Former CIA director George Tenet’s score-settling memoir, At the Center of the Storm, is rocking Washington, with officials in the Bush administration dashing for shelter from his charge that they ignored or distorted CIA intelligence findings as they hurtled toward war. Tenet’s signature line, a paraphrase of something clever said once by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is: “Policymakers are entitled to their own opinions—but not to their own set of facts.”
True enough, but in evaluating the CIA’s intelligence in the run-up to the second Gulf war, could policymakers really trust the facts provided by the CIA, or would they have been justified in being quite skeptical of anything and everything the agency said?
The latter is far more likely, for despite the billions spent on intelligence (the exact sum is classified, but it is known that the U.S. paid out $26.7 billion in 1998), the track record of the CIA in this period, and on this critical subject, was not exactly stellar.
One event that loomed large in the mind of decision-makers at the time was a plot that came out of the blue skies on September 11, 2001. This was an event whose possibility the spy agency had caught glimpses of but mostly missed, and whose actuality it proved unable to stop—the most consequential intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor.