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What Tenet Knew

How we got into Iraq is the great open question of the decade but George Tenet in his memoir of his seven years running the Central Intelligence Agency takes his sweet time working his way around to it. He hesitates because he has much to explain: the claims made by Tenet’s CIA with “high confidence” that Iraq was dangerously armed all proved false. But mistakes are one thing, excusable even when serious; inexcusable would be charges of collusion in deceiving Congress and the public to make war possible. Tenet’s overriding goal in his carefully written book is to deny “that we somehow cooked the books” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. If he says it once he says it a dozen times. “We told the president what we did on Iraq WMD because we believed it.”

But repetition is not enough. Tenet’s problem is that the intelligence and the war proceeded in lockstep: no intelligence, no war. Since Tenet delivered the (shockingly exaggerated) intelligence, and the President used it to go to war, how is Tenet to convince the world that he wasn’t simply giving the boss what he wanted? Tenet naturally dislikes this question but it is evident that the American public and Congress dislike it just as much. Down that road lie painful truths about the character and motives of the President and the men and women around him. But getting out of Iraq will not be easy, and the necessary first step is to find the civic courage to insist on knowing how we got in. Tenet’s memoir is an excellent place to begin; some of what he tells us and much that he leaves out point unmistakably to the genesis of the war in the White House—the very last thing Tenet wants to address clearly. He sidles up to the question at last on page 301: “One of the great mysteries to me,” he writes, “is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable.”

Hans Blix, director of the United Nations weapons inspection team, did not believe that war was inevitable until the shooting started. In Blix’s view, reported in his memoir Disarming Iraq,1 the failure of his inspectors to find Saddam Hussein’s WMD meant that a US invasion of Iraq could certainly be put off, perhaps avoided altogether. For Blix it was all about the weapons. Tenet’s version of events makes it clear that WMD, despite all the ballyhoo, were in fact secondary; something else was driving events. Tenet’s omissions begin on Day Two of the march to war, September 12, 2001, when three British officials came to CIA headquarters “just for the night, to express their condolences and to be with us. We had dinner that night at Langley,…as touching an event as I experienced during my seven years as DCI.” This would have been an excellent place to describe the genesis of the war but Tenet declines. We must fill in the missing pieces ourselves.

The guests that night were David Manning, barely a week into his new job as Tony Blair’s personal foreign policy adviser; Richard Dearlove, chief of the British secret intelligence service known as MI6, a man Tenet already knew well; and Eliza Manningham-Buller, the deputy chief of MI5, the British counterpart to the FBI. Despite the ban on air traffic, Dearlove and Manningham-Buller had flown into Andrews Air Force Base near Washington that day.

But David Manning was already inside the United States. The day before the attack on the World Trade Center, on September 10, he had been in Washington for a dinner with Condoleezza Rice at the home of the British ambassador, Christopher Meyer. Early on September 11 Manning took the shuttle to New York and from his airplane window on the approach to Kennedy Airport he saw smoke rising from one of the World Trade Center towers. By the time he landed the second tower had been struck. It took a full day for the British embassy to fetch Manning back to Washington by car, and he arrived at Langley that night carrying the burden of what he had seen. It was a largish group that gathered for dinner. Along with the three British guests and Tenet were Jim Pavitt and his deputy at the CIA’s Directorate for Operations; Tenet’s executive secretary Buzzy Krongard; the chief of the Counter Terrorism Center, Cofer Black; the acting director of the FBI, Thomas Pickard; the chief of the CIA’s Near East Division, still not identified; and the chief of the CIA’s European Division, Tyler Drumheller.

Tenet names his British guests, but omits all that was said. Tyler Drumheller, barred by the CIA from identifying the visitors in his own recent memoir, On the Brink, reports an exchange between Manning and Tenet, who were probably meeting for the first time.

I hope we can all agree,” said Manning, “that we should concentrate on Afghanistan and not be tempted to launch any attacks on Iraq.”

Absolutely,” Tenet replied, “we all agree on that. Some might want to link the issues, but none of us wants to go that route.”2

Manning already understood that people close to President Bush wanted to go after Iraq, and Tenet of course knew it too. Conspicuous among them, in his mind that night, was the neo-conservative agitator and polemicist Richard Perle, an outspoken advocate of removing Saddam Hussein by military force. On the very first page of Tenet’s memoir, he tells us that he had run into Perle that very morning—September 12—as Perle was leaving the West Wing of the White House. They knew each other in a passing way, as figures of note on the Washington scene. As Tenet reached the door Perle turned to him and said, “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.”

This made a powerful impression on the director of the CIA:

I was stunned but said nothing…. At the Secret Service security checkpoint, I looked back at Perle and thought: What the hell is he talking about? Moments later, a second thought came to me: Who has Richard Perle been meeting with in the White House so early in the morning on today of all days? I never learned the answer to that question.3

The meeting with Perle and the dinner with Manning and Dearlove took place on Wednesday. On Saturday, Tenet was at Camp David where President Bush was weighing the American response to the attacks of September 11. During the discussion, arguments for removing Saddam were pressed by Paul Wolfowitz, another neoconservative and longtime friend of Perle who was the deputy secretary of defense under Donald Rumsfeld. “The president listened to Paul’s views,” Tenet writes, “but, fairly quickly, it seemed to me, dismissed them.” The vote against including Iraq “in our immediate response plans” was four to zero against, with Rumsfeld abstaining. Tenet adds, “I recall no mention of WMD.”

Four days later, at a meeting in the White House, Bush made a request of Tenet. Through a video hookup Vice President Dick Cheney was in the room as well. “I want to know about links between Saddam and al Qaeda,” said the President. “The Vice President knows some things that might be helpful.”4

What the Vice President thought he knew was that one of the September 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, had met in Prague earlier in the year with an official of Iraqi intelligence. Tenet responded within days to say that evidence from phone calls and credit cards demonstrated that Atta was in the United States at the time of the alleged meeting, living in a Virginia apartment not far from the CIA. A proven link between Saddam and September 11 would have ended the debate about “regime change” right there. None was ever established, then or later, but Cheney and his personal national security adviser, I. Lewis Libby, known by his nickname as Scooter, argued and reargued the case for the link until the eve of war. Often they went to the agency personally, bringing fresh allegations acquired from their own sources, and pressing CIA analysts to “re-look” the evidence. Under continuing White House pressure the agency treated their claims respectfully. Analysts conceded that “cooperation, safe haven, training, and reciprocal nonaggression” were all discussed by al-Qaeda and Iraqi officials. “But operational direction and control?” Tenet asks. “No.”

The Vice President did not take no for an answer. He often cited the link in public and he wanted the CIA to back him up. In June 2002, the deputy director for intelligence, Jami Miscik, complained to Tenet that Scooter Libby and Paul Wolfowitz would not let the subject drop. Tenet reports that he told Miscik to “just say ‘we stand by what we previously wrote.’” But six months later, in January 2003, Stephen Hadley at the National Security Council summoned Miscik to the White House for yet another revision of a “link” paper. Infuriated, Miscik went to Tenet’s office and told him she would resign before she would change another word. Tenet says he called Hadley. “‘Steve,’ I said, ‘knock this off. The paper is done…. Jami is not coming down there to discuss it anymore.’”

Ron Suskind tells the same story but quotes Tenet differently on the phone to Hadley: “It is fucking over. Do you hear me! And don’t you ever fucking treat my people this way again. Ever!”

Even that was not the end. In mid-March 2003, less than a week before the US launched its attack, Cheney sent a speech over to the CIA for review making all the old arguments that there was a “link.” Tenet tells us that he telephoned Bush to say, “The vice president wants to make a speech about Iraq and al-Qa’ida that goes way beyond what the intelligence shows. We cannot support the speech, and it should not be given.”

Why did Cheney press this point so relentlessly? Tenet tells a story that helps to explain the motives behind the struggle over “intelligence” between September 11 and the day American cruise missiles began to land on Baghdad, eighteen months later. Only a few days after September 11, Tenet writes, a CIA analyst attended a White House meeting where he was told that Bush wanted to remove Saddam. The analyst’s response, according to Tenet:

If you want to go after that son of a bitch to settle old scores, be my guest. But don’t tell us he is connected to 9/11 or to terrorism because there is no evidence to support that. You will have to have a better reason.

The better reason eventually settled on by President Bush was Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The evidence for WMD turned out to be even weaker than the evidence for “the link,” but Cheney, with the full backing of the White House and the National Security Council, hammered without let-up on the horrific consequences of error—discovering too late that Iraq had nuclear weapons meant that the smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud. It was vaguely believed at the time, by the public and foreign intelligence services alike, that the CIA must have learned something new; why else in early 2002 had Saddam Hussein suddenly become a threat to the world?

  1. 1

    Pantheon, 2004.

  2. 2

    Tyler Drumheller with Elaine Monaghan, On the Brink: An Insider’s Account of How the White House Compromised American Intelligence (Carroll and Graf, 2006), p. 31.

  3. 3

    Perle denies seeing Tenet that day, and Tenet concedes he may have been off by a day or two; but Tenet says he was not wrong about Perle’s remark. In his mind as he wrote his memoirs, however, Tenet remembered Perle’s remark and the visit by Manning as bookending the same day.

  4. 4

    This story is told by Ron Suskind in his book The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 (Simon and Schuster 2006), p. 23, which is evidently based on interviews with Tenet and Tenet’s close aides in the CIA.

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