In his new book "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA," George Tenet seems to suggest that when it came to Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney and others were on a "runaway freight train," determined at all costs to invade Iraq.
If so, the freight train must have been delayed en route. The United States did not invade Iraq until a year and a half after 9/11. Having declared itself an enemy of the United States, Iraq was then trying to shoot down U.S. airplanes in the no-fly zone. Saddam was in violation of U.N. resolutions concerning WMD.
Tenet says that even though he had no evidence, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center, he knew that al-Qaida was responsible. Yet he faults Pentagon official Richard Perle for being immediately convinced, also without evidence, that Iraq was behind the attacks. [Editor's Note: Get George Tenet's explosive new book FREE. Go Here Now.]
While Tenet was more knowledgeable than Perle, the administration would have been remiss if it had not considered Iraq a suspect. Having declared itself an enemy of the United States, Iraq was then shooting down U.S. airplanes in the no-fly zone. Saddam was in violation of U.N. resolutions concerning WMD.
He had used chemical weapons in the past, and he had invaded Kuwait. While Tenet doesn't mention this, later interrogations revealed that Saddam was planning to try to develop a nuclear weapon once U.N. sanctions were lifted.
At another point, Tenet says he understands what Cheney meant when he said, "If there's a 1 percent chance that [al-Qaida has a nuclear weapon], you have to pursue it as if it were true."
Tenet agrees: "We could not afford to be surprised," he says. If so, why is Cheney portrayed as a boogey-man for being hyper-vigilant in trying to protect the country?
While Tenet cites a few instances where Cheney's reading of the intelligence pouring in exceeded the CIA's conclusions about the relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida, Tenet also writes that there was "more than enough evidence to give us real concern about Iraq and al-Qaida."
In fact, he says, "Our data told us that at various points there were discussions of cooperation, safe haven, training, and reciprocal non-aggression," between Iraq and al-Qaida. The issue is a semantic one: As the 9/11 Commission concluded, while there was no evidence of a "collaborative" relationship between Iraq and al-Qaida, there was plenty of evidence of contacts, which were obviously worrisome because they could develop into something more. In the same vein, Tenet becomes enmeshed in trying to explain the context of his well-known "slam dunk" remark. His explanation that it applied to a possible presentation of the evidence for WMD doesn't change the fact that, as he says, he believed Iraq had WMD and told the president that.
Tenet devotes considerable attention to his efforts to excise from Bush's speeches references to Saddam trying to get uranium from Niger. Yet when Bush said, "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa," the statement was true.
In fact, while the CIA did not believe the evidence was firm enough, MI6, the British intelligence service, still believes that its intelligence about Niger was correct. Even though it had a draft of Bush's State of the Union speech, the CIA itself failed to catch the reference. Yet the media pounced on the 16-word statement in the State of the Union address as evidence that Bush was purposely fabricating intelligence to support going to war.
After reviewing classified CIA intelligence on Iraq and the agency's interaction with the administration, Richard Kerr, a former deputy director of Central Intelligence, told me the CIA encountered the same kind of "pressure" a reporter on a hot story might apply in asking a government official for a stronger quote. The reporter may argue that the facts warrant such a quote, while the official disagrees and sticks to his position.
In the case of Iraq, Kerr said administration officials had an obligation to delve into the facts and get involved in the process.
Based on their own reading of the intelligence and their own world view, they sometimes marshaled arguments to try to persuade the agency to say Saddam posed more of a threat than the agency was willing to conclude. Like members of Congress questioning administration officials in hearings, they also asked why the CIA emphasized one fact or another.
"It was part of the normal give-and-take of the intelligence process," Kerr said.
Tenet believes we are safer since 9/11. For all that he did to make that so, "I think he rightfully earned the recognition the president gave him when he presented him with the Medal of Freedom," Andy Card told me.
But Tenet is also rightfully fearful that bin Laden will unleash a nuclear attack on the United States. In light of that, one has to wonder why so many in the government had to spend so much time warding off attacks from critics rather than devoting all of their energy to stopping the next 9/11.
While some of Tenet's conclusions will be used by critics to unfairly malign Bush, Tenet's book provides a remarkable, authentic window into the biggest problem of our day. In doing so, it rightly portrays those who have so far prevented another attack 9/11 attack as American heroes.
While he may be wrong on Iraq, in the last analysis, Tenet is one of those heroes.
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