George Tenet and the Evils of Banality

“Truth matters to us,” former C.I.A. director George Tenet insisted to Scott Pelley on Sunday’s 60 Minutes.

It doesn’t seem to have mattered enough to Mr. Tenet, however, for him to fact-check the first page of his newly published book.

Mr. Tenet’s memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, opens on a significant date: Sept. 12, 2001. Walking to the West Wing, Mr. Tenet purportedly encounters neocon mastermind Richard Perle coming the other way.

“Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday,” we are told Mr. Perle asserted. “They bear responsibility.”

Mr. Tenet, in a characteristic formulation, states that though he said nothing, he was inwardly “stunned.”

In the days since Mr. Tenet’s version of the story was made public, Mr. Perle has pointed out that he was not in the country on Sept. 12, much less the White House. On Monday, Mr. Tenet admitted to NBC’s Tom Brokaw that he “may have been off by a couple of days.”

Saturday’s New York Times noted another problematic vignette. In his book, the erstwhile spymaster relates a meeting at which a “naval reservist,” Tina Shelton, allied with controversial former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, announced that the linkage between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was “an open-and-shut case.”

Ms. Shelton told The Times that she was never a Navy Reservist, in fact having served as a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst for 22 years, and that she never made the remark Mr. Tenet attributed to her.

Mr. Tenet must be dismayed at how his campaign for rehabilitation is going so far.

Perhaps he could have anticipated attacks from the likes of Maureen Dowd and Christopher Hitchens. More wounding, surely, are the brickbats that have rained down upon him from former comrades.

The founding head of the C.I.A.’s Bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, wrote in The Washington Post that the former director is “a man who never went from cheerleader to leader.”

A letter to Mr. Tenet from several former C.I.A. officers called on him to return his Medal of Freedom.

In Mr. Tenet’s defense, he admits some shortcomings with surprising candor. He writes of being told by Congressman Norm Dicks that “you let us down” by producing a severely flawed National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in late 2002. “It was one of the lowest moments of my seven-year tenure,” Mr. Tenet recalls, “because I knew he was right.”

But if Mr. Tenet’s detractors have been reluctant to acknowledge such frankness, they have also been slow to seize on other episodes that illustrate precisely the weaknesses they have long ascribed to the former C.I.A. director.

Mr. Tenet is a very poor witness in his own defense, often relating damning details in an avuncular or shoulder-shrugging “what could I do?” style. If Dick Cheney is the Niccolò Machiavelli of the push for war, Mr. Tenet sometimes sounds like its George Costanza.

George Tenet and the Evils of Banality