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Reaping the Whirlwind

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.

A dedicated, often innovative and strong leader beloved by many at the CIA, Tenet nevertheless was hampered by a bureaucrat's view of the world, hobbled by the traditional chain of command, convinced that the CIA director's "most important relationship with any administration official is generally with the national security adviser."

No. Your most important relationship is with the president.

How he rose to his position is telling. The staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, then the Clinton White House NSC intelligence director and then deputy CIA director, he became CIA Director in 1997 basically because President Clinton's first choices could not be confirmed. A strong people person, Tenet did much to improve CIA morale and lay out a rebuilding program, but in this memoir of his seven-year tenure as CIA director, he wonders whether he was up to the job. "No previous experience had prepared me to run a large organization," he writes. "I was no Jack Welch and I knew it."

Nonetheless, Tenet oversaw significant successes, most notably planning and executing the paramilitary assault to dislodge al-Qaeda from its Afghanistan sanctuary in the weeks and months after 9/11 -- essentially the action he had proposed to Rice in the meeting of July 10, 2001.

Full disclosure: In discussions with Tenet as a reporter for this paper, I many times urged him to write his memoir, and, after he resigned from the CIA, I even spent a day with him and his co-writer, Bill Harlow, in late 2005 to suggest questions he should try to address. Foremost, I hoped that he would provide intimate portraits of the two presidents he had served as CIA director -- George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Instead, he has adhered to the rule of CIA directors: protect the president at all costs.

That said, several chapters by themselves are worth the price of the book: Chapter 14, "They Want to Change History," lays out al-Qaeda's and other terrorist groups' persistent efforts to obtain strategic weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear devices. Reading it is scary, and Tenet makes a compelling case that terrorism inside the United States is not over. Chapter 15, "The Merchant of Death and the Colonel," is an insider's chilling summary of the dismantling of the secret nuclear proliferation network run by A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program.

Tenet is candid about how the CIA regularly dispensed money to assist in the capture of al-Qaeda figures. "We would show up in someone's office, offer our thanks, and we would leave behind a briefcase full of crisp one-hundred-dollar bills, sometimes totaling more than a million in a single transaction."

He also provides further documentation that the Bush national security team was dysfunctional and members didn't communicate among themselves very well or at all. This lack of communication becomes apparent in his own understanding of crucial decisions: "One of the great mysteries to me is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable," he writes. He doesn't know when Bush decided to go to war. But he writes that in September 2002, "there was no decision to go to war yet" and that by December 2002 the war "decision had already been made." He provides no evidence or statements to support these claims, and I think he is wrong about the latter date. (From my reporting and interviews with Bush and the other key players, I believe Bush finally decided to go to war in early January 2003.)

On Aug. 26, 2002, seven months before the invasion of Iraq, Tenet says he was totally surprised when Vice President Cheney said during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." Cheney was effectively issuing his own National Intelligence Estimate -- he was treading on Tenet's territory. "The speech also went well beyond what our analysis could support," Tenet writes, and he acknowledges that he should have privately told Cheney so.

In truth, Tenet should have raised hell on such a critical issue -- privately and publicly. He writes that his silence implied agreement. But five weeks later Tenet issued the famous 90-page National Intelligence Estimate that essentially reached the same wrong conclusion: "Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons."

One of Tenet's most baffling fixations has to do with his assertion to the president and the administration's war cabinet on Saturday, Dec. 21, 2002 (three months before war), that Iraq's WMDs were "a slam dunk case." This was first reported in my 2004 book, Plan of Attack.

Tenet disputes the version I reported, acknowledging now that he said "slam dunk," but denying that he rose from the couch in the Oval Office and threw his arms in the air. The gathering was "essentially a marketing meeting," he writes, to decide what intelligence could be made public to prove Iraq had WMDs. He says my recounting "ignited a media bonfire, and I was the guy being burned at the stake."

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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