaping substantive analysis to bend with the prevailing winds from the White House and Pentagon.
Instead of tending to his knitting at CIA headquarters, Tenet decided to hitch a ride downtown with the PDB briefer in the morning, and in that way secure regular face time with the President. By several accounts, there were many “slam dunks” voiced in those very private discussions.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. His responsibilities during his 27-year service as a CIA analyst included chairing National Intelligence Estimates and preparing the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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