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Posted by Richard on May 1, 2007

I didn't watch the 60 Minutes interview of George Tenet Sunday night, but I read the CBS News story. Looks like yet another in a long line of fawning, softball-laden interviews with authors of self-serving, history-rewriting, Bush-bashing books. Yawn.   

CBS has already had to post a correction, but naturally, their correction misrepresents the situation:

(Editor's Note: In his book, "At the Center of the Storm," and on Sunday's broadcast of 60 Minutes, George Tenet said he encountered Pentagon advisor Richard Perle outside the White House on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the 9/11 attacks. Perle disputes Tenet's account, saying the encounter never happened because he was stranded in France that day, and was not able to return to the country until September 15. George Tenet told Tom Brokaw Monday, April 30, 2007, "I may have been off by a couple of days," but says the conversation did happen.)

Perle was indisputably in France, unable to return to the U.S. until the 15th due to the grounding of all flights — that part is verifiably true, not just a claim by Perle (as CBS' phrasing suggests). But what about Tenet's counter-claim that he was just "off by a couple of days"? Is this really a "he said / he said" situation as CBS implies?

No. Tenet's own words paint his story as bogus (emphasis added):

The truth of Iraq begins, according to Tenet, the day after the attack of Sept. 11, when he ran into Pentagon advisor Richard Perle at the White House.

"He said to me, 'Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday, they bear responsibility.' It’s September the 12th. I’ve got the manifest with me that tell me al Qaeda did this. Nothing in my head that says there is any Iraqi involvement in this in any way shape or form and I remember thinking to myself, as I'm about to go brief the president, 'What the hell is he talking about?'" Tenet remembers.

In both the book and the interview, Tenet remembered Perle saying "what happened yesterday" and remembered being on his way to brief the president that al Qaeda was responsible. Now that he's been confronted with the impossibility of his assertion, is it really believable that he misremembered both "yesterday" and the date on which he first briefed the president about this horrendous attack, and that the encounter with Perle took place a few days later? Not in my book.

Tenet's response to Pelley's follow-up question is a marvel of misdirection: 

"You said Iraq made no sense to you in that moment. Does it make any sense to you today?" Pelley asks.

"In terms of complicity with 9/11, absolutely none," Tenet says. "It never made any sense. We could never verify that there was any Iraqi authority, direction and control, complicity with al Qaeda for 9/11 or any operational act against America. Period." 

Unable to verify. No authority, direction and control, or complicity. Period. It all sounds so clear-cut and definitive — a "slam-dunk," if you'll forgive the expression. Andrew McCarthy pointed out how Tenet avoided the real issue (emphasis in original, as italics):

Of course, that’s not the point at all. The point was whether Iraq was working with al Qaeda, not whether it was necessarily aware of and complicit in specific operations like 9/11. Al Qaeda exists — its singular purpose is — to carry out operations against the U.S. If you are helping al Qaeda at all, what on earth do you suppose you’re helping it do?

The issue is not rogue-state culpability for 9/11. After all, there’s no hard evidence that the Taliban was involved in 9/11. Yet we attacked and overthrew the Taliban — a military incursion even liberal Democrats say they supported — because the Taliban was aiding and abetting al Qaeda. No one contends that our rationale requires proof of direct Taliban involvement in 9/11.

Al Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan, not Iraq, so the evidence of Saddam’s assistance to the terror network is less blatant. But the principle is the same. Let’s pretend for a moment that there were no unresolved issues about Iraq and 9/11 — no possible meeting between Mohamed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague in April 2001; no Ahmed Hikmat Shakir (an Iraqi intelligence operative) at the January 2000 Kuala Lampur meeting involving two of the 9/11 hijackers. That is, let’s pretend 9/11 never happened. There would still be the little matter of Iraq aiding and abetting al Qaeda. That is what the invasion of Iraq was about — the Bush Doctrine: You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists … especially if there’s good reason to think you might share WMDs with the terrorists (and remember Tenet told the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2002 that CIA believed Iraq and al Qaeda were working together on both WMDs and conventional weapons).

Follow McCarthy's link above and read that 2002 letter to the Senate Intelligence Committee. It's rather interesting. And read McCarthy's entire two-part, five-point critique of Tenet's claims — it starts here.

McCarthy took on CBS' distortion of the Niger issue, but missed the whopper they told (maybe it's only in the news story) regarding Iraq and nukes (emphasis added):

The vice president upped the ante, claiming Saddam had nuclear weapons, when the CIA was saying he didn’t.

"What's happening here?" Pelley asks.

"Well, I don't know what's happening here," Tenet says. "The intelligence community's judgment is 'He will not have a nuclear weapon until the year 2007, 2009.'" 

When, exactly, did Cheney — or anyone else, for that matter — claim Saddam had nukes? I'd like to see CBS' evidence to back up that statement. Maybe Dan Rather has a memo. 

And by the way, I for one wouldn't have considered a CIA assessment that Saddam won't have nukes for another four years very reassuring. 

Regarding Iraq, yellowcake, and Niger, read Daffyd's angry rant (triggered by the New York Times puff piece on Tenet) about mainstream media efforts to rewrite history:

I have now seen the same pugnaciously ignorant pronouncement of falsity from AP, Reuters, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and several other newspapers; and it has become clear that this is no accident: I am now convinced that the elite media editors have literally conspired with each other to rewrite the past. They pretend that the Intel Committee report said that Bush lied and Joe Wilson was right about Iraq seeking uranium in Africa — when in fact, it was the other way 'round.

Daffyd also did a good job of dissecting Tenet's revisionist explanation of his "slam dunk" remark, actually bothering to look up CBS' 2004 interview with Woodward (emphasis in original):

On another point, George Tenet now claims that he only used the term "slam dunk" to say that a good job of salesmanship would "sell" the war:

During the meeting, the deputy C.I.A. director, John McLaughlin, unveiled a draft of a proposed public presentation that left the group unimpressed. Mr. Tenet recalls that Mr. Bush suggested that they could “add punch” by bringing in lawyers trained to argue cases before a jury.

“I told the president that strengthening the public presentation was a ‘slam dunk,’ a phrase that was later taken completely out of context,” Mr. Tenet writes. “If I had simply said, ‘I’m sure we can do better,’ I wouldn’t be writing this chapter — or maybe even this book.”

Even while recounting this, the Times couldn't even be bothered to interview Bob Woodward, in whose book Plan of Attack the exchange occurs, as CBS News reported:

”McLaughlin has access to all the satellite photos, and he goes in and he has flip charts in the oval office. The president listens to all of this and McLaughlin's done. And, and the president kind of, as he's inclined to do, says ‘Nice try, but that isn't gonna sell Joe Public. That isn't gonna convince Joe Public,’” says Woodward.

In his book, Woodward writes: "The presentation was a flop. The photos were not gripping. The intercepts were less than compelling. And then George Bush turns to George Tenet and says, 'This is the best we've got?'"

Says Woodward: “George Tenet's sitting on the couch, stands up, and says, ‘Don't worry, it's a slam dunk case.’" And the president challenges him again and Tenet says, ‘The case, it's a slam dunk.’ …I asked the president about this and he said it was very important to have the CIA director — ‘Slam-dunk is as I interpreted is a sure thing, guaranteed. No possibility it won't go through the hoop.’ Others present, Cheney, very impressed.”

Not "strengthening the public presentation was a ‘slam dunk,’" as Tenet now says he said… just "it's a slam-dunk case."

Which version should we believe? The one Tenet tells in his book, defending his career, now that he knows no stockpiles of WMD were found in Iraq (not counting all the stuff we found that was the wrong kind of WMD)? Or should we buy the version that everybody else in the room told to Bob Woodward in 2004?

For heaven's sake, the version that Tenet retails today doesn't even make semantic sense. What on earth does it mean to say "strengthening the public presentation [is] a ‘slam dunk’?" I can't even parse the sentence. It's like saying "adding more cayenne pepper to the stew is a home run": It might make the stew into a home run, but the act of adding a particular spice is not itself a home run.

And don't miss Christopher Hitchens' harsh assessment of Tenet in Slate:

It's difficult to see why George Tenet would be so incautious as to write his own self-justifying apologia, let alone give it the portentous title At the Center of the Storm. There is already a perfectly good pro-Tenet book written by a man who knows how to employ the overworked term storm. Bob Woodward's 2002 effort, Bush at War, was, in many of its aspects, almost dictated by George Tenet

It is a little bit late for him to pose as if Iraq was a threat concocted in some crepuscular corner of the vice president's office. And it's pathetic for him to say, even in the feeble way that he chooses to phrase it, that "there was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat." (Emphasis added.) There had been a very serious debate over the course of at least three preceding administrations, whether Tenet "knew" of it or not. (He was only an intelligence specialist, after all.) As for his bawling and sobbing claim that faced with crisis in Iraq, "the administration's message was: Don't blame us. George Tenet and the CIA got us into this mess," I can say, as one who has attended about a thousand postmortems on Iraq in Washington, that I have never, ever, not once heard a single partisan of the administration say anything of the kind. …

A highly irritating expression in Washington has it that "hindsight is always 20-20." Would that it were so. History is not a matter of hindsight and is not, in fact, always written by the victors. In this case, a bogus history is being offered by a real loser whose hindsight is cockeyed and who had no foresight at all.

In contrast to the liberal Hitchens, White House chief of staff Andrew Card (one of the people present during the "slam dunk" meeting) was sympathetic toward Tenet, called him a "true patriot," and defended his record at the CIA.

Personally, I lean more toward Hitchens' and McCarthy's view than Card's. I sure won't be buying Tenet's book. 

UPDATE: In February 2003, Tenet testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committeee. Amanda B. Carpenter compiled quotes from those hearings. There's not much ambiguity, uncertainty, or hedging in those quotes. His sworn testimony is fully consistent with the "slam dunk" characterization of the case for war — both with regard to WMD and with regard to Iraqi support of al Qaeda.

So, Tenet made the same "slam dunk" case for war to the Senate in October 2002 and twice in February 2003. Who's really guilty of mischaracterizing the December 2002 "slam dunk" statement?

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2 Responses to “Tenet”

  1. David said

    Great compilation of info on this story…. here’s the Reuter’s news clip to add to your list:

    Doesn’t look like he’s getting any pats on the back from either side, if that was his intention!

  2. rgcombs said

    Thanks, David! I’ve made your link live. Commenters, you can insert hyperlinks and basic formatting using “wiki formatting” rules — click Help in the commenting window for instructions, they’re pretty simple.

    As for pats on the back — isn’t one of the great ironies of life that when you try too hard to be liked and admired, no one likes you? I suppose Tenet can console himself with the big fat royalty checks he’ll probably collect.

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