While the natural human fascination with gossip and backbiting among our rulers guarantees media coverage and best-seller status for George Tenet’s new memoir, the former C.I.A. director cannot achieve absolution in print or on television. His clumsy attempts to shift the blame to Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Pentagon advisor Richard Perle and their rebuttals are titillating but ultimately pointless. He is right about them, of course, but they are right about him, too.
History will absolve none of them. With thousands of Americans and Iraqis dead, hundreds of billions of dollars squandered, and the national honor permanently tarnished, there is more than enough blame to go around.
As a group of former intelligence officers observed in a letter they sent to Mr. Tenet upon the publication of At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, his supposed outrage over the misleading propaganda that led to the war is belated and utterly self-serving. During the critical months between September 2002 and March 2003, in the midst of that White House campaign, he was nothing but the useful tool of those he now criticizes.
From the beginning, Mr. Tenet knew that his colleagues in the White House and the National Security Council were concocting a case for war that went far beyond any reliable intelligence about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal and intentions. He knew that his best field officers and most competent analysts didn’t believe the warnings about an Iraqi “mushroom cloud.” He also knew that they had no convincing evidence of ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda.
Yet while Mr. Cheney and Ms. Rice lied dramatically and repeatedly on national television, persuading the majority of Americans that Iraq was indeed behind the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Tenet maintained a discreet silence—except when he was enabling them.
Now, however, Mr. Tenet hopes to be seen as the truth-teller among those prevaricators. Promoting his book on 60 Minutes on Sunday evening, he vehemently denounced the White House spinning of 9/11 to justify the war. At one point, CBS correspondent Scott Pelley suggested that he should have pushed back harder against that spin, reading from a speech in which the President warned that “we need to think about Saddam Hussein using Al Qaeda to do his dirty work.” Mr. Pelley then asked: “Is that what you [were] telling the President?”
The former C.I.A. chief replied indignantly. No, he said, “we didn’t believe Al Qaeda was going to do Saddam Hussein’s dirty work.” Why, then, did he emphasize the alleged connections between Al Qaeda and Iraq when he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in February 2003? Why did he ominously warn the Senate that Iraqi intelligence had given “safe haven” to Al Qaeda operatives? The answer is that he knew what the White House wanted, and he delivered the message that helped to sell the war.
Mr. Tenet played the stooge over and over again during those months. In October 2002, he signed the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a fatally skewed assessment of the dangers posed to us by that ruined country. In January 2003, he let the White House pretend that Iraq was seeking to obtain uranium from Africa. And in February 2003, as Mr. Powell presented a series of bogus assertions to the United Nations and forever disgraced himself and his country, Mr. Tenet sat behind him in silent, nodding confirmation of those falsehoods. All of those acts betrayed the C.I.A.’s mission, and the people who had faithfully served the agency, by permitting their work to be dismissed and distorted. He owed them—and us—much better.
Perhaps the most pitiful argument mustered by Mr. Tenet to defend himself today is his attempt to rebut the “slam-dunk” anecdote. President Bush and other members of the administration have said that the C.I.A. director assured them that the intelligence proving the existence of Saddam’s terrible arsenal was unassailable—and that they went to war on that basis. He whines that his basketball cliché has been misinterpreted, because he was only promising the President that a strong argument could be made, not that the information itself was perfect. More plausibly, he also notes that the decision to invade had been reached long before that little warmongering pep rally in the Oval Office.
But so what? Mr. Tenet sat and listened as the President told us, untruthfully, that no such decision had been reached and that war would only be waged as a “last resort.” He doesn’t deny encouraging Mr. Bush in his war salesmanship, even though he doubted the wisdom of that policy and the process that had led to it. His fitful protests against the worst lies uttered by Mr. Cheney and Ms. Rice had no effect because he refused to risk his own position for truth and honor.
Bleating about his damaged reputation, Mr. Tenet sounds much like Mr. Powell, whose loyalty to the President overruled duty to the country. Mr. Tenet got a medal and a multimillion-dollar book contract. But he forfeited his honor, and that cannot be retrieved.