Commentary Magazine


George Tenet: CIA or CYA?

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.

And the CIA had been horribly wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the first Gulf war, when, despite blithe agency assurances, Saddam turned out to be far closer to putting the final screw in a nuclear bomb than any of its assessments had previously entertained.

Tenet faults the Bush administration for going beyond facts established by the CIA as, ten years later, it was gearing up for a campaign against Saddam. But even at that moment, the CIA had botched the facts. As Tenet himself concedes, the agency’s appraisal of Iraq’s WMD programs in its 2002 National Intelligence Estimate—the critical one on which the war was premised—was flawed.

Tenet implicitly wants to have it both ways: the Bush administration was reckless when it ignored “facts” put forward by the CIA, and it was equally reckless when it acted on those same supposed facts. Perhaps I am missing something, but this score-settling memoir appears to be more of a CYA operation than anything else.

George W. Bush has clearly made his share of serious mistakes, but one of the biggest ones, to my mind, was awarding America’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to George Tenet, a holdover from the Clinton administration, who presided over a series of critical intelligence failures and let the country down.

Why Bush bestowed this award is something about which one can only conjecture. Was it because Tenet had named the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, after Bush’s father, or was it a way—a successful way—to hedge in advance against criticism from Tenet? While Tenet skewers vice-president Cheney and cabinet-level figures one after the other in the book, he largely leaves the President alone.

A caveat: I have not yet read At the Center of the Storm in its entirety; I intend to review it in COMMENTARY; and I am reserving the right to change my mind.