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Apr 28, 2007, 08:39 PM
April 28, 2007
Books of The Times
An Ex-C.I.A. Chief on Iraq and the Slam Dunk That Wasn’t
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI

Since the publication of Bob Woodward’s 2004 book, “Plan of Attack,” George J. Tenet, former director of central intelligence, has become best known for two words: “slam dunk” — that is, for reportedly telling President Bush that intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was “a slam dunk case!” Those words have been quoted countless times, most notably by Vice President Dick Cheney, who, during a “Meet the Press” appearance last year, suggested that the administration had “made a choice” to go to war based on the “slam dunk” intelligence provided by the C.I.A. — intelligence that later turned out to be wrong.

In his much-anticipated and intermittently fascinating new memoir, “At the Center of the Storm,” Mr. Tenet writes that the whole “slam dunk” scene described in Mr. Woodward’s book took his words out of context and “had been fed deliberately to Woodward” by someone in the White House eager to shift blame from the White House to the C.I.A. for what turned out to be a failed rationale for the Iraq war. In short, he says, he and the agency were set up as “fall guys,” and he was made to look like a fool — rising up, throwing his arms in the air and saying those two words, as if he were “Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.”

In fact, Mr. Tenet says he doubts that W.M.D.’s were the principal cause of the United States’ decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place, that it was just “the public face that was put on it.” The real reason, he suggests, stemmed from “the administration’s largely unarticulated view that the democratic transformation of the Middle East through regime change in Iraq would be worth the price.”

Mr. Tenet notes that his “slam dunk” remarks came “10 months after the president saw the first workable war plan for Iraq,” and “two weeks after the Pentagon had issued the first military deployment order sending U.S. troops to the region.” He points out that many senior Bush administration officials, including Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith, were focused on Iraq long before 9/11, and that Mr. Cheney asked Bill Clinton’s then-departing secretary of defense, William Cohen, before the 2001 inauguration to give the incoming president a comprehensive briefing on Iraq and detail possible future actions.

On the day after 9/11, he adds, he ran into Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative and the head of the Defense Policy Board, coming out of the White House. He says Mr. Perle turned to him and said: “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.” This, despite the fact, Mr. Tenet writes, that “the intelligence then and now” showed “no evidence of Iraqi complicity” in the 9/11 attacks.

Alternately withholding and aggrieved, earnest and disingenuous, “At the Center of the Storm” is interesting less for any stunning new revelations than for fleshing out a portrait of the Bush White House already sketched by reporters and former administration members. Mr. Tenet depicts an administration riven by factional fighting between the State and Defense Departments, hard-liners and more pragmatic realists, an administration given to out-of-channels policymaking, and ad hoc, improvisatory decision-making.

“There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat,” he writes of a war that has already resulted in more than 3,300 American military deaths, at least 60,000 Iraqi civilian deaths and already cost more than $420 billion. Nor, he adds, was there “a significant discussion regarding enhanced containment or the costs and benefits of such an approach versus full-out planning for overt and covert regime change.”

Mr. Tenet’s book also ratifies the view articulated by former military, intelligence and Coalition Provisional Authority insiders that the White House repeatedly ignored or rebuffed early warnings about the deteriorating situation in post-invasion Iraq. Mr. Tenet writes that the C.I.A.’s senior officer in Iraq was dismissed as a “defeatist” for warning in 2003 of the dangers of a growing Iraqi insurgency, though it was already clear then that United States political and economic strategies were failing. Although the trends were clear, he adds, those in charge of policy “operated within a closed loop.” In that atmosphere, he says, bad news was ignored: the agency’s subsequent reporting, which would prove “spot-on,” was dismissed.

Mr. Tenet writes that there was “no strategy for when U.S. forces hit the ground” in Iraq, aside from a desire to put the exile Ahmed Chalabi (who had provided administration hawks with much unreliable prewar intelligence) in charge of the country: “You had the impression,” Mr. Tenet sarcastically writes, “that some Office of the Vice President and D.O.D. reps were writing Chalabi’s name over and over again in their notes, like schoolgirls with their first crush.”

He is not optimistic about the current surge in Iraq: sectarian violence, he argues, has “taken on a life of its own,” and he sees American forces becoming increasingly “irrelevant to the management of that violence.”

On the controversial matters of the C.I.A.’s use of coercive interrogation techniques, its covert prison system abroad and its use of “extraordinary rendition” (whereby foreign terrorism suspects are sent to third countries for interrogation), Mr. Tenet simply stonewalls. He asserts that “the most aggressive interrogation techniques conducted by C.I.A. personnel were applied to only a handful of the worst terrorists on the planet” and that those interrogations were “conducted in a precisely monitored, measured way intended to try to prevent what we believed to be an imminent follow-on attack.”

Mr. Tenet does not grapple with reports that the C.I.A. has possibly been implicated in the deaths of at least four detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq. He does not grapple with the problem of sorting out the innocent people sometimes swept up in arrests along with genuine Qaeda suspects. And he sheds no light on the secret Justice Department memos establishing interrogation techniques. On the subject of Mr. Bush’s secretly authorizing the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a court order on calls and e-mail messages between the United States and other countries, Mr. Tenet suggests that the idea originated with Vice President Cheney, who he says called him shortly after 9/11 to ask “if N.S.A. could do more” than it was then doing under laws in place since the 1970s.

Although Mr. Tenet acknowledges that the C.I.A. failed to predict the specifics of the 9/11 attack, he cites repeated warnings it issued, over the years, about the dangers posed by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Most notably, he describes the alarming intelligence he presented to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice at a July 10, 2001, meeting — including information from late June of that year that predicted a “big event” was coming. Mr. Tenet’s efforts to spin the C.I.A.’s own failure to watch-list two of the 9/11 hijackers when they first came across the agency’s radar screen two and a half years earlier feel particularly lame: had they been caught, he suggests that Al Qaeda would simply have replaced the two men with other recruits.

As for the C.I.A.’s role in the lead-up to the Iraq war, Mr. Tenet admits that the agency’s reports about W.M.D.’s, cited in the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, were flawed. He adds, however, that he himself believed Saddam Hussein possessed W.M.D.’s and he contests allegations that the C.I.A. caved to pressure from administration hard-liners on the matter of W.M.D.’s: “Intelligence professionals did not try to tell policy makers what they wanted to hear,” he writes, “nor did the policymakers lean on us to influence outcomes.”

Mr. Tenet also disputes the allegation made by Tyler Drumheller, the C.I.A.’s former head of the European division, that he — Mr. Drumheller — had raised serious questions about the credibility of a key source known as Curveball with top agency officials before the invasion. He does not, however, come to terms with Mr. Drumheller’s other allegation, made on “60 Minutes,” that a C.I.A. source in Mr. Hussein’s inner circle said in the fall of 2002 that the dictator had no active weapons-of-mass-destruction program and that this information was ignored.

Mr. Tenet describes himself as like his father, “a very trusting man, loath to say anything bad about anyone,” and notes that his staff jokingly called him “the subliminal man” — based on a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which one of the cast members “would say normal things like ‘How are you, madam?’ and then quickly and quietly mutter something different under his breath, such as ‘You miserable twit.’ ” And while he has some nice things to say in these pages about President Bush and Vice President Cheney, there often seems to be an unspoken subtext.

According to Ron Suskind’s 2006 book on the C.I.A., “The One Percent Doctrine,” Mr. Tenet felt indebted to the president for allowing him to keep his job after the 9/11 attacks, and Mr. Tenet repeatedly praises Mr. Bush in these pages as a focused leader, “absolutely in charge, determined and directed.” And yet, at the same time, Mr. Tenet depicts him as presiding over an often dysfunctional administration in which crucial decisions were made without a considered weighing of pros and cons, and expert advice often went unheeded.

As for Mr. Cheney, Mr. Tenet describes thinking of him as very supportive of the intelligence community but then goes on to note numerous occasions in which the vice president delivered or planned to deliver bellicose speeches about Saddam Hussein that exceeded the available intelligence.

Mr. Tenet is more willing to take the gloves off with lower-ranked members of the administration. Condoleezza Rice comes across here as an ineffectual national security adviser, unwilling to make hard calls or mediate among warring parties. Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, comes across as a fool who discounted the C.I.A.’s warnings about Al Qaeda in the summer of 2001, asking Mr. Tenet if he had thought about the possibility that Al Qaeda’s threat was “just a grand deception, a clever ploy to tie up our resources.” And Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy, who headed a Pentagon unit that provided the White House with dubious information about a possible Al Qaeda-Iraq connection, is mocked for providing “Feith-based analysis.”

Paraphrasing Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Tenet concludes: “Policymakers are entitled to their own opinions — but not to their own set of facts.”