If they question why we died,
Tell them because our fathers lied.
Mercifully, the flurry of media coverage of former CIA director
George Tenet hawking his memoir, “At the Center of the Storm,” has
abated. Buffeted by those on both right and left who see through his
lame attempt at self-justification, Tenet probably now wishes he had
opted to just fade away, as old soldiers used to do.
He listened instead to his old PR buddy and “co-author” Bill Harlow
who failed miserably in trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
By this point, they may be having second thoughts. But, hey, the $4
million advance is a tidy sum, even when split two ways. Aside from the
money, what else could they have been thinking?
Tenet’s book is a self-indictment for the crimes with which Socrates
was charged: making the worse cause appear the better, and corrupting
But George is not the kind to take the hemlock. Rather, with no
apparent shame, he accepted what one wag has labeled the “Presidential
Medal of Silence” in return for agreeing to postpone his Nixon-style
“modified limited hangout” until after the mid-term elections last
November. The $4 million advance that Tenet and Harlow took for the
book marked a shabby, inauspicious beginning to the effort to stitch
together what remains of Tenet’s tattered reputation.
Here in Washington we are pretty much inured to effrontery, but
Tenet’s book and tiresome interviews have earned him the degree for
chutzpah summa cum laude. We are supposed to feel sorry for this
pathetic soul, who could not muster the integrity simply to tell the
truth and stave off unspeakable carnage in Iraq. Rather, when his
masters lied to justify war, Tenet simply lacked the courage to tell
his fellow citizens that America was about to launch what the post WWII
Nuremberg Tribunal called the “supreme international crime”—a war of
Tenet’s pitiable apologia demonstrates once again not only that
absolute power corrupts absolutely, but also that the corruption
befouls all those nearby.
For those of prurient bent, the book offers a keyhole-peep into a
White House of ill repute, with Vice President Dick Cheney playing at
his chess board, moving sniveling pawns like Tenet from one square to
Someone should have told the former CIA director that unprovoked war
is not some sort of game. Out of respect for the hundreds of thousands
killed and maimed in Iraq, it is time to start calling spades spades.
It was a high crime, a premeditated felony to have taken part in this
Not surprisingly, few of Tenet’s talk-show hosts were armed with
enough facts to pierce the smoke and the arrogant now-you-listen-to-me
approach from Bill Harlow’s PR toolbox. Whether out of ignorance or
just habit, celebrity interviewers kept cutting Tenet more and more
slack. Understandable, I suppose, for they, like Tenet, were
enthusiastic cheerleaders for the attack on Iraq. And so, affable,
hot-blooded George was allowed to filibuster, bob, weave, and blow
still more smoke. Tenet should not be behind a microphone; he should be
With nauseating earnestness, Tenet keeps saying:
“I believed there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”
This is a lie. And no matter how many times he says it (after the
axiom of his master, George W. Bush, who has stressed publicly that
repetition is necessary to “catapult the propaganda”), Tenet can no
longer conceal the deceit. Indeed, the only other possibility—that he
is (as he complains) being made the useful “idiot” on whom Vice
President Dick Cheney and others mean to blame the war—can be ruled out.
Tenet was indeed useful to Cheney and Bush, but he is no idiot.
Those who do not rely exclusively on the corporate media for their
information know Tenet for what he is—a charlatan. A willing
co-conspirator, he did for Bush and Cheney what propaganda minister
Joseph Goebbels did for Hitler. The key difference is that Goebbels and
his Nazi collaborators, rather than writing books and taking sinecures
to enrich themselves, were held accountable at Nuremberg.
Phantom Weapons of Mass Destruction
Tenet knew there were no WMD. Secret British documents reveal not
only that Tenet told his British counterpart the intelligence was being
“fixed” around the policy. They also show that Washington and London
developed a scheme to “wrongfoot” Saddam Hussein by insisting on the
kind of UN inspections they were sure he would reject, thus providing a
convenient casus belli.
Saddam outfoxed them by allowing the most intrusive inspection
regime in recent history. At the turn of 2002-03 UN inspectors were
crawling all over Saddam’s palaces, interviewing his scientists, and
pursuing every tip they could get from Tenet—and finding nothing.
What did satellite imagery show? Nothing, save for the
embarrassingly inconclusive photos that then-Secretary of State Colin
Powell displayed on Feb. 5, 2003 at the UN. Were there any photos of
those biological weapons trailers reported by the shadowy Curveball?
None. And so “artist renderings” were conjured up to show what these
sinister trailers might look like.
At least the renderings produced by the CIA graphics shop were more
professional than the crude forgeries upon which the fable about Iraq
seeking uranium in Africa was based. And the Cheney-Rice-Judith Miller
story about aluminum tubes for uranium enrichment got bent hopelessly
out of shape as soon as genuine scientists (as opposed to Tenet’s
stable of malleable engineers) got hold of them.
Exactly four years ago, amid the euphoria of Mission Accomplished
and the incipient concern over the trouble encountered in finding WMD,
then-deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz told writer Sam Tanenhaus
of Vanity Fair that Iraq’s supposed cache of WMD had never been the
most important casus belli. It was simply one of several reasons:
“For bureaucratic reasons we settled on one issue, weapons of mass
destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree
on...Almost unnoticed but huge is another reason: removing Saddam will
allow the U.S. to take its troops out of Saudi Arabia...”
Absence of Evidence
Who needs real evidence as opposed to allegations of WMD, when the
name of the game is removing Saddam? But how to explain the blather
about WMD in the lead-up to the war, when not one piece of imagery or
other intelligence could confirm the presence of such weapons? Easy.
Apply the Rumsfeld maxim: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of
absence.” And then explain further that the lack of evidence proves
nothing but how clever the Iraqis have become at hiding their weapons.
Don’t laugh; that’s what Rumsfeld and the neocons said.
That foolishness had run its course by March 2003 when, despite the
best “leads” Tenet could provide and the intrusive inspection regime,
the UN inspectors could find nothing. It was getting downright
embarrassing for those bent on a belli without an ostensible casus, but
by then enough troops were in place to conquer Iraq (or so thought
Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz). At that point Bush told the UN to withdraw its
inspectors promptly and let them watch the fireworks of shock and awe
from a safer distance on TV. (The real shocker is President Bush
repeated insistence that Saddam threw out the inspectors. But, again,
he has so successfully “catapulted” this piece of propaganda that most
Americans do not realize it is a lie.)
How did the White House conspirators think they could get away with
all this? Well, don’t you remember Cheney saying we would be greeted as
liberators...and Ken Neocon Adelman assuring us that it would be a
“cakewalk?” We would defeat a fourth-rate army, remove a “ruthless
dictator,” eliminate an adversary of Israel, and end up sitting atop
all that oil with permanent military bases and no further need to
station troops in Saudi Arabia. At that point, smiled the neocons, what
spoilsport will be able to make political hay by insisting: Yes, but
you did this on the basis of forgery, fakery; and where, by the way,
are the weapons of mass destruction?
Granted that over recent weeks George Tenet has shown himself a bit
dense beneath the bluster. Nevertheless, there is simply no defense on
grounds of density—or gross ineptitude or momentary insanity. He
clearly played a sustained role in the chicanery.
Okay; if you insist: let’s assume for a moment that Rumsfeld did
actually succeed in convincing Tenet that the reason there was no
evidence of WMD was because the Iraqis were so good at hiding them.
Tenet does not get off the hook. There was, in fact, no absence of
well sourced evidence that Saddam’s WMD had all been destroyed shortly
after the Gulf War in 1991—yes, all of them.
You Go With the Evidence There Is
In 1995, when Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, defected
with a treasure trove of documents, he spilled the beans on Iraq's
weapons of mass destruction. There were none. He knew. He was in charge
of the chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs and ordered
all such weapons destroyed before the UN inspectors could discover them
after the war in 1991. He told us much more, and the information that
could be checked out was confirmed.
The George-and-Condoleezza-must-have-just-missed-this-report excuse
won’t wash, because Newsweek acquired a transcript of Kamel’s
debriefing and broke the story on Feb. 24, 2003, several weeks before
the war, noting gingerly that Kamel’s information “raises questions
about whether the WMD stockpiles attributed to Iraq still exist.”
It was the kind of well-sourced documentary evidence after which
intelligence analysts and lawyers positively lust. But the mainstream
press dropped it like a hot potato after Bill Harlow (yes, Tenet’s
co-author), in his role as CIA spokesperson, angrily protested (a bit
too much) that the Newsweek story was “incorrect, bogus, wrong,
untrue.” It was, rather, entirely correct; it was documentary—and not
forged this time. Curiously, the name of Hussein Kamel shows up on a
listing of Iraqis in the front of Tenet’s book, but nowhere in the
text. Tenet and Harlow apparently decided to avoid calling attention to
the fact that they suppressed information from a super source,
preferring instead to help the White House grease the skids for war.
In late summer 2002 CIA operatives had a signal success. They had
recruited Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri and had him working in
place--for the U.S. Proud of their successful recruitment of a senior
Iraqi official, officers of CIA’s clandestine service immediately
sought and were given an early meeting with President Bush and his
The information Sabri had already passed to us had checked out well.
Naively, the agency officers were expecting sighs of relief as they
quoted him saying there were no WMD in Iraq. The information went over
like a lead balloon, dispelling all excitement over this high-level
penetration of the Iraqi government.
When the CIA officers got back to Headquarters and told colleagues
what had just happened at the White House, those who had been tasking
Naji Sabri asked whether they should seek additional intelligence from
him on the subject. According to Tyler Drumheller, the division chief
in charge of such collection, the answer was loud and clear: “Well,
this isn’t about intel any more. This is about regime change.”
And then there was Curveball. Tenet and his deputy, John McLaughlin,
played a direct role regarding the notorious “Curveball,” a former
Iraqi taxi driver and convicted embezzler whom German intelligence
deemed a mentally unstable alcoholic, who was "out of control." Unlike
the unwelcome reporting from the Iraqi foreign minister, Curveball
provided very welcome, if bogus, information on alleged mobile
laboratories producing biological weapons in Iraq—grist for the “artist
renderings” for Powell’s UN speech.
It was all a crock. And Tenet and McLaughlin both knew it, because
Drumheller gave them chapter and verse before Powell's speech, and has
now written a book about this sad story.
Moreover, the normally taciturn, but recently outspoken former
director of State Department intelligence, Carl Ford, has noted that
both Tenet and McLaughlin took a personal hand in writing a follow-up
report aimed at salvaging what Curveball had said. Ford spared no
words: The report “wasn’t just wrong, they lied...they should have been
Nor can Tenet expunge from the record his witting cooperation in the
cynical campaign to exploit the trauma we all felt after 9/11, by
intimating a connection with that heinous event and Saddam Hussein. If,
as Tenet now concedes, no significant connection could be established
between Saddam and al-Qaeda, why did he sit quietly behind Powell at
the UN as Powell spun a yarn about a "sinister nexus" between the two?
That sorry exhibition destroyed what was left of the morale of honest
CIA analysts who, until then, had courageously resisted intense
pressure to endorse that evidence-less but explosive canard.
A Cropping Worth a Thousand Words
George Tenet's book includes a photo that is a metaphor for both the
primary purpose of his memoir and its unintended result. Most will
remember the famous photo of Colin Powell briefing the UN Security
Council, with Tenet and then-US ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte
sitting staunchly behind him. Well, on a centerfold page large enough
to accommodate the familiar shot, the photo has been cropped to exclude
Tenet altogether and include only Negroponte’s shoulder and nose
(which, mercifully, he was not holding at the time.) This is an
incredibly adolescent attempt to distance Tenet from that scandalous
performance, even though he was the one most responsible for it. The
cropping also suggests that Tenet and Harlow are only too aware that by
including spurious “intelligence” in Powell’s speech and then sitting
stoically behind him as if to validate it, Tenet visibly squandered
CIA's most precious asset--credibility.
“It was a great presentation, but unfortunately the substance didn’t
hold up,” blithely write Tenet and Harlow, without any trace of
acknowledgment of the enormous consequences of the deception. In a Feb.
5, 2003 Memorandum for the President regarding Powell’s speech that
day, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) gave him
an “A” for presentation, and a “C-” for content. (If we knew then what
we know now we would of course have flunked him outright.) In the VIPS
memo we warned the president that intelligence analysts were
“increasingly distressed at the politicization of intelligence...and
finding it hard to be heard above the drumbeat for war.”
That a war of choice was on the horizon was crystal clear—as were
the consequences. We urged the president to “widen the discussion
beyond violations of Resolution 1441,and beyond the circle of those
advisers clearly bent on a war for which we see no compelling reason
and from which we believe the unintended consequences are likely to be
catastrophic.” We take no comfort in having got that one right. Former
UN Chief Inspector and U.S. Marine Major, Scott Ritter, was screaming
it from the rooftops (and was blacklisted by the domesticated media).
It was a no-brainer.
Tenet Breaks Tenet
Tenet’s tell-some-but-not-all book is unwittingly self-incriminating
in another key respect, an illustration of what happens when you have a
politician, with PR help, running U.S. intelligence. Much of the
Tenet/Harlow self-justifying prose is transparent to any observer who
has been paying the slightest attention to issues of intelligence on
Iraq over the past few years. What may not be fully clear is that, in
his zeal to indict others and exculpate himself, Tenet plays fast and
loose with a cardinal tenet of intelligence work. You don’t reveal
confidential discussions with policymakers—and you especially don’t
quote the president. You simply do not do that. For once you violate
confidentiality, not only your effectiveness but also that of those who
succeed you will be greatly impaired, if not ended.
In normal circumstances presidents have a right to expect that their
conversations with advisers will be kept in strictest confidence, and
not revealed later by some buffoon pushing a book. And it is the height
of irresponsibility for an intelligence director to quote a president
still in office. If the president and senior advisers are unable to
count on confidences being kept, it becomes impossible to conduct
sensible discussions on policy making.
Why do I say “in normal circumstances?” Because no president has the
right to plan a war of aggression with high confidence that
accomplices, or others that might become privy to such plans, will stay
quiet and not blow the whistle. The oath we take to defend the
Constitution of the United States supersedes any promise, explicit or
implicit, to enable the president to commit crimes in our name. (And
someone ought to tell that to Sen. Dick Durbin, who recently confessed
that he knew the intelligence justification for war was a crock, but
could not tell the American people because it was secret!)
Am I saying there are circumstances in which conscience may require
divulging the confidential remarks of the president of the United
States? Of course there are, and these circumstances are a case in
point. But that, sadly, was/is far from George Tenet’s intent. That he
sees fit now to violate the principle of confidentiality in a quixotic
attempt at self-justification (and, yes, his share of the $4 million)
betokens not only an adolescent narcissism oblivious to the importance
of trust, but also a lack of genuine respect for policymakers,
including the president. Those of us who have been privileged to brief
the president’s father and other senior national security officials—and
there must be a hundred of us by now—never violated that trust the way
Tenet has done.
Most people do not know that personal access to the president and
his top advisers was a rarity during most of the CIA’s first three
decades. Regularized personal access by CIA officers did not begin
until former director and then-vice president George H. W. Bush
persuaded President Ronald Reagan to authorize the sharing of the
President’s Daily Brief (PDB) in one-on-one morning briefings for the
vice president, the secretaries of state and defense, and the
president’s national security adviser. (With White House approval, we
later added the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as a daily consumer.)
These early morning briefings were conducted by us senior analysts
who prepared the PDB (and badgered the drafter/analysts with all manner
of questions) the day and night before. We were experienced
intelligence professionals steeped in substance and just a secure
telephone call away from the analysts we knew could provide additional,
trustworthy detail if needed. It was a position of great trust.
Our ethos, our job, was to speak unvarnished truth to power,
irrespective of the policy agendas of the officials we briefed. We were
trusted to do that as honestly and professionally as possible. The last
thing we needed was a CIA director looking over our
shoulder—particularly one, like Tenet, not well schooled in the need to
protect the credibility of intelligence by avoiding policy advocacy
like the plague. During the Reagan presidency, the CIA director rarely
joined us for the PDB briefings and did no pre-publication review. The
director had quite enough on his plate. His was a dual job involving
herding the cats of a scarcely manageable, multi-agency intelligence
community, while trying to manage one agency (CIA) itself conceived
with a serious birth defect.
A Structural Flaw
A most unfortunate flaw in the National Security Act of 1947 gave
the CIA director not only responsibility for preparing unvarnished
intelligence, but the additional duty “to perform other such functions
and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as
the National Security Council may from time to time direct”—like
running secret wars, as in Nicaragua; overthrowing governments, as in
Iran, Guatemala, Chile; and applying President Bush-favored
“alternative” methods of interrogation in secret prisons in violation
of international and U.S. Army law, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This was hardly President Harry Truman’s original intent. Long after
he left the White House, Truman addressed this directly in an article
for the then independent Washington Post on Dec. 22, 1963:
“I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its
original assignment. It has become an operational and at times
policy-making arm of the government...I never had any thought of that
when I set up the CIA.... I would like to see the CIA restored to its
original assignment as the intelligence arm of the president...and its
operational duties terminated or properly used elsewhere.
A pity no one listened to Truman. As a result, for the CIA director
each of the two scarcely compatible jobs became full-time challenges.
During my 27-year career I had a front-row seat watching nine
directors, most of whom did their best to act with integrity and
honesty, despite that noxious structural fault. And, if that were not
enough, this difficult dual task was accompanied by the additional
responsibility to manage the entire intelligence community (16 agencies
now). This posed a tri-fold management challenge.
Tenet all but admits he was not up to it. I’m “no Jack Welch,” is
the way he puts it. Equally unfortunate, he picked inexperienced
managers distinguished only by their malleability, their subservience
to the perceived wishes of the next level up. Perhaps the best case in
point is John McLaughlin, the quintessential affable
go-along-to-get-along functionary. McLaughlin very rarely made use of
his prerogative as statutory deputy in charge of the intelligence
community and did not become much involved in operations. At the top of
his sins of commission was staffing substantive analysis with weak-reed
supervisors, the easier to bend analytic conclusions to the prevailing
winds from the White House and Pentagon.
As for poor misunderstood George, instead of tending to his knitting
at CIA headquarters, he decided to hitch a ride downtown with the PDB
briefer in the morning, and thus secure regular face time with his pal,
the president. From all reports there were many “slam dunks” voiced in
those very private discussions. Worse still, Tenet felt free to ignore
substantive dissent from other intelligence agencies—a practice that,
though occasionally tempting, NEVER makes real sense and was an
abnegation of his major responsibility. He knew what the president
wanted to hear. And the McLaughlin-protégé analysts knew it too. Not
only did they serve it up to recipe, but they actually took steps to
conceal from colleagues elsewhere in the intelligence community what
their boss was telling the president. On those few occasions when
colleagues from other agencies learned via the grapevine what Tenet was
telling the president, they were aghast and, understandably, angry. But
none of their own bosses, including Colin Powell, dared get crosswise
with the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal.
What Tenet should have told Bush? For starters, that:
--State Department analysts had heaped scorn on the Cheney fiction
that Iraq had “reconstituted” its nuclear weapons program. They were,
of course, right, but why make it harder for the president to keep a
straight face when warning of mushroom clouds? Remember, it is not
about Intel; it’s about regime change.
--State had described the cockamamie report about Iraq seeking
uranium from Africa as “highly suspect” well before it was learned that
this choice morsel was based on a forgery.
--Department of Energy analysts were having a riotous laugh at the
thought those famous aluminum tubes could be somehow warped into use
for uranium enrichment. The laugh, though, was mostly a mechanism to
help suppress their rage over Tenet’s recruitment of pseudo-engineers
to spin those aluminum artillery tubes into something more menacing.
--US Air Force intelligence experts thought hilarious the specter of
Iraqi planes scarcely larger than the models seen on the Washington
Monument grounds somehow flying to our shores to spray chemical or
biological agents. But the Air Force, too, caved, acquiescing in their
dissent being relegated to a footnote in the infamous National
Intelligence Estimate of Oct. 1, 2002 on Iraqi WMD.
But Tenet knew what Bush wanted. And “action officer” Condoleezza
could boil down the intelligence estimate into one page and read it to
the president, if the opportunity affords itself.
Tenet’s Ave atque Vale in the preface to his book speaks volumes.
One need read no further. He looks back unapologetically and with
satisfaction on his long career as chief of intelligence, “not always
successful, but...“striving to do what is right.”
“Son of immigrants John and Evangelia Tenet, who left their villages
in Greece to give me that chance”...and give us George Tenet.
Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.
Beware the Greeks bearing gifts.
(Re-printed with Permission of Ray McGovern)
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the
ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. During his career
as a CIA analyst, he prepared and briefed the President’s Daily Brief
and chaired National Intelligence Estimates. He is a member of the
Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).