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
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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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Over the years, Tenet has been all over the lot on this "slam dunk" comment, first denying he ever said it, then later saying he did not recall it but would not dispute that it happened. In 2005, I participated in a public forum in Los Angeles with Tenet before an audience of 5,000 people. Asked about "slam dunk," he replied, "Those are the two dumbest words I ever said." He does not include that in his book.

Instead, he recounts how he called Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, and complained that the leak of the "slam dunk" story "made me look stupid, and I just want to tell you how furious I am about it. For someone in the administration to now hang this around my neck is about the most despicable thing I have ever seen in my life."

Tenet incorrectly suggests that I had one source for this report. There were at least four firsthand sources. When I interviewed President Bush in December 2003, he quoted the "slam dunk" phrase four times, and then in a fifth citation the president said, "And Tenet said, 'Don't worry, it's a slam dunk.' And that was very important." I provided this portion of the transcript to Tenet.

"I truly doubt President Bush had any better recollection of the comment than I did," Tenet writes in At the Center of the Storm, "Nor will I ever believe it shaped his view about either the legitimacy or timing of waging war." Tenet could be right about that, but he keeps trying to get himself off the hook for that comment. "In a way President Bush and I are much alike," he writes. "We sometimes say things from our gut, whether it's his 'bring 'em on' or my 'slam dunk.' I think he gets that about me, just as I get that about him."

But 10 weeks after the "slam dunk" comment, Tenet and the CIA provided Secretary of State Colin Powell with the intelligence he used in his famous Feb. 5, 2003, presentation to the United Nations and the world, arguing that Saddam had WMD. Tenet writes that he believed it was a "solid product." That, of course, is a less memorable and less colorful way of saying "slam dunk."

Of Powell's U.N. speech, Tenet writes, "It was a great presentation, but unfortunately the substance didn't hold up. One by one, the various pillars of the speech, particularly on Iraq's biological and chemical weapons programs, began to buckle. The secretary of state was subsequently hung out to dry in front of the world, and our nation's credibility plummeted."

In truth, Powell blames Tenet for hanging him out to dry. Though Tenet takes some responsibility for his and his agency's mistakes, he often dodges it in his book. "Maybe it's just the way Washington works," he laments when he gets blamed for intelligence failures. Or maybe it's just accountability.

He spends nine pages dissecting how a senior CIA officer, Tyler Drumheller, and the German intelligence service didn't alert him to the fabrications of a source (code-named, appropriately enough, Curve Ball) who alleged that Iraq had mobile biological labs. This was a centerpiece of Powell's U.N. presentation, yet Tenet offers no apology to Powell.

But the other critical intelligence assessment he didn't carry to the Oval Office -- surely the most critical of his career -- was his misgivings about invading Iraq. As I reported in my third book on Bush, State of Denial, in the months before the invasion in the fall of 2002, Tenet confided to one of his top aides, John O. Brennan, that he thought it was not the right thing to do. "This is a mistake," Tenet told Brennan.

But he never said as much to the commander in chief. And he doesn't say it to readers of his memoir. *

Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, has coauthored or authored 14 books.


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