George W. Bush has made his share of serious mistakes. Back in April, I noted here that one of the worst, to my mind, was awarding America’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to his CIA director George Tenet, a holdover from the Clinton administration, who presided over a series of critical intelligence failures and let the country down.
But I wrote that before I had completed reading Tenet’s own account of his directorship, and I explicitly reserved the right to change my mind. Now that I have finished his memoir and written an article about it for the July-August Commentary, has my assessment changed?
The answer is: yes and no. Tenet himself discusses the medal in his book and is disarmingly self-deprecating. When he was informed by Brett Kavanaugh, a presidential assistant, that President Bush wanted to honor him with the Medal of Freedom, he writes that:
I was not at all sure I wanted to accept. We had not found weapons of mass destruction and postwar Iraq hadn’t been the cakewalk that some had suggested it would be.
I asked Kavanaugh why the President wanted to honor me, and to read the proposed citation. It was all about the CIA’s work against terrorism, not Iraq. Fair enough, I thought. Perhaps I could accept a medal on that basis, not for me so much as for the agency.
But if Tenet had mixed feelings accepting the award, what prompted President Bush to bestow it on him in the first place? 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? The answer is still unclear
Far more central than the medal issue is whether, after deciding to keep Tenet in his administration in January 2001, Bush should have fired him on September 11. My own view, given the catastrophe that had just taken place and given all the CIA fiascos that were to follow, is that by September 12, that action was overdue.
But there is another side of the coin. We had just been attacked massively on our own soil. Within the U.S. government there was a widespread conviction that a second wave of terrorism, possibly with weapons of mass destruction, was on the way. This was not a propitious moment to reshuffle the deck in a frontline counterterrorism agency.
And even with hindsight there is another reason why it is less than clear that firing Tenet might not have made a significant difference in the way things turned out. After all, when Tenet finally did step down, Bush’s replacement, Porter Goss, was also profoundly flawed, with key members of his management team caught up in tawdry scandal, and he was rapidly chewed up by the bureaucracy.
One of the lessons that one takes away from all this is that fixing the CIA is not a simple matter of changing its leadership. It is true that a fish rots from the head. But if one cuts off the head of a stinking fish, the rot does not go away.