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Sorry They’ve Been So Mean To You, George Tenet

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"If you can't say something positive about someone, don't say anything." This was drummed into me by my Irish grandmother and, as most of her admonishments, it has stood me in good stead. On occasion, though, it been a real bother - as when I felt called to comment on George Tenet's apologia, "In the Center of the Storm," coming to a bookstore near you tomorrow.

On the verge of despair, I ran into an old schoolmate of Tenet's from PS 94 in Little Neck, Queens, who told me that George was more handsome than his twin brother Billy, and that his outgoing nature and consummate political skill got him elected president of the student body.

Positive enough, Grandma? Now let me add this.

George Tenet's book shows that he remains, first and foremost, a politician - with no clue as to the proper role of intelligence work. He is unhappy about going down in history as "Slam Dunk Tenet." But, George protests, his famous remark to President Bush on December 21, 2002 was not meant to assure the president that available intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a "slam dunk." Rather he meant that the argument that Saddam Hussein had such weapons could be enhanced to slam-dunk status in order to sell war on Iraq. Those of you tuning in to CBS's "60 Minutes" tonight will hear Tenet explain what he meant when he uttered the words he now says everyone misunderstood or distorted in order to blame him for the Iraq war. What he says he meant was simply:

"We can put a better case together for a public case." (sic)

Tenet still doesn't get it. Those of us schooled in the craft and ethos of intelligence remain in wide-mouthed disbelief, perhaps best summed up by veteran operations officer Bob Baer's quip:

"So, it is better that the 'slam dunk' referred to the ease with which the war could be sold? I guess I missed that part of the National Security Act delineating the functions of the CIA - the part about CIA marketing a war. Guess that's why I never made it into senior management."

George's concern over being scapegoated is touching. But could he not have seen it coming? Not even when Rumsfeld asked him in the fall of 2002 (that is, before the war) whether he had put in a system to track how good the intelligence was compared with what would be found in Iraq? The guys I know from Queens usually can tell when they're being set up. Maybe Tenet was naive enough to believe that the president, whom he describes as a "kindred soul," would protect him from thugs like Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, even when - as was inevitable - someone had to take the fall. Or did he perhaps actually believe the Cheney dictum that US forces would be greeted as liberators?

So now George is worried about his reputation. He tells "60 Minutes:"

"At the end of the day, the only thing you have ... is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor, and when you don't have that anymore, well, there you go.

I immediately thought back to former Secretary of State Colin Powell's response when he was asked if he regretted the lies he told at the UN on February 5, 2003. Powell said he regretted that speech because it was "a blot on my record."

So we've got ruined reputations and blots on records. Poor boys. What about the 3,344 American soldiers already killed in a war that could not have happened had not these poor fellows deliberately distorted the evidence and led the cheering for war? What about the more than 50,000 wounded, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis whose deaths can be attributed directly to the invasion and its aftermath? There are blots, and there are blots. Why is it that Tenet and Powell seem to inhabit a different planet?

Despite all this, they still have their defenders ... or at least Tenet does. (Powell's closest associate, Col. Larry Wilkerson, decided long ago to turn state's evidence and apologize for his and Powell's role in the intelligence fiasco, but Powell has tried to remain above the battle. He may, I suppose, be writing his own book to explain everything.)

Yesterday on National Public Radio, Tenet's deputy and partner in crime, John McLaughlin, went to ludicrous lengths reciting a carefully prepared list of "all the things that the CIA got right," while conceding that it (not "we," mind you, but "it") performed "inadequately" in assessing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Picky, picky.

Defending Torture ... Again

Hewing to the George W. Bush dictum of "catapulting the propaganda" by endlessly repeating the same claim (the formula used so successfully by Joseph Goebbels), Tenet manages to tell "60 Minutes" five times in five consecutive sentences: "We don't torture people." Like President Bush, however, he then goes on to show why it has been absolutely necessary to torture people. What do they take us for, fools? And Tenet's claims of success in extracting information via torture are no more worthy of credulity than the rest of what he says.

His own credibility aside, Tenet has succeeded in destroying the asset without which an intelligence community cannot be effective. And that is serious. He seems blissfully oblivious to the damage he has done - aware only of the damage others have done to his "personal honor."

Lessons Learned

If any good can come out of the intelligence/policy debacle regarding Iraq, it would be the clear lesson that intelligence crafted to dovetail with the predilections of policymakers can bring disaster. The role that Tenet, McLaughlin and their small coterie of senior managers played as willing accomplices in the corruption of intelligence has made a mockery of the verse chiseled into the marble at the entrance to CIA headquarters: "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

Had Tenet been tenaciously honest, his analysts would have risen to the occasion. And there is a good chance that they could have helped prevent what the Nuremburg Tribunal called the "supreme international crime" - a war of aggression, and a war that Tenet and his subordinates knew had nothing to do with the "intelligence" adduced to "justify" it, as Tenet now admits in his book.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
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