George Tenet's new book "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA" is masterfully written and packed with new revelations.
For example, Tenet discloses that the reason President Bush did not seek legislation authorizing the NSA program to intercept terrorist calls with an overseas nexus is that congressional leaders, whom the administration secretly briefed on the program, warned that seeking legislation "could not be done without jeopardizing the program."
The book explains how CIA misinformation led to the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, why the CIA missed India's nuclear test, and how Tenet prevented Clinton from pardoning Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who had stolen a roomful of classified documents. [Editor's Note: Get George Tenet's explosive new book FREE. Go Here Now.]
Tenet also reveals that the CIA's coercive interrogation tactics, used on a "handful of the worst terrorists on the planet," saved thousands of lives because the information obtained led to roll-ups of plots and additional terrorists.
Contrary to the impressions created by the media, the book demonstrates that Tenet was one of the few government officials on top of the threat from al-Qaida. As noted in my book The CIA at War, Tenet declared in a Dec. 4, 1998 memo to his deputies, "We must now enter a new phase in our effort against bin Laden." He said, "We are at war . . . I want no resources spared in this effort, either inside the CIA or the community."
At the same time, Tenet repeatedly blames himself for mistakes.
"We didn't have enough dots to connect, and we'll always have to live with that," he says of the failure to stop the 9/11 plot.
While individual mistakes were made, Tenet makes it clear that many of the failings were systemic.
"If you were to ask me how far we came in the effort to transform the CIA [prior to 9/11], I would say we built the foundation and first four floors of a seven story building," he writes.
When the Bush administration came in, it began planning — albeit, in retrospect, slowly — a more aggressive counterterrorism policy, Tenet says. He tells of warning National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice of impending attacks in July 2001, but he told the 9/11 commission that "reporting was maddeningly short on actionable details."
Several times, Tenet praises Bush for his focused leadership after 9/11, leadership that "made a huge difference." When Bush told a global audience, "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them," Tenet and the CIA realized that "the restraints were finally off," he says.
On the other hand, while he never says so outright, Tenet strongly implies that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning. As far as he knows, he says, the Bush administration never had a "serious debate" about the "imminence of the Iraqi threat" or even seriously considered the implications of an invasion.
As Tenet's deputy John McLaughlin said on NPR over the weekend, what Tenet meant was that he was never "present" when the war or its implications were debated. Tenet was not privy to private talks between Bush and his top advisors or to discussions between Bush and Tony Blair in the Oval Office, at Camp David, at the Crawford ranch, or on the telephone.
In fact, Tenet says he never knew just when Bush decided to invade Iraq. He thought it might have been in July 2002. Tenet might have checked online: In an April 4, 2002 interview, Bush told British journalist Trevor McDonald that he had made up his mind that Hussein "needs to go," which was the same conclusion Clinton had reached when he called for regime change in Iraq.
Bush told the British journalist that "the worst thing that could happen would be to allow a nation like Iraq, run by Saddam Hussein, to develop weapons of mass destruction and then team up with terrorist organizations so they can blackmail the world. I'm not going to let that happen." Asked how he was going to achieve that, Bush said, "Wait and see."
As Bush articulated it then, his focus was not on imminence but on the long-range threat. After 9/11, Bush simply never wanted to again be in the position of wishing he had done more to stop the next attack.
In the book, Tenet questions whether WMD was indeed the principal reason for going into Iraq. Adopting the prevailing view of the left, he mentions "ideology" as one possibility. Especially for someone who warned that Iraq had WMD and who knew first hand how determined Bush was to stop the next attack, it is strange that Tenet would dismiss WMD as the principal reason for invading Iraq.
"I'm Greek, and we're conspiratorial by nature," Tenet told Scott Pelley on "60 Minutes."
Perhaps that's the basis for some of his conclusions. Besides his closest advisors, only the president knows what other factors besides WMD played a part in his deliberations. Certainly the fact that Saddam had killed 300,000 people weighed heavily on his mind.
In my book "Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady,", I quote Pamela Nelson, a close friend of Laura Bush's, as saying that just before dinner in the White House residence the night after the invasion, "George told us of the horrible torture that happened to the Iraqi people . . . tongues cut out, horrible rapes. He talked about it a lot."
Tenet does not mention the torture or the fact that Bush liberated 50 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he writes that in his experience, senior-level people in the Bush and Clinton administrations "tried to do what they saw as best for America." While their "results and methods can and should be debated," their motives should not be.
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