George Tenet and the Evils of Banality

One of the most persistent charges thrown Mr. Tenet’s way is that he wanted to be liked more than he wanted to tell the truth. Here is Mr. Tenet relating the meeting addressed by Ms. Shelton (the “naval reservist” who wasn’t):

“I listened for a few more minutes, trying to be polite, before saying, ‘That’s very interesting’ …. What I was really thinking was, ‘This is complete crap, and I want this to end right now.’”

What he was really thinking and what came out of his mouth were, conveniently but dangerously, very different things.

Another common accusation is that Mr. Tenet was too deferential towards political figures. In his memoir, this is denied in the abstract, but the specifics tell a different story.

At one point, he laments speaking with a New York Times reporter at Condoleezza Rice’s request, insisting that it “certainly wasn’t my intention” to give “the impression that I was becoming a partisan player.”

But he did it nonetheless.

Even more troubling is a hazily explained episode from late 2002. Mr. Tenet describes Ms. Rice reacting with horror to unexpectedly equivocal assessments of Saddam’s W.M.D. capabilities from a senior C.I.A. officer.

In Mr. Tenet’s account, Ms. Rice noted that the level of confidence the officer was expressing was “a heck of a lot lower than we’re getting from reading the [Presidential Daily Briefings].”

Mr. Tenet admits that “we had in fact been much more assertive in what we were writing for the president on some issues.” But the discrepancy is not explained further, and there is no sense that Mr. Tenet even grasps its importance.

These details have received relatively little attention in the days since the release of Mr. Tenet’s book. Presumably that is because they do not fit especially neatly into anyone’s preferred narrative. They reflect dismally on the administration’s competence, yet they also fail to support many of the claims made by the war’s loudest opponents.

They suggest that the nation was marched into war at least as much as a consequence of sloppiness as skullduggery, that the overall pattern was one of cock-ups as much as conspiracies.

The phrase “the banality of evil” was coined to describe events beside which even the horrors of Iraq pale. Mr. Tenet’s book is testament to the evils of banality. It paints a picture of momentous historical decisions emerging from the same messy dynamics that are at play in every office in the land, with those more junior in rank straining facts to please their bosses, and swallowing misgivings in public even as they carp in private.

It is a depressing picture from which no one emerges with credit—least of all, despite his best efforts, Mr. Tenet himself.