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Sniveling self-defense of a bureaucratic hack

May 11, 2007 | Page 7

LANCE SELFA explains that former CIA director George Tenet's new book is about shifting the blame.

IT WAS predictable that George Tenet's long-awaited memoir, At the Center of the Storm, would attempt to cover up his role in the U.S. disaster in Iraq and blame other people for his failures.

The good thing about the book--which earned its author a $4 million advance--however, is that few people are buying its story. Even his April 25 interview with CBS's Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes was combative, with Pelley challenging Tenet's obfuscations and evasions.

In the book, Tenet details his realization that many of the reasons the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq were phony. He regrets his failure to speak up more forcefully and expresses outrage that the administration burned him by citing his alleged claim that convincing Americans that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk."

Rightfully, even former CIA agents have blasted Tenet. "By your silence, you helped build the case for war," reads a statement issued by six former intelligence officers. "You betrayed the CIA officers who collected the intelligence, who made it clear that Saddam did not pose an imminent threat. You betrayed the analysts who tried to withstand the pressure applied by Cheney and Rumsfeld.

"Most importantly and tragically, you failed to meet your obligations to the people of the United States. Instead of resigning in protest, when it could have made a difference in the public debate, you remained silent and allowed the Bush administration to cite your participation in these deliberations to justify their decision to go to war."

Tenet certainly deserves all the scorn he attracts, but we should be careful about accepting one of the chief underlying assumptions of the letter writers. That is the idea that the agency's role in the Iraq debacle reflects a departure from the norms of intelligence analysts, who pursue the truth and follow facts wherever they lead--even if the truth is at odds with administration policy.

In his sniveling self-defense to Pelley, even Tenet appealed to this noble image of the intrepid intelligence officer: "We're the ones that stand up and tell you the truth about when we're wrong. It's a great thing about this government. The only people that ever stand up and tell the truth are who? Intelligence officers. Because our culture is, never break faith with the truth."

This sounds good and certainly appeals to the image of maverick spies that Hollywood promotes. But it doesn't describe the way the real "intelligence community" operates. As Thomas Powers, one of the most astute historians of the CIA, explained in a 2004 essay in the New York Review of Books:

Directors of central intelligence are now confirmed by the Senate before they can take office, and they are required to report on their activities in a timely manner to the intelligence committees in Congress, but these gestures of oversight and restraint have not limited the power of presidents to use the CIA as they see fit.

In past decades, presidents have used the CIA to carry out acts of war against foreign nations, to attempt to assassinate foreign leaders, to raise funds in order to conduct secret wars, and even, in the notorious instance called Watergate, to attempt to quash the FBI's investigation of a White House-directed burglary team.

The current crisis is the result of a White House-directed campaign to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by citing intelligence reports of Iraqi stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and accelerating programs to build more.

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IN THE blood-soaked history of the agency dating from its creation in 1947, no CIA director has ever resigned to protest an administration's misuse of intelligence. The only time top officials in the agency have been forced to resign for incompetence was in the aftermath of failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, when the Kennedy administration deflected blame from itself by forcing Eisenhower holdovers, including CIA Director Allen Dulles, to walk the plank.

This is an agency that continued to issue dire warnings about the Soviet Union's nuclear and imperial ambitions right up to the moment the USSR collapsed. This is an agency whose operatives thought they could reverse the Cuban Revolution if they could slip Fidel Castro an exploding cigar or a chemical that would make his beard fall out.

And, of course, this is an agency that issued a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate asserting that Iraq had 100 to 500 tons of chemical and biological weapons.

No doubt, there were lower-level intelligence analysts and area specialists who knew these assumptions didn't make sense. But they became the agency's policy because they fit with the assumptions of the ultimate consumer of the CIA's products--the president.

As Powers points out, the CIA only has one customer--the president--so it exerts all its effort to please that customer. It doesn't win points for "speaking truth to power" if that means disagreeing with the president's stated policy. So Tenet's historical revisionism aside, it was no surprise that the CIA aided and abetted the Bush administration's march to war.

Showing the petty mind of the political bureaucrat he is, Tenet claims as a victory for his and the CIA's integrity his success in persuading Bush to nix a speech on the eve of the invasion by Dick Cheney that was to allege connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Tenet had already allowed many similar allegations by Bush administration officials to go unchallenged after the 9/11 attacks, and planning for the invasion had already reached the point of no return.

This too-little-too-late success may satisfy Tenet's assessment of his own importance, but it's cold comfort to the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their lives in Iraq.

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