George Tenet on the staircase with the neocons

In his book and on TV, former CIA Director George Tenet remembers all the things he should've said before we invaded Iraq but didn't.

Topics: CIA, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Iraq, Middle East

George Tenet on the staircase with the neocons

The French call it “the spirit of the staircase” (l’esprit d’escalier), the clever reply to someone that comes to you on your way up to the bedroom after a cocktail party. In his new book, released Monday, former CIA Director George Tenet has delivered himself of hundreds of pages on the staircase, imagining what he should have said or could have said to Richard Perle, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice and the other neoconservatives who marched the country to war in Iraq using the pretext of Sept. 11. In his April 29 interview with “60 Minutes” touting the book, Tenet came across as a spectacularly tragic Walter Mitty, daydreaming about how things would have been different if only he had spoken up, if he’d only been a James Bond-style spymaster instead of a timid, fawning bureaucrat. But of course, when it really mattered, at the critical juncture of his seven-year tenure as CIA chief, Tenet said nothing.

Tenet has revealed for the first time that he encountered Pentagon advisor Richard Perle on the day after the Sept. 11 attacks. As Tenet recounted the story on “60 Minutes,” Perle “said to me, ‘Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday; they bear responsibility.’” Tenet told interviewer Scott Pelley that he was startled at the allegation. “It’s September the 12th,” said Tenet. “I’ve got the manifest with me that tells me al-Qaida 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?’”

Is that really what Tenet should have been thinking to himself? Just, “What the hell is he talking about?” Perle was then the chairman of the civilian Defense Policy Board, which had great influence over Pentagon policy, and he was intimately linked to Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, the No. 2 and 3 men at the Department of Defense. He was also close to Cheney and to the latter’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Perle had coauthored with Feith and others a 1996 white paper for Israeli politician Bibi Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud Party, advocating a war against Iraq. Perle believed that the Saddam Hussein regime posed a dire threat to Israel and that overthrowing it would enhance Israel’s security. If Tenet had been as street savvy as he likes to pretend — what with being a Greek from Queens and all — he should have been thinking, “Aha! So that is how the neoconservatives are going to play this thing. How can I head them off at the pass?”



Tenet’s experience was nearly identical to that of former terrorism czar Richard Clarke. In his own “60 Minutes” interview three years ago, and in his 2004 book, “Against All Enemies,” Clarke said that he met Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Sept. 12, 2001, and Rumsfeld was pushing for an attack on Iraq in response: “We have to bomb Iraq,” he is alleged to have said. Clarke was so surprised that he said he at first thought Rumsfeld was joking.

Tenet encountered the same skepticism or unconcern about al-Qaida in high Bush administration officials as had Clarke. He confirmed that the CIA had ongoing covert operations in Afghanistan from 1999, but that he could not get the go-ahead from either President Clinton or President Bush to attempt to overthrow the Taliban and kill or capture Osama bin Laden. He maintains that in the summer of 2001, he sought a meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice at which he presented a briefing. As he recalled to “60 Minutes,” “Essentially, the briefing says, there are gonna be multiple spectacular attacks against the United States. We believe these attacks are imminent. Mass casualties are a likelihood.” He told “60 Minutes” that his message to her was: “We need to consider immediate action inside Afghanistan now. We need to move to the offensive.” Rice has denied that she received any such specific information or suggestions from Tenet.

In his interview on April 29, Tenet alleged that Rice delegated the issue of immediate action in Afghanistan to “third-tier officials.” When pressed as to why he did not go straight to the president, Tenet implied that he did not have the ability to put things on Bush’s agenda, while Rice did. In the cliquish Bush White House, he was perhaps not the insider he had thought he was. Or perhaps he did not want to risk Bush’s ire and was pressing Rice to take the heat for urging on the lackadaisical Bush a covert operation he had already once refused to consider.

CBS’s Pelley implicitly criticized the ex-CIA chief for not pressing Bush on his innuendo about Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida’s being in cahoots. Pelley read Tenet a passage from a Bush speech: “The president, in October of 2002, quote: ‘We need to think about Saddam Hussein using al-Qaida to do his dirty work.’ Is that what you’re telling the president?” Tenet shot back, “Well, we didn’t believe al-Qaida was gonna do Saddam Hussein’s dirty work.”

Pelley pressed the point: “January ’03, the president again, [said] quote: ‘Imagine those 19 hijackers this time armed by Saddam Hussein.’ Is that what you’re telling the president?” Tenet denied ever suggesting a link between 9/11 and Iraq to Bush, and said the connection was nonexistent. “In terms of complicity with 9/11, absolutely none,” insisted Tenet. “It never made any sense. We could never verify that there was any Iraqi authority, direction and control, complicity with al-Qaida for 9/11 or any operational act against America. Period.”

Among Tenet’s major targets is Vice President Dick Cheney. Three years after leaving the CIA, Tenet finally seems eager to take on the stovepiper of intelligence, now that he is a widely disliked lame duck. Cheney, of course, was among the major proponents of alleged links between al-Qaida and Saddam. Now Tenet complains that Cheney kept alleging things for which there was no good evidence.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, in his speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ 103rd National Convention on Aug. 26, 2002, Cheney said, “We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons … Many of us are convinced that Saddam will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.” In fact, Tenet says now, the CIA estimate was that even if Saddam had such a program, it was years away from success. Cheney concluded, “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.”

Tenet reports having been deeply disturbed by the speech, which went substantially beyond what the CIA could certify as factual. But he does not appear to have weighed in at that time. Bush administration officials were allowed to invoke the phantasmagoric mushroom cloud again and again, and members of Congress have repeatedly said that the threat of Saddam’s nukes persuaded them to vote for the war. Six months after Cheney’s speech to the VFW, on the eve of the invasion itself, Tenet finally was able to intervene. The New York Times, which got hold of an advance copy of Tenet’s book, revealed on April 27 that Tenet nixed a Cheney speech “because its claims of links between al-Qaida and Iraq went ‘way beyond what the intelligence shows.’” Tenet said that he went to Bush on the issue, saying, “Mr. President, we cannot support the speech and it should not be given.”

On that occasion, Tenet won and Cheney was reined in. Surely, however, it hardly mattered at that point, since Cheney’s propaganda technique of linking Saddam to bin Laden had been intended to foment a war with Iraq and the war was on. It is rather pitiful that Tenet must now dredge up this minor victory, as he daydreams on the staircase about stopping the Iraq war in its tracks by shooting down Cheney’s lies.

In that same speech to the VFW, Cheney addressed criticisms of the looming Iraq war: “Another argument holds that opposing Saddam Hussein would cause even greater troubles in that part of the world, and interfere with the larger war against terror. I believe the opposite is true. Regime change in Iraq would bring about a number of benefits to the region. When the gravest of threats are eliminated, the freedom-loving peoples of the region will have a chance to promote the values that can bring lasting peace. As for the reaction of the Arab ‘street,’ the Middle East expert Professor Fouad Ajami predicts that after liberation, the streets in Basra and Baghdad are ‘sure to erupt in joy in the same way the throngs in Kabul greeted the Americans.’ Extremists in the region would have to rethink their strategy of Jihad. Moderates throughout the region would take heart. And our ability to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process would be enhanced, just as it was following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.”

No longer concatenation of illogical, wishful thinking, appeals to false authority, inappropriate analogies and arrogant ebullience has been enunciated since the mass political movements of the 1940s.

Tenet reveals that the CIA voiced substantial dissents from Cheney’s “end of history” utopia. On April 27, the Associated Press reported that the book describes how CIA analysts prepared a briefing book with some worst-case scenarios for the invasion of Iraq. The books were distributed to high-ranking Bush officials in early September 2002, seven months before the invasion, and reviewed at Camp David. The scenarios included “a surge of global terrorism against U.S. interests fueled by deepening Islamic antipathy toward the United States”; “regime-threatening instability in key Arab states”; and “major oil supply disruptions and severe strains in the Atlantic alliance.” Tenet, with his typical refusal to be confrontational, will not call these utterly prescient and perfectly correct scenarios “predictions” and will not say the obvious, that they proved the CIA right. Could he not just quote Cheney’s VFW speech and point to the contrast between the vice president’s fantasy world and the real one that his analysts inhabited?

Tenet comes across as a toady who could never stand up to the powerful. But he could order people less powerful than himself, like the helpless prisoners of his war on terror, to be tortured. His subsequent pitiful denial that he ever commanded torture, at the same time that he clearly was attempting to justify it, recalls all the worst excesses of the administration he enabled. Some elements of petty revenge on the perpetrators for having so humiliated Tenet with their sneak attack peek out from the edges of his righteous anger. There are times when the would-be James Bond seems more like Goldfinger, he of the laser between the legs.

Even John McCain, among the few remaining Iraq hawks, is now lambasting Tenet for his willingness to “waterboard” his captives. The senator told Fox News on April 29, “I don’t care what George Tenet says. I know what’s right. I know what’s morally right as far as America’s behavior.” He observed, “Look at the war in Algeria. Look, the fact is if you torture someone, they’re going to tell you anything they think you want to know. It is an affront to everything we stand for and believe in … We cannot torture people and maintain our moral superiority in the world.” All you have to do is listen to that voice, the voice of a former POW who was himself tortured, to hear the real America and to realize how mealy-mouthed Tenet’s performance really was.

Much of the reporting about the book and the interview has focused on Tenet’s feeling of betrayal over the use to which Cheney and Rice later put his comment that presenting the case for an Iraq war to the American public would be a “slam-dunk.” He resented the White House leaks that made it appear that he had urged a war on the grounds that the war itself would be a cinch, and the implication that his “slam-dunk” comment is what finally decided the president on his course of action. Tenet’s outrage is outrageous. Why was he alleging that a good case could be made for a war that he now says he did not believe in? Why was he selling a war that, all these years later, he claims he believed was a distraction from the important struggle against al-Qaida?

In the end, Tenet exhibits all the symptoms of an abused spouse. He praises Bush and even has good things to say about Cheney. He never could pick up the phone and call the police in the midst of being beaten up. He never cared enough about the fate of the country to stand up and say that the country was being driven to war on the basis of obvious falsehoods and a tissue of lies. Even now, his high dudgeon concerns affronts to his own reputation, and that of his agency, rather than the deaths of more than 3,300 U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Some of his last words in the “60 Minutes” interview were among the most revealing, but not in the way he implied. “You know, at the end of the day, the only thing you have is trust and honor in this world. It’s all you have. All you have is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor. And when you don’t have that anymore, well, there you go.” You can imagine him mumbling those words over and over again as he walks up the stairs to go to bed.

Salon contributor Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of "Engaging the Muslim World."

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