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Former CIA Director Tenet’s Memoir Sparks Controversy

April 30, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: Even before George Tenet’s new book, “At the Center of the Storm,” hit bookstores today, the former CIA director was the subject of controversy as the man in charge of intelligence before and after the 9/11 attacks…

GEORGE TENET, Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency: I still lie awake at night thinking about everything that could have been done that wasn’t done to stop 9/11. To the 9/11 families, I said, “You deserve better from your entire government, all of us.”

SPENCER MICHELS: … and as the man who provided much of the intelligence that the Bush administration used to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq four years ago. Last night, Tenet appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” where he was asked about the “slam dunk” quote most famously attributed to him that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

GEORGE TENET: The hardest part of all of this has just been listening to this for almost three years, listening to the vice president go on “Meet the Press,” on the fifth year of 9/11, you know, and say, “Well, George Tenet said, slam dunk,” as if he needed me to say slam dunk to go to war with Iraq.

And they never let it go. I mean, I became campaign talk. I was a talking point. You know, “Look what the idiot told us, and we decided to go to war.” Well, let’s not be so disingenuous. Let’s stand up. This is why we did it. This is how we did it. And let’s tell — let’s everybody tell the truth.

SCOTT PELLEY, “60 Minutes” Correspondent: The truth of Iraq begins, according to Tenet, the day after the attack of September 11th, when he ran into Pentagon adviser Richard Perle at the White House.

GEORGE TENET: 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 that al-Qaida did this. There’s nothing in my head that says that there’s any Iraqi involvement in this in any way, shape or form, and I remember thinking to myself, as I’m about to go in and brief the president, “What the hell is he talking about?”

SCOTT PELLEY: You said Iraq made no sense to you in that moment. Does it make any sense to you today?

GEORGE TENET: In terms of complicity with 9/11? Absolutely none. 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.

SPENCER MICHELS: Hours before that interview aired, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served as national security adviser alongside Tenet, also appeared on CBS.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: You know, it’s very interesting. When George said “slam dunk,” everybody understood that he believed that the intelligence was strong. We all believed the intelligence was strong.

The sad fact of how all of this has gotten talked about is that there was a problem with intelligence, but it wasn’t just a problem with intelligence in the United States. It was an intelligence problem worldwide.

Services across the world thought that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations thought that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or would not have had these draconian sanctions that were being levied against Iran — Iraq.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tenet also drew fire in the opinion pages of major newspapers over the weekend. Maureen Dowd in the New York Times wrote, Tenet’s so-called “slam dunk” was more like an “air ball.” And former intelligence operative Michael Scheuer, the man who founded the CIA’s unit on bin Laden, opined in the Washington Post that Tenet is trying to “shift the blame.”

This morning, White House spokesman Tony Snow denied Tenet’s claim that the administration had been pushing a connection between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein to justify going to war.

TONY SNOW, White House Press Secretary: The fact is, the president made it clear before the State of the Union in 2002 that there was no link between Saddam Hussein and September 11th. So I’m afraid what’s happened there is that George Tenet may have been referring to something that has been misreported or at least twisted by people who may have political motives in recent years, but there’s been no attempt to try to link Saddam to September 11th.

SPENCER MICHELS: Tenet acknowledged mixed feelings about accepting the highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, shortly after he left his post almost three years ago.

New information in the book?

David Boren
Former Senator
I think the most important thing about writing a book like this is so that we can learn lessons from it. We can learn from this history and try not to repeat this history in the future.

RAY SUAREZ: We join the Tenet memoir debate with David Boren, who served as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1987 to 1993, when Tenet was on the committee staff. Senator Boren is now president of the University of Oklahoma.

And Larry Johnson, a former CIA analyst and counterterrorism official at the State Department, he's now a consultant.

Senator Boren, is there anything in the main story, either in the book or in last night's televised interview, that you didn't know about during the past several years?

DAVID BOREN, Former Chairman of Senate Intelligence Committee: Well, I knew about most of it, frankly, in terms of my own experience, and also in conversations over the years with George Tenet and other people that were involved.

I think the most important thing about writing a book like this is so that we can learn lessons from it. We can learn from this history and try not to repeat this history in the future. It's not a matter of who's most to blame; it's a matter, again, of learning.

And one of the things that comes out very clearly is that there were those that tried to rush to justify an attack upon Iraq almost immediately after 9/11. And I thought one of the most interesting parts of the book that, frankly, I had not known about before was the intervention of Mr. Tenet to stop a speech by the vice president in which he claimed direct ties between al-Qaida and 9/11. So that was very interesting to me.

I think the other thing that comes across most clearly is the absence of a full-scale debate about other options, other options that might have been available other than using military force to invade Iraq. And that debate apparently took place almost not at all.

There was a real rush, there was a determination to move into Iraq. And it reminds me of just the opposite sort of situation we faced during the first Gulf War, when I went down to the White House to talk to the first President Bush. And I remember saying, "Why don't we go on in? We pushed Saddam out of Kuwait. Why don't we go into Iraq right now?"

He said three things: First, Senator, what's your exit strategy? Second, he said, Let's think about the Kurds, the Shias, the Sunnis. Let's think about the civil war that might take place. Let's worry about upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East and strengthening countries like Iran versus other friends and allies of ours in the region.

And, you know, that was the kind of thoughtful discussion that took place then. And what really comes across in this book is the absence of that kind of thoughtful discussion this time around.

RAY SUAREZ: Larry Johnson, in either the televised reports or in the excerpts of the book itself, was there anything that you said, "Gee, I didn't know that"?

LARRY JOHNSON, Former CIA Analyst and Counterterrorism Official: No. What struck me was George Tenet's denial of some realities.

For example -- and he said very categorically, and you just aired it, about there was no operational relationship between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in attacking the United States. And he knew that in September of 2002. I know that from some of the intelligence officers who briefed him on it.

Yet in February of 2003, he went before the Congress and talked about Zarqawi, an al-Qaida operative, running around Baghdad with Saddam's support. He was helping make the public case that there was, in fact, such a relationship, even though the intelligence demonstrated otherwise.

So it was that kind of disingenuousness on his part that you find that over and over again last night in that interview and, unfortunately, in his book.

'A bit self-serving'

Larry Johnson
Former CIA Analyst
I think he was ill-served by Condi Rice, but I think George Tenet had an obligation by virtue of his access to speak up, and he chose to be silent.

RAY SUAREZ: When you've heard these stories and read them, does it strike you as a generally true account of the state of play, both immediately pre-September 11th and post-September 11th, in the highest counsels of the Bush administration?

LARRY JOHNSON: Correct to an extent. It's a bit self-serving, as you might expect. It is correct that he was telling Condi Rice, you know, the alarm bells are ringing.

Yet to hear him say that he will not go in and brief the president on that because the president is not a policy actor in the sense of an action officer is ridiculous, because, if that's the case, why go brief the president every day? You should spend your time with Condoleezza Rice.

If any American believes for a minute that if George Tenet had walked in the Oval Office and said, "Mr. President, I've repeatedly made this issue about going after al-Qaida. We have yet to meet and hold a cabinet meeting on terrorism." You are now August of 2001. And if you think that George Bush would have sat there like he was reading "My Pet Goat" and would have done nothing, I find that hard to believe.

I think he was ill-served by Condi Rice, but I think George Tenet had an obligation by virtue of his access to speak up, and he chose to be silent.

Tenet and al-Qaida

David Boren
Former Senator
He's told me that every time he sees photographs of caskets coming back, flag-draped caskets, that he asked himself, "Is there anything that I could have done? How did I miss some of the evidence?"

RAY SUAREZ: Senator, you heard Larry Johnson use the phrase "self-serving." Michael Scheuer in this morning's Washington Post referred to George Tenet "letting himself off the hook." Respond to that.

DAVID BOREN: Well, I don't think he let himself off the hook at all. In fact, I've had many discussions about this whole issue with him. He knows my own strong feelings, and I think he said very clearly, "We got it wrong."

I don't know how many times he says it in the book in different ways: We got it wrong. And he said, "I've asked myself over and over again," I know this from personal conversations with this man, how much he's worried about it. "Is there anything I could have done to have stopped things?"

He's told me that every time he sees photographs of caskets coming back, flag-draped caskets, that he asked himself, "Is there anything that I could have done? How did I miss some of the evidence?"

And I know that he truly believed that there was evidence of weapons of mass destruction. But at the same time, he's the kind of person that I don't think would repeat conversations that he had with the president of the United States.

It's on the record, for example -- and I cannot believe that the president wouldn't have known -- that he took action -- it must have gone all the way to the president -- to prevent the vice president of the United States from making a speech saying there was a connection between al-Qaida and Iraq. He said very clearly on numerous occasions what he said in that interview on "60 Minutes" last night.

And, also, I think one of the things that he's not given enough credit for is rebuilding our human intelligence capability. I know something about that. Going all the way back to 1988 and 1989, he was one of the first people who said, "We're relying too much on satellites, national, technical means. We need real people on the ground, human sources." And he helped rebuild the human sources.

We would not have been able to have responded the way we did after 9/11 had George Tenet not been so focused on human intelligence capability and had he not been so focused on al-Qaida.

I had dinner meetings with him in which I really said to him, "George, you're almost fanatical about your concern about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. How could a group that's not a nation, not a nation-state, pose such a threat to the United States?"

I wasn't the only one that missed it. I know that Larry missed it. He had written an op-ed himself saying that the CIA was exaggerating the terrorist threat.

LARRY JOHNSON: Senator, that is not correct. That is not correct, Senator.

DAVID BOREN: ... the New York Times -- in the New York Times in July...

LARRY JOHNSON: Senator, that is not...

DAVID BOREN: ... in 2001.

LARRY JOHNSON: That's misleading.

DAVID BOREN: I'm not trying to blame...

RAY SUAREZ: Very quickly, please.

LARRY JOHNSON: Let's set the record straight. In November 7, 2000, look it up. New York Times op-ed written by myself and Milt Bearden, we stated specifically that the threat that the next president would face was Osama bin Laden.

What I said in the July 2001 op-ed was that America was paying too much attention to terrorism in general and being fear factor, but I identified that the threat came from jihadists. So, Senator, you do need to correct the record. I'm not going to let you smear me like that.

DAVID BOREN: Well, we're not...

RAY SUAREZ: We're talking about George Tenet. Senator, you said...

DAVID BOREN: Let's go back and look at that. And the question isn't -- what I was about to say, Larry, was that I was using myself as an example, and all of us, I think, at the time were not as convinced, perhaps, as George Tenet was about the threat of terrorism.

But, again, I go back -- what are the historic lessons? The lessons are that we need to have fuller debate about other options and other things we can do other than just use the military to go into situations.

LARRY JOHNSON: I agree.

DAVID BOREN: And in this case, we clearly have learned an awful lot about the complexity of other cultures, not going in without enough force, creating vacuums in the power establishment. And to me, whether we like George Tenet or don't like George Tenet, the value of this book is: We have a lot to learn from it, in terms of not repeating history in the future.

A responsibility to the public?

Larry Johnson
Former CIA Analyst
[Tenet] first had a responsibility to the senators and to the congressmen and congresswomen on the Hill to speak up. He did not. He then had an obligation, if that wouldn't go, to speak to the American people.

RAY SUAREZ: OK. You heard the senator say that George Tenet does concede he got it wrong on the prewar intelligence. But on all these things, where he says he was warning the administration, did he have a responsibility at some point to say something publicly, when his recommendations were not being acted on?

LARRY JOHNSON: Yes, let's separate the terrorism side from the Iraq side. On the terrorism side, I think he did about everything he could, with the exception of getting the president's attention. It's on the Iraq side that he failed. It's on the Iraq side that our criticism is directed.

I agree with the senator, that I think George Tenet helped rebuild the CIA. I think he did some positive things. I think he's a genial man. This is not an issue of me not liking George Tenet. George Tenet, on a personable basis, is a likable person.

This is an issue that George Tenet, in the summer of 2002, when Richard Dearlove, the head of MI-5 British intelligence, came here, Dearlove went back from that meeting to Tony Blair and reported, "The Americans are fixing the facts and the intelligence around the policy." In other words, they're cooking the books, and he got that from George Tenet.

RAY SUAREZ: But at some point, through all the time of his final phase in office, through all the time that the public case was being made and using facts that he felt were false, he says in his book were false, did he have a responsibility to somebody to say something publicly?

LARRY JOHNSON: Absolutely. He first had a responsibility to the senators and to the congressmen and congresswomen on the Hill to speak up. He did not. He then had an obligation, if that wouldn't go, to speak to the American people. He should have resigned and spoken up. He did not.

This is one of these few times in history where a man, by his action or inaction, could have changed the course of history. And George Tenet, in this case, chose to play ball.

He was an excellent Senate staffer to Senator Boren. He did an excellent job on the Senate Intelligence Committee. But as a director of Central Intelligence, responsible for being the Dutch uncle to tell presidents and vice presidents uncomfortable truths, on that he failed, failed miserably, and American soldiers have paid a bloody price because of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Larry Johnson, Senator Boren, gentlemen, thank you both.

DAVID BOREN: Thank you.