President Bush, right, and George J. Tenet stop to pose on the CIA seal in the main entrance of agency headquarters Tuesday March 20, 2001 in Langley, Va.
President Bush, right, and George J. Tenet stop to pose on the CIA seal in the main entrance of agency headquarters Tuesday March 20, 2001 in Langley, Va.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- AP
At the Center of the Storm (by George Tenet)

Reaping the Whirlwind

President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and George Tenet meet in the Oval Office for a briefing, Oct. 8, 2001.
President Bush, Condoleezza Rice and George Tenet meet in the Oval Office for a briefing, Oct. 8, 2001. (Eric Draper - Eric Draper / AP/ White House)

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Sunday, May 6, 2007

AT THE CENTER OF THE STORM

My Years at the CIA

By George Tenet with Bill Harlow

HarperCollins. 549 pp. $30

In his remarkable, important and often unintentionally damning memoir, George Tenet, the former CIA chief, describes a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, two months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In much more vivid and emotional detail than previously reported, Tenet writes that he had received intelligence that day, July 10, 2001, about the threat from al-Qaeda that "literally made my hair stand on end."

According to At the Center of the Storm, Tenet picked up the phone, insisted on meeting with Rice about the threat from al-Qaeda, and raced to the White House with his counter-terrorism deputy, Cofer Black, and a briefer known only as "Rich B."

"There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months," Rich B. told Rice, and the attack would be "spectacular." Black added, "This country needs to go on a war footing now." He said that President Bush should give the CIA new covert action authorities to go after Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. After the meeting, Tenet's briefer and deputy "congratulated each other," Tenet writes. "At last, they felt, we had gotten the full attention of the administration."

Though Tenet was meeting almost daily with President Bush to give him an intelligence briefing and an update on threat reports -- "extraordinary access," he labels it -- by his own account he did not take the request for action "now" directly to the president.

During a CBS "60 Minutes" television interview that aired April 29, correspondent Scott Pelley nailed the crucial question that Tenet leaves unanswered in his book "Why aren't you telling the president, 'Mr. President, this is terrifying. We have to do this now'? " Pelley asked Tenet.

"Because the United States government doesn't work that way," Tenet replied. "The president is not the action officer. You bring the action to the national security adviser and people who set the table for the president to decide on policies they're going to implement."

Whoa! That's a startling admission. I'm pretty certain that President Bush or any president, for that matter, would consider himself or herself the action officer when it comes to protecting the country from terrorism. I can already see the 2008 presidential candidates promising, "I will be your action officer on terrorism and security."

To be fair to Tenet and the CIA, they had been working their tails off for years, often successfully, to thwart terrorists around the globe. But Tenet should have been the instant messenger to the Oval Office in the summer of 2001. His lapse and apparent decision not to carry the request for action to the president himself doesn't mean that the 9/11 attacks might have been averted. But the failure does reveal Tenet's limitations. He was the president's intelligence officer, the top man responsible not only for providing information, but also for devising possible solutions to threats.


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