George Tenet and the Last Great Days of the CIA
Richard D. White, Jr., is the Marjory Ourso Excellence in Teaching Professor at Louisiana State University, where he teaches in the Public Administration Institute. He is the author of Kingfish: The Reign of Huey P. Long (Random House, 2005) and Roosevelt the Reformer: Theodore Roosevelt as Civil Service Commission 1889–1895 (University of Alabama Press, 2003). His 24-year government career includes service in the White House, State Department, and Central Intelligence Agency.
George Tenet served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1997 to 2004, an intense period spanning the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and covering the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Few other central intelligence directors have served for so long, so energetically, or amid so much controversy. This profile examines the steep trajectory of Tenet’s career, his response to the al-Qaeda threat, the role he played during the invasion of Iraq, and the eventual reorganization of the nation’s intelligence community. It describes a public servant caught between the warring factions of the White House decision-making process, his own agency’s intelligence priorities, and, ultimately, his own conscience.
The dreary little restaurant located in the Virginia suburb just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital is worth mentioning only for its beer-soaked chili dogs and for its waitresses who never give checks to the customers. After diners finish their lunch, they walk up to the cash register, tell the owner what they ate, and pay their bill. This unusual honor system seems odd in today’s untrusting world, but there is a good reason. Many of the customers work nearby at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) headquarters, and they cannot tell a lie. The CIA ensures honesty by requiring its employees to take unannounced polygraph tests to see whether they have recently committed a crime. To the CIA faithful, even shirking a lunch bill would be a crime, and trying to lie about the misdeed would make the polygraph needle go haywire. The super-secret environment, in which the truth is sacrosanct and Big Brother is always looking over one’s shoulder, creates an organizational culture that few outsiders can comprehend, and it was into this clandestine world that George Tenet immersed himself when he became the director of central intelligence (DCI) in 1997.
The CIA ensures honesty by requiring its employees to take unannounced polygraph tests to see whether they have recently committed a crime. To the CIA faithful, even shirking a lunch bill would be a crime, and trying to lie about the misdeed would make the polygraph needle go haywire.
As DCI, Tenet understood that managing a large and complex government bureaucracy would be difficult enough, but managing one that operates under a shroud of secrecy would challenge even the most talented and energetic leader. To complicate his task, the CIA at the time was really two separate agencies, each with its own operating procedures and organizational personality. As the spy side of the agency, the Directorate of Operations managed covert operations and the collection of human intelligence. Its officers were a hard-nosed lot, and many were ex-military who worked undercover around the world collecting intelligence. The larger, less secretive Directorate of Intelligence was the analytic side that refined raw intelligence from many sources and produced the nation’s two most important finished intelligence products, the President’s Daily Brief and the National Intelligence Estimate. Staffed with academics and pipe-smoking PhDs, the Directorate of Intelligence resembled a college campus, and it was not unusual for an analyst to spend 30 years studying the political situation of one particular country.
One of the bigger challenges of any DCI was to ensure that the Directorate of Operations and the Directorate of Intelligence communicated with each other. Besides managing the CIA, the DCI served as the president’s principal intelligence advisor, as well as the head of the entire intelligence community, composed of 15 agencies including the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and a couple of others so secret that their existence was classified. Coordinating the nation’s intelligence apparatus was like herding cats—blindfolded! Tenet knew his responsibility was huge. “A strong case can be made that the three roles in which I served were too much for any one person,” he later wrote. “Perhaps so” (Tenet 2007, 501). But he was impressed with the CIA’s “streak of eccentric genius,” as he put it, welcomed the challenge and the excitement of the job, and charged ahead (Coll 2004, 359). He had no idea at the time, however, that he would play a major role, for better or worse, in the abolition of the DCI and the demise of the CIA as the world’s most powerful and prestigious intelligence agency.
Blunt, straightforward, and totally loyal
George Tenet grew up in a two-story row house on Marathon Parkway in Little Neck, Queens. His father and mother had emigrated from Greece during the Great Depression and later opened the Twentieth Century Diner around the corner from their home. They worked 16-hour days at the diner, where she was the baker and he was the chef, while George and his brother bused tables (Tenet 2007, xx). As a kid, George loved sports, playing stick ball in the street and guard on the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church basketball team. He was a loud, sloppy, and boisterous kid, unlike his studious twin brother Bill, who became a cardiologist (Coll 2004, 355). Tenet attended Georgetown University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in foreign affairs in 1976, and, two years later, earned a master’s degree from Columbia.
After moving to Washington, D.C., Tenet spent four years as a lobbyist. In 1982, he took his first job on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant for Senator John Heinz, a Pennsylvania Republican. In the summer of 1985, he began working for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), where he monitored Cold War arms control negotiations and earned a reputation as an “effective and efficient staffer who served his bosses well” (Isikoff and Corn 2006, 30). When Oklahoma senator David Boren took over the SSCI, he found Tenet to be “very blunt, straightforward, and totally loyal.” Impressed, Boren appointed him staff director, one of the most prized and influential positions on the Hill. As director of the SSCI’s 40 professionals, Tenet’s duties included keeping track of the CIA’s budget and operations. He was tough on the agency, tightening oversight over covert operations and cutting its funding (Coll 2004, 357).
Senate staffers remember Tenet as a gregarious, comical, and profane colleague but nevertheless a straight arrow, a high-strung workaholic, and a sports fanatic with season tickets to Georgetown basketball games. The cigar-smoking Tenet was a natural coalition builder, a rare commodity on the Hill, but, according to a Senate staffer, he was prone to oversimplifying difficult issues. At the SSCI, he rarely discussed politics and was so religiously nonpartisan that his closest friends did not know his political affiliation (a registered Democrat). Bulky and a little overweight from junk food, he “could have been a longshoreman,” a staffer remarked (Coll 2004, 254, 354–58; Isikoff and Corn 2006, 30; Woodward 2002, 2; Woodward 2004, 117).
The cigar-smoking Tenet was a natural coalition builder, a rare commodity on the Hill, but, according to a Senate staffer, he was prone to oversimplifying difficult issues. . . . he rarely discussed politics and was so religiously nonpartisan that his closest friends did not know his political affiliation.
Soon after the presidential election of 1992, Tenet joined Bill Clinton’s transition team as director for intelligence issues, a position that really served as an audition for the new administration. Tenet impressed the Clintonites, who appointed him senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council. He worked so hard in 1993 and 1994 that he had a heart attack, causing him to stop lighting the ever-present cigar stuck in his mouth but never forcing him to slow down. In 1995, he moved to the CIA to become deputy to DCI John Deutch, primarily because his popularity on both sides of the Senate aisle made him easy to confirm. While deputy, Tenet did not waste time. He spent the next two years meeting the CIA’s people, learning its dark tradecraft, and absorbing the agency’s problems “the way a Geiger counter absorbs radiation signals” (Coll 2004, 354–55, 359).
When Deutch quit after only 19 months, President Clinton nominated his national security advisor, Tony Lake, as DCI, but Senate Republicans blocked Lake as being too liberal. That left Tenet, who got the job almost by default. He possessed two qualities that appealed strongly to the White House: He was well liked, and, again, he could be easily confirmed by Congress.
Before arriving at the CIA, Tenet had never run for political office, managed a large organization, worked as an intelligence officer, shaped American foreign policy, earned academic credentials by authoring a scholarly publication, or served in the military (Coll 2004, 353–54). But it was not unusual for an outsider like Tenet to head the agency. Only four previous heads—Allen Dulles, Richard Helms, William Colby, and Robert Gates—had been professional intelligence officers, while seven had been civilians with political connections but little intelligence background, and six had been military officers. To rank-and-file CIA employees, the back-slapping Tenet would be a breath of fresh air after the abrasive Deutch. Old hands, in fact, still remembered the notorious days of Stansfield Turner, President Jimmy Carter’s DCI who had mistrusted clandestine operations and decimated the agency by firing hundreds of operatives, and the opposite extreme, William Casey, President Ronald Reagan’s hawkish DCI who had used covert operations to meddle in the internal affairs of foreign governments. By comparison, Tenet was an acceptable, low-risk choice whose two years as deputy gave him some measure of credibility.
An agency in disarray
On July 11, 1997, 44-year-old George Tenet was sworn in as the eighteenth director of central intelligence. President Clinton did not attend the ceremony but sent Vice President Al Gore (Coll 2004, 353). Officially Tenet was a cabinet member, but he remained outside the president’s inner circle. According to Tim Weiner, “Clinton did not find the time to understand what the CIA was, how it worked, or where it fit in with the rest of government” (2007, 447). Clinton did not require the DCI to be present for the daily intelligence briefing, often preferring to read intelligence documents on his own. Tenet was not surprised to have little personal contact with the president. Clinton’s first DCI, James Woolsey, had served from 1993 to 1995 and, according to one journalist, had never met one on one with Clinton. “Remember the guy who in 1994 crashed his plane onto the White House lawn?” Woolsey sarcastically told an Insight magazine reporter. “That was me trying to get an appointment to see President Clinton.”
The CIA was in disarray when Tenet took over. The agency had suffered inconsistent leadership since the fall of the Soviet Union, and he was the fifth DCI in seven years. Morale sagged badly. Since 1991, the agency had lost more than 3,000 of its best people—more than 20 percent of its workforce—including many of its more experienced case officers (Weiner 2007, 470). Some had left from budget cuts, others from disgust. Recruiting was at a standstill. Indeed, when Tenet arrived, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had more agents in New York City than the CIA had clandestine officers around the world (Tenet 2007, 14). The agency budget was a mess, and there was no central accounting of funds spent. At the same time, the CIA had lost the technological edge that had enabled it to compete and triumph during the Cold War. The agency had not kept abreast of breakthroughs in private industry in communications technology, satellite surveillance, and supercomputing (Tenet 2007, 21). Though required to coordinate the intelligence community, the DCI had little real authority over other agencies and controlled less than 20 percent of overall intelligence spending (Kean and Hamilton 2006, 197). “The fact is that by the mid- to late-1990s American intelligence was in Chapter 11,” Tenet wrote, “and neither Congress nor the executive branch did much about it” (2007, 108).
When Tenet became DCI, he did not have a grand, compelling strategy concerning world affairs, nor did he seek one. Instead, he focused on the CIA’s internal, institutional needs. His top priorities were a more clearly defined mission, improved morale, better execution of intelligence collection and analysis, more recruits, better training, and a substantial increase in funding. He sounded like a football coach when he told his staff that “this is all about focusing on basics” (Coll 2004, 355).
[Tenet’s] clearly defined mission, improved morale, better execution of intelligence collection and analysis, more recruits, better training, and a substantial increase in funding. He sounded like a football coach when he told his staff that “this is all about focusing on basics.”
Tenet immediately started rebuilding. Turning to private industry, he appointed a chief financial officer to straighten out the agency’s spending and a chief information officer to upgrade its computing capacity. He called talented veterans back from retirement, including Jack Downing, a Harvard-educated ex-Marine who had served as station chief in Moscow and Beijing, to reenergize the clandestine service (Weiner 2007, 67, 471). He also sought more funding. He sent two personal letters to President Clinton, one in November 1998 and another a year later, seeking an additional $2 billion over five years. His requests annoyed the White House, and he got only a small increase (Tenet 2007, 107). Late in 1999, Tenet went through back channels to Republican Congressmen Newt Gingrich and Porter Goss, who controlled the agency budget in the House of Representatives, and secured an “emergency”$2 billion supplemental appropriation, the agency’s biggest increase in 15 years (Weiner 2007, 468; Tenet 2007, 21). At the same time, Tenet attempted to revamp the agency’s personnel structure by implementing a pay-for-performance incentive system, but Congress refused to authorize it (Tenet 2007, 25).
Tenet’s energy and hands-on leadership paid off. Morale seemed to improve overnight as word spread quickly around Langley about the new DCI’s “management by walking around” style. He became a familiar sight strolling headquarters corridors, chomping on his unlit cigar, throwing his arms around people, or plopping down at cafeteria tables (Coll 2004, 360). Over the agency’s history, few DCIs had been true people persons and fewer had made themselves readily accessible to the rank and file. Now, most employees addressed the new DCI simply as “George.”
Diplomat rather than spymaster
“At CIA we don’t make policy; we implement it,” George Tenet said on numerous occasions (2007, 55). He saw the agency’s role as that of an honest broker that avoided direct involvement in foreign policy making. His role as DCI became more politically complicated, however, in the fall of 1998, when President Clinton hosted peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. During the Wye Oak negotiations, Tenet served as the go-between for Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “We were the one entity both sides could trust,” Tenet explained (2007, 64). This new role was more diplomat than chief spymaster, which made many insiders “distinctly uncomfortable” (Posner 1998; Tenet 2007, 74). Late in the negotiations, Netanyahu demanded that the United States release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. At first Clinton was inclined to grant the Israeli request, but Tenet told the president that he could not remain DCI if Pollard were released. After Tenet threatened to resign and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich objected to the release, Clinton backed down (Risen 2006, 8).
Sometime in 1998, the Clinton administration became aware of the threat that Osama bin Laden posed and planned to capture him. At the time, Bin Laden was seeking chemical and biological weapons and sending his operatives into at least 60 countries (Tenet 2007, 109, 130). In December 1998, Tenet warned top intelligence officials of the al-Qaeda threat. “We are at war,” he wrote. “I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the Community.” According to the 9/11 Commission report (2004, 357), however, the memorandum did little to mobilize the intelligence community. Meanwhile, despite Tenet’s efforts to rebuild his agency, the CIA continued to experience major intelligence failures. On May 11, 1998, India began its nuclear testing program, to the surprise of the U.S. intelligence community. “We didn’t have a clue,” Tenet confessed to Senator Richard Shelby after the test became public (Bamford 2005, 129). A year later, U.S. warplanes relied on faulty intelligence and mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Like a loyal soldier, Tenet again shouldered the blame. Soon after, a Washington Post reporter wrote ominously that “politicization of intelligence estimates continues to flourish under Tenet’s leadership . . . We all have reason for grave concern” (Eddington 1999).
A member of the inner circle
When George W. Bush won the presidency, George Tenet expected to be replaced as soon as the Republicans took office. In early 2001, however, Senator David Boren called Bush and urged him to keep Tenet as a gesture of bipartisanship. The senator suggested that Bush ask his father, himself a former DCI, about Tenet. President George H. W. Bush had been impressed by Tenet, who had shepherded Robert Gates through the Senate confirmation process in 1991 and later led the effort to rename CIA headquarters for the elder Bush (Woodward 2002, 2). Tenet stayed.
On paper, Tenet was no longer a cabinet member, but, despite being a Clinton holdover, he soon became a trusted insider of the Bush national security team. According to Tenet, the Bush administration had a more traditional, and “perhaps more appropriate,” view regarding the CIA’s involvement (2007, 80). Unlike Clinton, Bush was fascinated by the CIA and insisted that Tenet personally brief him each morning at eight o’clock (Woodward 2004, 68). As Tenet became more deeply involved in providing daily intelligence to the president and attending White House policy meetings, he no longer was able to focus on rebuilding the agency. There were just not enough hours in his day.
“I like the president, plain and simple,” Tenet wrote (2007, 480). Bush and Tenet bonded so well that one White House official remarked that they “were like fraternity brothers,” and the two men defended each other on every occasion. Some CIA officers complained that the DCI was too close to the president, still acting like a congressional staffer overly concerned with pleasing his boss (Isikoff and Corn 2006, 31, 268). In his morning briefings to Bush, Tenet sometimes took along a field officer, still needing a shave and a shower, who had just flown in from some hot spot on the far side of the world. “I wanted to take the person closest to the action, the one with hands-on experience, to tell the Commander in Chief what was really happening” (Tenet 2007, 183).
George tenet goes to war
On September 11, 2001, George Tenet sat under an ornate Louis XVI chandelier having breakfast with Senator Boren at the St. Regis Hotel at 16th and K streets. Tenet never finished his breakfast. His security detail whisked him away when news reached them that an airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center (Bamford 2005, 18). The DCI knew immediately that the attacks were the work of al-Qaeda. Two months before, he had raced to the White House to brief Condoleezza Rice on his fears of an imminent terrorist attack based on intelligence that “literally made my hair stand on end” (Goldberg 2007). A week after the attack, Tenet wrote to top intelligence officials that “there can be no bureaucratic impediments to success. All the rules have changed. There must be an absolute and full sharing of information, ideas, and capabilities. We do not have time to hold meetings to fix problems—fix them—quickly and smartly” (2007, 169). In a perverse way, 9/11 made Tenet’s job easier. It gave him clarity, allowing him to know exactly what his priority was, that he had the full support of his president, and that he would have a blank check for more people, more funding, and expanded covert authority to do his job. A week after the attack, Bush signed a secret order giving the CIA more than $800 million (Suskind 2006, 20).
In a perverse way, 9/11 made Tenet’s job easier.
Tenet and the CIA focused on wiping out al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a country where the agency had a long history of involvement, especially during the Russian occupation. For a change, the CIA was ahead of the Defense Department in the planning and execution of a paramilitary assault to dislodge al-Qaeda from its sanctuaries in the rugged country. On November 14, 2001, the Northern Alliance, along with CIA operatives and U.S. Special Forces, rolled into Kabul. The takedown of Afghanistan was the CIA’s—and George Tenet’s—finest hour.
“Slam dunk” and weapons of mass destruction
On August 26, 2002, Vice President Richard Cheney announced to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Nashville, Tennessee, that “there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction … many of us are convinced that he will acquire nuclear weapons fairly soon.” Cheney’s remarks troubled Tenet, who wrote that the speech “went well beyond what our analysis could support.” Tenet believed that policy makers have a right to their own opinions, but not their own set of facts. “I had an obligation to do a better job of making sure they knew where we differed and why,” he later confessed. “I should have told the Vice President privately that, in my view, his VFW speech had gone too far … I should not have let silence imply agreement” (Tenet 2007, 315–17; Drogin 2007, 107).
Cheney’s speech marked the beginning of a huge dispute over the presence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, as well as possible collusion between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda terrorists. By this time, the Bush administration was determined to change the regime in Iraq, and for good reason. Saddam was a brutal tyrant who threatened his neighbors, sought to annex Kuwait into Iraq, shot missiles into Israel, and tortured his own people. He had used chemical weapons in the past and, in the late 1980s, had made progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons (Pfiffner 2007b, 2). According to some insiders, Bush had made up his mind to go to war with Iraq in the summer of 2002, but Tenet defended the president (Pfiffner 2007b, 3). “To me, the president still appeared less inclined to go to war than many of his senior aides,” he wrote (Tenet 2007, 319). But Tenet also revealed that the administration had decided earlier to go to war when he told Kurdish leaders in March there would be a military attack on Iraq (Woodward 2004, 115–16).
Meanwhile, Tenet tried to keep a low profile and stay out of the public limelight, but as a member of the president’s small war cabinet, he found himself increasingly involved in the policy debate. He did not object when both the Office of the Vice President and the Defense Department formed their own ad hoc intelligence units that pressured the intelligence community when intelligence products did not fit their political expectations and stovepiped raw, unverified intelligence straight to the White House (Pfiffner 2007b, 1).
When the SSCI became aware of the Iraqi intelligence dispute between the Office of the Vice President, Defense Department, and the intelligence community on whether Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, it ordered the CIA to complete a crash National Intelligence Estimate (Tenet 2007, 321–22). The new estimate concluded that “Baghdad has chemical and biological weapons . . . and could make a nuclear weapon within several months,” but Tenet later admitted the estimate was “flawed” and contained little hard evidence (Weiner 2007, 487). As the inconsistent intelligence fueled more controversy, the DCI attempted to quell a press leak that the CIA’s internal analysis conflicted with that of the White House. Supposed to stay above the partisan fray, Tenet found himself in the odd position of downplaying the conclusions of his own analysts at the CIA (Gordon and Trainor 2006, 129). Meanwhile, a senior CIA official threatened to resign after the National Security Council pressured her to confirm that Saddam had collaborated with al-Qaeda. She refused to rewrite her report, and Tenet defended her with a tirade of f-words aimed at White House staffers (Pfiffner 2007a, 14; Suskind 2006, 191).
In October, Tenet removed material from a presidential speech claiming that Iraq had tried to buy 500 tons of uranium oxide from Niger. Analysts at the CIA concluded that the information had originated from an unreliable source and forged documents (Remnick 2003). Two months later, however, Tenet supposedly assured the president in the Oval Office that the evidence for Saddam possessing weapons of mass destruction amounted to a “slam dunk,” although he provided no new intelligence (Tenet 2007, 359). On January 28, 2003, President Bush delivered his State of the Union address and announced that “the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa” (Tenet 2007, 449). This was the same bogus intelligence the CIA had found to be unsupported and flawed. But even if Tenet had objected to the use of the questionable intelligence, would the decision to invade Iraq have been different? Probably not, for by this time the Bush administration was committed to ousting Saddam, with or without hard evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Whatever Tenet did at this late date may not have had much impact on a decision already made.
A few days later, Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to New York to address the United Nations. Tenet spent a week with Powell trying to agree on which intelligence could be used in the speech. “After all the back-and-forth, we believed we had produced a solid product,” Tenet wrote (2007, 374), but he later contradicted himself by admitting that Powell’s speech contained some of the flawed analysis from the National Intelligence Estimate. Powell made a powerful and persuasive delivery to the United Nations and helped galvanize support for the invasion of Iraq. In an unusual public appearance for the DCI, Tenet accompanied Powell and, according to a former CIA analyst, sat behind the secretary of state during the speech “like a potted plant” (McGovern 2006). When journalists later revealed that the intelligence in the speech was doubtful, Powell’s reputation suffered permanent damage, as did the credibility and usefulness of Tenet and the CIA (Risen 2006, 151). “If we are not believed,” former DCI Richard Helms once said, “we have no purpose” (Weiner 2007, 488).
Hard questions never asked
Some CIA officers felt that George Tenet could not carry out his role as DCI objectively because he was too close to George W. Bush. But Tenet really had no choice. If the president wanted him in his inner circle, then he must follow orders and join. Tenet’s choice, however, was to decide what his role was to be once he joined that inner circle. He claimed that his task was clear. “I mean, you know, you don’t cross that policy line,” he told the New Yorker. “You’re supposed to provide objective assessments and analysis” (Goldberg 2007). But during the Iraq War buildup, he no longer served primarily as an honest broker of hard intelligence but instead allowed himself to be swept up in the politics of the day. According to one CIA official, he helped the administration use intelligence “not to inform decision making, but to justify a decision already made” (Pfiffner 2007a, 14).
Tenet’s performance should not be surprising, for he had a bad habit of too often telling people what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear (Risen 2006, 12). He tried to please all parties instead of stepping back and letting the analysis speak for itself. At a time when he needed to stick to the facts, Tenet continued to act primarily as a consensus builder. Chester Barnard once wrote, “It seems to me inevitable that the struggle to maintain cooperation among men should as surely destroy some men morally as battle destroys some physically” (1938, 278), and indeed, Tenet may have placed himself in such a dilemma. He worried about political consequences rather than speaking truth to power and asking the hard questions that needed answers. He should have been asking whether the intelligence used in the National Intelligence Estimate was accurate, appropriate, and analyzed according to prevailing standards. Was the evidence believable, coming from diverse sources, and tested for credibility? Were the arguments persuasive and balanced rather than one sided? (Wildavsky 1979). Never asked, the hard questions were never answered.
Tenet was too good a guy to lie intentionally, but unfortunately, his loyalty to the president and his inner circle was greater than his loyalty to his agency’s analysis and, ultimately, his loyalty to the truth and his responsibility to have that truth heard. Tenet would later blame the intelligence community for failing to do its job: “Why so many opportunities to sound the alarm were missed is a mystery to me,” he wrote (2007, 380). But as DCI, it was Tenet’s role to sound the alarm. “It’s not enough to ring the bell,” Richard Helms used to say. “You’ve got to make sure the other guy hears it” (Weiner 2007, 479).
“It’s not enough to ring the bell,” Richard Helms used to say. “You’ve got to make sure the other guy hears it.”
The departure of george tenet
In March 2003, American forces invaded Iraq, fought their way into Baghdad, and nine months later captured Saddam Hussein. Soon after occupying Baghdad, U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer ordered that the new Iraqi government remove all Ba’ath Party members from office, as well as disband the Iraqi army. Tenet and the CIA strongly opposed these actions, arguing that the Ba’athists were the only experienced civil servants in Iraq and were needed to rebuild and run the country. The agency also argued that disbanding the army would drive thousands of Iraqis into the ranks of the insurgents. Unfortunately, the CIA’s credibility had been seriously weakened, and some high-level officials, particularly Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, believed the agency was too cautious and not aggressive enough for the war on terror (Pfiffner 2007a, 15). Bremer, supported by the vice president and Defense Department, ignored the CIA’s objections (Tenet 2007, 428).
After U.S. inspectors found the existence of weapons of mass destruction to be “more chimerical than chemical,” increasing public skepticism arose regarding the intelligence used to justify the invasion (Remnick 2003). In June 2004, after Tenet admitted the intelligence flaws in the president’s State of the Union speech, Senator Richard Shelby called for the DCI’s resignation (Tenet 2007, 449). Tenet knew that his days were numbered when Condoleezza Rice told the press that if the DCI “had said, ‘take this out of the speech,’ it would have been gone, without question.” When reporters started asking him whether the president still had confidence in him, he knew that he was “in a world of trouble” (Tenet 2007, 464).
On July 11, 2004, with the political firestorm over weapons of mass destruction still building, Tenet resigned as director of central intelligence. Five months later, he stood in the East Room of the White House, where President Bush, still loyal to his former DCI, praised the CIA and awarded Tenet the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The demise of the CIA
Eleven days after George Tenet resigned, the 9/11 Commission issued its report and, as expected, soundly criticized the CIA for committing “a major intelligence failure” of a magnitude that “we simply cannot afford.” The report blamed Tenet for not developing a strategy for a war against Islamist terrorists prior to 9/11. Calling the intelligence community a disorganized “confederacy,” the report recommended the most ambitious intelligence reorganization since the CIA was created in 1947. Responding to both the report and a hot debate during the 2004 presidential campaign, President Bush signed legislation in April 2005 that created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The new position would report directly to the president and would take over the role, previously played by the now-defunct DCI, of coordinating the separate intelligence agencies. In effect, the CIA director no longer would produce the President’s Daily Brief, oversee the production of the National Intelligence Estimate, or personally brief the president. Instead, the new DNI would build up his own bureaucracy of more than 1,500 personnel, many siphoned from the CIA, and take control of interagency bodies such as the National Counterterrorism Center (Pfiffner 2007a, 15).
Tenet, having taken a faculty position at Georgetown, opposed the creation of the DNI and the demotion of the CIA director post. Labeling the legislation an “effort destined to provide only a false sense of progress and security,” he argued that the new intelligence design created an “over-centralized, multilayered structure that, at least where terrorism is concerned, lacked the speed and agility to meet the challenges we face.” Tenet also wrote that the new DNI “may be too distant from the people he is supposed to lead and may be divorced from the risk taking and running operations” (Tenet 2007, 490, 501–4).
The larger, more enduring impact of the intelligence reorganization will unfold in future years. But for better or for worse, Tenet ushered in the end of the CIA era and, in many respects, was the last influential DCI to manage the agency at the height of its power and prestige—an agency that began as the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, helped win the Cold War and dismantle the Soviet Union, and more recently has faced the modern, unconventional challenges of international terrorism, rogue nation-states, nuclear proliferation, narcotics trafficking, and other emerging threats. For more than 50 years, Washington insiders referred to the CIA cryptically as “the Agency,” but under the new DNI framework, the CIA has become merely another bureaucracy whose director no longer holds sway over the rest of the intelligence community.
Tenet must share both praise and blame for the demise of the DCI and the weakening of the CIA. The reorganization may have happened without him, as the catastrophic magnitude of 9/11 demanded change, whether needed or not. But he did prove that the huge job of the DCI was too difficult for one man—at least for him. Tenet is fundamentally a decent man, but his legacy will not be that of a man who displayed moral courage when the country needed him to do so. At times he showed a burst of fortitude, as when he stood up to President Clinton and insisted the president not release Jonathan Pollard, and later, in March 2003, when he told President Bush that he opposed a speech to be given by Vice President Cheney that linked Iraq and al-Qaeda (Tenet 2007, 341). But too often, Tenet did not object to the misuse of intelligence for political purposes, nor did he have the courage to quit when it was misused. One high-ranking CIA analyst compared—perhaps too harshly—Tenet’s role in the Iraq controversy to Watergate, when Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus both quit rather than follow the orders of President Richard Nixon to fire the special prosecutor. “You don’t see that kind of courage anymore,” the analyst remarked, referring to Tenet (McGovern 2006).
As the debate over the Iraq War drags on, the muddled legacy left by Tenet revolves primarily around his “slam dunk” remark in the Oval Office, the uranium oxide in the president’s State of the Union speech, and even the seven-figure advance he received for his recent book, in which he tries to distance himself from the failures of the intelligence community. His blaming of others has been disingenuous. “Quite simply,” he wrote, “the NSC did not do its job…. Those in charge of U.S. policy operated within a closed loop. Bad news was ignored. Our own reporting—reporting that eventually would prove spot-on in its predictions of what came to pass on the ground—was dismissed” (2007, 447). But Tenet, too, was in the closed loop and deserves a large part of the blame that he casts on others. He may have admitted his true, less stalwart legacy when he confessed weakly that “perhaps I should have pounded the table harder” (2007, 493–94).
The author is grateful to James Pfiffner and Hal Rainey for their helpful comments. Any conclusions, of course, are solely those of the author.