Book World Live
Tuesday, May 8, 2007; 3:00 PM
"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." -- Bob Woodward
Full Book World Review:
Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor of Investigations Bob Woodward, will be online Tuesday, May 8, at 3 p.m. ET to discuss former CIA Director George Tenet's book, "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA."
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A transcript follows.
You begin your Book World review of the George Tenet book by calling it an "important and unintentionally damning memoir." What's damning about it?
Bob Woodward: First, that he didn't consider the president the action officer for taking action and conducting covert operations to stop terrorists.
Second, that he didn't tell the president that he had some misgivings about the Iraq war before the invasion.
St. Paul, Minn.: Tenet contends that the CIA was so focused on the terrorist threat and was paying little attention to Iraq even in the run-up to the war. Is this claim credible?
Bob Woodward: Yes, I believe it is and I have reported in my books exactly that. However, there were so much covert action and covert action planning and military planning going on that he should've realized the direction and momentum. He, himself, in his book acknowledges that he should have paid more attention to Iraq.
Tucson, Ariz: What is Rice's accountability for not moving forward more effectively with Tenet's warning?
Bob Woodward: She and Tenet probably should have gone to President Bush and urged more covert action sooner. Rice's response is that the covert action plan to go after bin Laden was moving quite rapidly by normal bureaucratic standards. But normal was not enough and the first plan by Rice's account, was on President Bush's desk Sept. 10, 2001, a day before the attacks.
Detroit, Mich.: Can you comment on Tenet's personality and how that affected his work relationships? When I have seen him interviewed on TV recently, he is not only defensive but prevents interviewers from asking questions by talking loudly and over them. He does not seem like someone who would listen carefully to those who work under him and be able to have a truly one-on-one conversation.
Bob Woodward: Tenet was not known as a detail person but to be fair, he seems to have calmed down in some of his television interviews after the initial 60 Minutes show on April 29.
Albany, Calif.: Tenet is saying now that his "Slam Dunk!" moment was not a big contributor to the decision to go to war. That may be true, but why was he so intent on pleasing the president with the intelligence? If his job, as he now says, is simply to present the best intelligence that we have and to stay out of policy, why would he care if the policymakers are "impressed" with the evidence?
Bob Woodward: That's a very good question. "Slam dunk" is the most colorful and memorable declaration of Tenet's confidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. But he essentially said the same thing in the famous National Intelligence Estimate two months earlier and again when he gave WMD intelligence to Secretary of State Colin Powell for the famous U.N. presentation.
Carrboro, NC: Thank you for taking our questions. The first thing that puzzles me about George Tenet is why he was retained by President Bush in the first place after being installed by President Clinton. When you consider the reflexive rejection of all things Clintonion, plus the premium placed on loyalty and "true Bush believers" in this administration, it seemed like a highly uncharacteristic thing for President Bush to do.
Bob Woodward: That's an important question. First, I think President Bush truly liked Tenet and his personal style. Second, President Bush's father, the 41st president, was removed from the directorship of the CIA in 1977 by Democratic President Jimmy Carter and as best I can tell, both Bushes felt that was unfair and the C.I.A. director's role should be taken out of politics as much as possible.
McLean, Va.: Do you believe if Tenet was more candid with the president and his staff, and selected his words more carefully, such as NOT using the term "slam dunk," that they would have taken his opinions seriously? Or were they predisposed to the invasion?
Bob Woodward: They were predisposed to invading Iraq but the CIA claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction was a significant factor in the decision.
Elmira, N.Y.: I saw Tenet on Meet the Press, where he drew a bright line between the work of the CIA -- intelligence -- and the policy-making decision makers in the White House. Or, at least it seems to me he was referring to the White House. Do you agree with this distinction?
Bob Woodward: He may have tried but a CIA director who meets with the president most mornings almost inevitably becomes part of the policy-making discussions. The distinction between pure intelligence and policy-making is a very difficult line to draw and I'm not sure anyone has been totally successful in making that distinction.
Honolulu, Hawaii: Who in the administration do you conclude was the "decider" for revealing Valerie Plame identity as a CIA agent?
Bob Woodward: The court testimony in the "Scooter" Libby trial showed that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was the first but Armitage only knew or believed he was a weapons of mass destruction analyst -- not an undercover position.
McLean, Va: You wrote that you hoped Tenet's memoir would include a comparison of the two presidents he worked with and how they used the CIA. What did you speculate he might say about that?
Bob Woodward: I don't suggest that he should compare them. I suggest that he should've given much more intimate portraits of what Clinton and Bush said and did and how Tenet got to know them. There's way too little about Clinton and Bush in this memoir for my taste.
The question that still lingers is simply who were these men and how did they act as president -- issues that Tenet, I believe, could have and should have been more forthcoming on.
Walnut Creek, Calif.: I am curious about how the decision to go to war was made. Does Tenet's book shed any additional light, beyond your own research, on when, how, and why Bush decided to go to war in Iraq. Does he confirm the country's impression that there was little discussion about the problems that might arise after an invasion?
Bob Woodward: He adds some new material but really doesn't offer a judgment on when Bush finally decided on the invasion. My own reporting and interviews with Bush and other key players show that the president's final decision on war was made in early January 2003.
Urbana, Md: Aside from Tenet's bureaucratic rationale for not speaking directly with the president about the threats or about his disdain for the decision to invade Iraq, why do you think he didn't express his opinions to the president?
Bob Woodward: I believe he did outline the threats in the intelligence but by his own account Tenet did not press for immediate covert action in the summer of 2001. He has said in interviews recently that his misgivings about an Iraq war were not final and clear though he seems to have acknowledged that he did at least tell one close aide, John Brennan, that he thought the war was a "mistake."
La Jolla, Calif: I have heard that Bush was out to get Saddam because of the attempt on Bush senior's life, and that he was just looking for justification? Have you heard this rumor? Please comment.
Bob Woodward: President Bush has commented and noted that he believed Saddam was responsible for a plan that was not executed to kill his father. My reporting shows pretty clearly that 9/11, its impact, the shock of so many deaths on American soil and the president's belief that the U.S. had, in his words, "duty" to liberate and free people. Also, lots of Bush advisors thought the war was going to be easy. For example, Paul Wolfowitz, when he was deputy defense secretary, said he thought the war would lost only seven days. It has not been well over 1,400.
McLean Va.: In reference to a previous question: if the CIA WMD belief was only a part of the predisposition to go to war, what else was it based on?
Bob Woodward: I answered some of that in the previous question. President Bush has said many times he thought Saddam was a threat and the best evidence is that President Bush believed Saddam had substantial stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Serious historians are going to be debating this issue for decades and there may be new information that will emerge adding to the record. But I think the basic reasons are those I've outlined.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Are you aware of any reactions that George Tenet had towards your review of his book?
Bob Woodward: In other words, what's the review of the review? I have no idea.
Bob Woodward: The review does note that some of the chapters, particularly on terrorists possibly obtaining nuclear weapons, are worth the price of the book all by themselves. Tenet comes out quite strongly and makes a compelling case that terrorism directed to the U.S. is not over. I unfortunately think he's right.
Richmond, Va.: Don't you think that Tenet -- and even Powell -- would be forever heroes had each of them had the courage to resign when they thought that the intelligence leading up to the war was wrong? Surely, even little doubts about the invasion of Iraq, coming from such credible people, would have slowed the seeming inevitability of this war, giving everyone some breathing room -- media included. In short, where do you think we would be today had Tenet and Powell spoken for the country instead of the administration?
Bob Woodward: First of all, both Tenet and Powell believed the intelligence and I'm quite confident both thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Their reservations had to do with the process used by the president and the War Cabinet to reach the decision. In addition, Powell was very concerned that the consequences of war had not been examined and sufficiently weighed. In August 2002, seven months before the invasion of Iraq, Powell laid out to President Bush at a dinner what is neatly summarized as the "pottery barn" rule -- "if you break, it you own it."
Now, nearly five years later, that provides the best summary of where we are now -- we broke it, we essentially own it.
League City, Tex.: Having read all three of your books on the Iraq war I knew enough of Mr. Tenet's role in the run-up to the war to correctly predict that he would receive heavy criticism from all sides. Some say Mr. Tenet lacks any credibility, some have said he's an "enabler" and have said he too is "complicit" for failing to prevent this war. Do you feel this criticism of Mr. Tenet is justified?
Bob Woodward: Tenet and his CIA got the WMD question in Iraq absolutely wrong. He's accepted responsibility for that and said in his book that it was one of the lowest moments. The big problem here is an unwillingness by CIA directors, politicians and journalists to acknowledge that at times they cannot provide firm answers to hard questions. Tenet and the CIA should've said the hardest thing for human beings in institutions to say: "We don't know."
If that had been the intelligence conclusion on Saddam's WMD it's possible but not at all clear that would have at least postponed the war. Clearly there were factors that I mentioned above driving the president, the vice president and others in the administration.
Houston, Tex: Given the defensive tone of his interviews, it seems Tenet would like to portray himself as a scapegoat. Would you say that this was his motivation for writing "At the Center of the Storm" as well?
Bob Woodward: No, I think he wanted to present his side knowing that he would have to accept a lot of the responsibility for the mistakes. As I say in my review, I personally urged him to write a memoir because his piece of the puzzle is important to understanding what happened and why. In fairness to him, and he makes this point in his book many times, and also in his recent interviews, he truly admired and had deep affection for people at the CIA and what they did. Probably in drawing fire away from others in the intelligence community in the CIA he has drawn fire to himself.
Cincinnati, Ohio: Why do you think that several people around the president have "swallowed their whistles" on the Iraq issue and never offered any real dialogue until they no longer hold positions. Then they write their books. In other words, do you think that Tenet just glad to keep his job and did not want to rock the boat?
Bob Woodward: It's not that simple at all and the emotions and the crosscurrents in the administration during this post-9/11 period make for a rich history that I don't think some of the participants even understand. So I suspect just the writing of this book helps George Tenet straighten out in his own mind some of what he feels he did right and some of what he feels he did wrong. But the Iraq war and the war on terror are epic events and all of us alive and those who come later are going to be struggling with the residue for years and decades.
Figuring out what to do now in May of 2007 is connected to figuring out what happened and what the attitudes were towards terrorists, Iraq and many other intelligence issues going deep into the Clinton administration and probably before. All of this -- Tenet's book, the debates in Congress, on television and on the Internet, hopefully add to the body of data because the Iraq war in particular is a big event. And, as I'm sure most people have noticed, there is nothing approaching political consensus about what to do.
At some point someone is going to have to figure it out. So Tenet has added a chapter to the record.
Ocala Fla.: I have never understood the rationale and justification for gathering up the Saudi royal family members in the U.S. immediately after 9/11 and transporting them in USAF aircraft back to Saudi Arabia .Please explain. Thank you.
Bob Woodward: There were investigations of this and some pretty good ones and I think they found that it may have looked bad but there wasn't much to it. But I've done no substantial independent reporting on this.
Santa Rosa, Calif.: In your review of At the Center of the Storm, you stated that Tenet was not Clinton's first choice to head the CIA. Who was Clinton's first choice and do you think he might have been accepted by Bush when he assumed the presidency? If not, why?
Bob Woodward: My recollection of that history is not that exact but I know one of those choices was Tony Lake who had been Clinton's national security advisor. But Lake was criticized on the Hill and elsewhere and decided to drop out. It was Lake who proposed Tenet who was then the deputy CIA director and Lake urged President Clinton to nominate Tenet.
Baltimore MD: I heard a former CIA officer take Tenet to task for a line in his book that went something like, "I have lived my life in the shadows," which the retired officer said made Tenet sound like he had been covert when, in fact, he spent his entire career as a Congressional staffer and at Langley. Is that a fair criticism? Does Tenet see himself as an intelligence operative?
Bob Woodward: No, I don't think he does. When you're the director of the CIA the work you are doing takes place largely in the shadows. I think that was the reference but you're right, Tenet's phrase is not stated as well as it might've been.
McLean Va.: Bob, aren't you a bit harsh with Tenet? He briefed only Rice, but where is her responsibility to pass the news up?
Bob Woodward: That has been discussed in my book, State of Denial, and others. Rice's argument is that they were moving rapidly for a bureaucracy and national security system that had to set a policy for sensitive, high risk, covert action. Obviously Tenet felt he didn't do enough and given what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, I'm sure in retrospect she feels she should've acted more promptly.
I asked President Bush about his attitude toward bin Laden before 9/11 and the president said his own "blood was not boiling."
Cape Elizabeth, Maine: Yesterday's article on Tenet and Feith at Georgetown mentioned your guest appearance in Tenet's class. Did he or anyone in the class challenge your version of the "slam dunk" statement that Tenet is now saying was about the U.N. case and not evidence of WMD in Iraq?
washingtonpost.com: Teaching Recent History From Opposite Perspectives ( Post, May 7)
Bob Woodward: Not really. Look, there is a logic here that is important. You can't have the CIA director saying it's a "slam dunk" case to make intelligence public and not believe that the C.I.A. director felt the intelligence itself was a "slam dunk."
It's essentially a preposterous position to say, "Oh, I was just making a 'slam dunk' case." Is Tenet suggesting that somehow the intelligence was faulty? Throughout the book he says it was solid and he believed it. "Slam dunk" is just the most colorful and memorable way of saying it.
My account of that meeting makes it clear that they're discussing a public intelligence case. Frankly, I don't think there's any real issue here. He believed Saddam had WMD and he says so many times in the book. In fairness to him, he claims he did not rise up out of the couch he was sitting in in the Oval Office but others in attendance said he did.
I think his acknowledgement that he said it probably ought to end the debate.
washingtonpost.com: This concludes our discussion with Bob Woodward. Thank you for joining us.
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