George Tenet Contradicts Himself
In his new book At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA George Tenet depicts President Bush's decision to invade Iraq as a foregone conclusion, but he seemed to have a different version of events when I interviewed him just after the invasion.
Strongly implying that he was against the war from the beginning, the former director of Central Intelligence writes that, as far as he knows, the Bush administration never had a "serious debate" about the "imminence of the Iraqi threat" or even seriously considered the implications of an invasion or the possible consequences.
Moreover, Tenet writes, there seemed to be a "lack of curiosity in asking these kinds of questions." After 9/11, Tenet writes, the decision to go to war became a "runaway freight train."
As noted in a May 2 NewsMax story, Dick Cheney's Real Role, the United States did not invade Iraq until a year and a half after 9/11.
Even though he saw Bush at least once a day, six days a week, Tenet admits in the book that he did not raise any objections to Bush's decision.
"Such decisions properly belong to the policy-makers, not to intelligence officials," Tenet writes. But in an interview for my 2003 book, The CIA at War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror, Tenet presented what appears to be a different account.
Prior to my interview with him, Tenet, as director of Central Intelligence, had given no television interviews and only six print interviews, all before 9/11. However, Tenet approved cooperation on my book, including interviews with a range of CIA officials and tours of some CIA facilities.
The book depicted the CIA's response to terrorism before and after 9/11 and detailed how Tenet had begun to turn the agency around after the CIA, under President Clinton, had withered and become risk-averse.
The first of my two interviews with Tenet for the book took place on May 15, 2003 in the office of Bill Harlow, then the CIA's director of public affairs. Harlow would later collaborate with Tenet on his book. Having commenced on March 20, the invasion of Iraq had just ended on April 9, when U.S. troops occupied Baghdad.
Asked how President Bush operates, Tenet told me then, "He's terrific. We see him six days a week. He's a terrific leader. He's very steeped in our business. He's very supportive of everything we've done and everything we're doing."
These remarks echo what Tenet says about Bush in his book. Only a few sentences of these comments appear in my book.
Going beyond what he said in the book and what I quoted in my book, Tenet said of Bush in our interview at the agency, "He listens. He acquires data. He is always interested in competing views, but he then decides. He doesn't get paralyzed. When we're good, we go. I think there's a lot to be said for this style of leadership."
When I interviewed Tenet, war critics had already begun to question the decision to invade, insisting that diplomacy or sanctions would ultimately work instead. Friends and family members of Tenet and other CIA officers had lined up on opposing sides.
"There were people in my family who didn't agree [with the war]," Tenet told me. "That's part of America. It's great."
Pressed about the opposition to the war and whether going to war was the right thing to do, Tenet went on in our interview: "Going to war is a pretty serious decision for anybody to take. The reason this is a great country is people can express those views. The debate is important and healthy. All I can offer," Tenet said, "is this is not a president who went to war frivolously. He thought about it. He understood the consequences. He understood the potential for the loss of life. He deeply cared about the people who would execute the mission."
But in his book, Tenet lists among the possibilities and issues that the administration allegedly did not consider, "Was it wise to go to war? Was it the right thing to do?"
Asked now for comment, Bill Harlow said, "He was talking about the humanity of the president. The president certainly is not going to send men and women into battle lightly. When he talks in the book about a lack of debate, he's not talking about sending troops to war uncaringly. What he is saying is there was not a sufficient debate within the administration about what happens next: Do we have enough troops on the ground to prevent chaos and anarchy? What is going to happen in the region? What will happen if the Iraqis war among themselves? That's the debate that wasn't happening."
Clearly, Harlow said, there was a public debate about whether to go to war. The Senate debated and voted on the question, he noted.
"So he was not saying there was never any discussion [within the White House] of do we go to war," Harlow said. "It was the next step. What are the implications of it? Are we prepared for what comes next? The criticism is not aimed at the president. It's aimed at the administration's failure to think through what comes after the initial invasion."
In the book, Tenet says there never was a significant discussion within the administration regarding "enhanced containment or the costs and benefits of such an approach" versus going to war and what that would entail.
Harlow acknowledged to me that Tenet didn't know what discussions Bush himself might have had about the questions he is raising now.
"Maybe he was having them," Harlow said. "He just says he wasn't present for them, and other senior officials at the agency also weren't present for them."
Also, Tenet was not privy to deliberations in Bush's own mind, Harlow said.
Harlow said Tenet wrote the book from the perspective of his current position as a Georgetown University professor after reviewing everything he has learned since the invasion. That includes examining tens of thousands of documents as part of the research for the book.
"He is not saying that this is something he thought at the time and focused on at the time," Harlow said. "Everything looks different in hindsight," he said. "He's writing this book looking back and asking what are the lessons we can learn. This is not about pointing fingers at George Bush," Harlow said. "This is about the process of government and what the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Defense Department were thinking," he said. "George admires the president, and I think the feeling is mutual. You know George better than that. It's so the country can do better in the future. That's all this is about."
In an interview this week, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card told me that the issues raised by Tenet were discussed, but predictions of what would happen after the war were all over the lot.
"There were predictions that ran the gamut about what would happen in Iraq on whether there would be sectarian strife and civil war," Card said. "There were some who said that there was going to be sectarian strife and some who said there would be close to a civil war," Card said.
"There were others who dismissed that," Card said, predicting that Saddam's army and the Iraqis would embrace the Americans.