How the CIA Failed America
George Tenet sets the stage in his memoir by recalling a conversation he claims to have had with me on Sept. 12, 2001: "As I walked beneath the awning that leads to the West Wing[, I] saw Richard Perle exiting the building just as I was about to enter. . . . Perle turned to me and said, 'Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.' I looked back at Perle and thought: Who has [he] been meeting with in the White House so early in the morning on today of all days?"
But I was in Europe on Sept. 12, 2001, unable to get a return flight to Washington, and I did not tell Tenet that Iraq was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, not then, not ever. That should have been the end of the story: a faulty recollection, perhaps attributing to me something he may have heard elsewhere, an honest mistake.
So I was surprised when, having been made aware of his error, Tenet reasserted his claim, saying: "So I may have been off on the day, but I'm not off on what he said and what he believed."
On "Meet the Press" last Sunday, Tenet argued that his version "seems to be corroborated" by a comment I made to columnist Robert D. Novak on Sept. 17 and a letter to President Bush that I signed, with 40 others, on Sept. 20. But my 10-word comment to Novak made no claim that Iraq was responsible for Sept. 11. Neither did the letter to the president, which said that "any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
Tenet insists on equating two statements that are not at all the same: that Iraq was responsible for Sept. 11 -- which I never said -- and that removing Saddam Hussein before he could share chemical, biological or nuclear weapons with terrorists had become an urgent matter, which I did say. He continues to assert falsely that the president's decision to remove Hussein was encouraged by lies about Iraq's responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks.
Understandably anxious to counter the myth that we went into Iraq on the basis of his agency's faulty intelligence, Tenet seeks to substitute another myth: that the decision to remove Saddam Hussein resulted from the nefarious influence of the vice president and a cabal of neoconservative intellectuals. To advance that idea, a theme of his book, he has attributed to me, and to others, statements that were never made.
Careful readers will see at once that what Tenet calls "corroboration" is nothing of the sort. But Tenet is not a careful reader -- a serious deficiency in a CIA director and a catastrophe for an intelligence organization. Indeed, sloppy analysis and imprecision with evidence got Tenet and the rest of us stuck in a credibility gap that continues to damage our foreign policy.
For years the American intelligence establishment has failed to show meticulous regard for the facts that are essential to its mission. The CIA's assessment that Hussein possessed chemical and biological weapons was only the most recent damaging example. The president, the vice president, Congress and others relied on intelligence produced by Tenet's CIA -- and repeated CIA findings that never should have been presented as fact.
When Defense Department officials pressed the CIA to reassess whether Hussein's intelligence service supported terrorists, and had links to al-Qaeda, Tenet first resisted, then treated with derision the evidence of such links that CIA analysts had ignored. While he later acknowledged some of that evidence in a letter to then-Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), he continues to minimize it while targeting critics of the CIA.
But the greatest intelligence failure of the past two decades was the CIA's failure to understand and sound an alarm at the rise of jihadist fundamentalism. It is Wahhabi extremism and the call to holy war against infidels that gave us the perpetrators of Sept. 11 and much of the terrorism that has followed. In his attempts to blame others for CIA shortcomings, Tenet cannot say, "I told the president that our Saudi allies were financing thousands of mosques and schools around the world where a hateful doctrine of holy war and violence was being inculcated in young potential terrorists." Fatefully, the CIA failed to make our leaders aware of the rise of Islamist extremism and the immense danger it posed to the United States.
George Tenet and, more important, our premier intelligence organization managed to find weapons of mass destruction that did not exist while failing to find links to terrorists that did -- all while missing completely the rise of Islamist fundamentalism. We have made only a down payment on the price of that failure.
The writer was chairman of the Defense Policy Board from 2001 to 2003.