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Former CIA Director Tenet Responds to Memoir Criticism

May 3, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The storm over the book by former CIA Director George Tenet, “At the Center of the Storm.” I talked with George Tenet earlier this evening.

Mr. Tenet, welcome.

GEORGE TENET, Former CIA Director: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Are you upset by the reception you and your book have received?

GEORGE TENET: Not upset, Jim. Obviously, this is a raw period in our country’s history, and Iraq is a very difficult issue. I’m not sure I’d say I’m upset by it. I didn’t expect it would be this controversial, but it’s certainly engendered a lot of feelings and emotions.

I don’t know that everybody who’s reacted has actually taken the opportunity to read the book. But it’s a personal reflection of a time in history I lived, and so people are going to have different reactions.

JIM LEHRER: Did you expect to be criticized so severely, as you have been, and so personally?

GEORGE TENET: Well, Jim, I guess you don’t expect the personal criticism, but I certainly understood that issues that would be raised would be controversial with folks, and I guess that’s to be expected. All I’m trying to do is fill in some blanks and give people a sense of what it was like from my position, what it was like to be the intelligence community, what our officers were up against.

JIM LEHRER: A lot of the criticism has centered on your motives for writing the book. What were your motives? Why did you write this book?

GEORGE TENET: Well, people from my position and people who were former directors don’t usually do this.

I thought, first, I had a historical obligation. I believed I lived through some of the most turbulent times in our history. Intelligence was central to it.

Lots of people have provided their perspective from afar. I thought it was important that I give you a perspective from the inside, in terms of what we felt, what we saw, what we did.

JIM LEHRER: One of your critics, former CIA officer who you worked with, Michael Scheuer, said in the Washington Post that your purpose was to absolve yourself of the failings involving 9/11 and Iraq. What do you make of that charge?

GEORGE TENET: Well, he’s entitled to his opinion. I’m trying to give you a sense of what we did well, what we didn’t do well. I won’t absolve myself of anything. History will make these judgments. My motives were far more honorable than Mr. Scheuer portrays, but he’s entitled to his opinion.

JIM LEHRER: So what is the message of the book then? What do you want somebody who reads the book — and there have been scores of interviews, both in print, but particularly in television — a lot of people know an awful lot about what George Tenet said and did about this recent period. What’s the message you want people to take away from this?

GEORGE TENET: I think message is, is that there were — George Tenet and a lot of honest men and women did their best. They did it honorably; they did it honestly. We were sometimes wrong; we were many times right.

Some of the things we were wrong about had profound consequences for the country. We were wrong for professional reasons, not for reasons of trying to tell people what they wanted to hear. We saved thousands of lives. Our activities around the world have been beneficial for the country, and I wanted to give people a sense of what it was like to grapple with all these issues.

Responsibility for 9/11 and Iraq

George Tenet
Former CIA Director
An entire government needed to do better. We had no system of protection inside the country. We never thought of ourselves as a target. So if you stand back for a moment and look at it, yes, there were shortfalls on our part, and everybody's part.

JIM LEHRER: It's generally conceded that the 9/11 attack and the weapons of mass destruction issue involving Iraq are two of the most serious intelligence failings in recent U.S. history. Both of them happened on your watch. How do you see your own responsibility in those two major issues?

GEORGE TENET: I see a responsibility to speak about these issues honestly. If you look at 9/11, while everybody has zeroed in on intelligence, it was a failure of policies. It was a failure of intelligence, a failure of law enforcement.

You know, an entire government needed to do better. We had no system of protection inside the country. We never thought of ourselves as a target. So if you stand back for a moment and look at it, yes, there were shortfalls on our part, and everybody's part.

If you look at Iraq, we produced intelligence on WMD that was not accurate. We produced incredibly good intelligence in the post-war phase that was accurate, that told people clearly what the problems were, that should have led to some changes in policy, that I think may have alleviated some of the problems that we're dealing with today.

So, you know, intelligence is at this very difficult cross section between where we converge with policymakers. We have to take our responsibility; they make decisions, sometimes based on what we say, sometimes based on other things. And all you're trying to do is show people what this intersection was like.

JIM LEHRER: Some people have suggested, Mr. Tenet, that had you acted differently as director of central intelligence, you could have prevented the tragedy that has now called the war on Iraq. Is that accurate? Is that true?

GEORGE TENET: I don't believe so, Jim. First and foremost, your job everyday is not to make policy. It's to provide the president with objective intelligence, the best you could provide.

When you cross the line and become a policymaker, people will start to question your objectivity. I don't think I would have made a difference in this regard. I think, certainly, if we had produced better intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, if we'd produced more accurate intelligence, we would have made that decision more difficult. I don't believe it was solely based on WMD alone, although it is what we told the world about.

So at the end of the day, I don't think we could have stopped it. The implication of what I heard is, we knew the intelligence was bad, we let the president -- we told people things that we knew to be untrue, which is absolutely untrue. And all I can say is, as I look at the pre-war phase, where I know what we produced, I looked at a post-war phase, and even in the run-up to the post-war -- actually, there's no such thing as a post-war in Iraq. It's still ongoing -- where we were prescient, knowledgeable, accurate, truthful, and were very direct about what we believe. So there's a mixed record there, as well.

JIM LEHRER: You said you didn't involve yourself in policy, and yet there you were sitting right behind Secretary of State Powell, for the whole world to see, director of central intelligence, when he was making this statement before the whole world about weapons of mass destruction. Wasn't that an involvement in policy? Weren't you essentially saying to the world, "I support what the United States government and through Secretary of State Powell is saying and doing"?

GEORGE TENET: Well, I supported what the secretary had in his speech, because we helped him write that speech. The secretary asked me to come up and be with him. Yes, it was a bit unusual. We spent three days and nights -- longer than that -- at our headquarters working on this speech.

And here's a classic tension. You can absolve yourself of the responsibility when intelligence is used, but we chose to participate and help the secretary craft what we believed was an accurate speech. It wasn't. We let him down; we let the country down.

And it's something that's difficult. But we were right there. He asked me to be with him, and I said I'd do it.

Assessing the war in Iraq

George Tenet
Former CIA Director
There haven't been any good consequences here. The loss of life is the worst of all those consequences.

JIM LEHRER: Was it right to go to war against Iraq?

GEORGE TENET: Well, Jim, you know, if you look at the consequences today, obviously, the consequences are very difficult. Our strategic interests have been hurt. We're in a very, very difficult situation.

You know, history will make a judgment. I'm not one at the front end who said, "Don't do this." It wasn't my job to say this. I'm not one who didn't believe in getting rid of Saddam Hussein.

I believed in the intelligence of weapons of mass destruction. Policymakers made a choice. Here we are, and history will make this judgment over the course of time.

JIM LEHRER: But some have suggested -- would you agree with this -- that, as a result of going to war with Iraq, first of all, al-Qaida -- in other words, more terrorists have been created rather than less. Al-Qaida is stronger. The United States image and perception about the United States abroad is in much worse shape because of this. Thousands of people, thousands of Iraqis, more than 3,000 Americans, billions and billions of dollars have been spent.

GEORGE TENET: Jim, there haven't been any good consequences here. The loss of life is the worst of all those consequences, American and Iraqi. Al-Qaida has viewed this as a cause celebre for propagandistic values, not that they care about anybody in Iraq.

Where we stand against al-Qaida at any moment in time is a very subjective determination. We still have lots to do against them, although we've done very, very well against them, you know, since 9/11. So all of the things you say are accurate, and these are things we now have to look forward.

One of the things I hope we get around to doing is, we've got to look forward. We can keep looking back, but we've got to figure out as a country how we're going to unite, how we're going to stop finger-pointing and thinking through how, as Americans, we do the best we can to get all those kids home as fast as we can.

'A generational challenge'

George Tenet
Former CIA Director
We're better off than we were, because we've thought about securing our country. But I will say this: For al-Qaida, we still remain the brass ring.

JIM LEHRER: Looking ahead, is the United States still vulnerable to another 9/11-type attack from al-Qaida?

GEORGE TENET: Well, Jim, we're better off than we were, because we've thought about securing our country. But I will say this: For al-Qaida, we still remain the brass ring and a target that they care about a great deal.

We had signs up at CIA headquarters that said, "Today is September the 12th." We have to live as if it's September the 12th everyday. They have a long timeline. They are enormously patient. They're counting on the fact that, at some point, we'll tire of standing on lines at airports and doing what we need to secure us.

All I would say to people is: Our vigilance is absolutely essential. This is a generational challenge. My son, our kids, our grandchildren are going to be dealing with some form of this extremism.

And the other thing I would say is, people need to understand that, while what we do, the military intelligence and law enforcement communities do, is tactical, you can't kill them all. You can't capture them all. This is about Islam and the message from the mosques. This is about hope, putting people to work, making those societies more vibrant, changing their educational systems.

And at the end of the day, one final point. There's no unilateral solution to this problem. We need a coalition of countries that will continue to work with us here. We can't do this alone.

JIM LEHRER: You made the point in your book that suicide bombings have become -- have increased throughout the world. And the United States is, obviously, susceptible, vulnerable to suicide attacks, and yet none have happened here. Why? Why not?

GEORGE TENET: I don't know why, Jim, except that I believe that, from al-Qaida's perspective, they want to hurt us in a way commensurate with our standing as a superpower. They're still committed to multiple spectacular attacks.

And the big worry I cite in the book is their interest particularly in nuclear weapons and their interest in hurting us in a way that, even with thousands of nuclear weapons, if they had one, if they could deliver and develop one, it would make thousands of nuclear weapons in our arsenal absolutely irrelevant.

Rationale for writing a memoir

George Tenet
Former CIA Director
I hope that [the memoir] is something that people will take the time to reflect on. There may be some things in it that spark some debate. That's a good and healthy thing in America.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, some questions about George Tenet. And back to your original -- your motives for writing the book and going so public. I mean, it was three years ago that you resigned. Not a word came from George Tenet in a public way. Now, suddenly, you've not only written a book, you've been on "Larry King Live, you've been on the "Today" show, you've been on "60 Minutes," all of the above.

GEORGE TENET: All unnatural acts.

JIM LEHRER: Right. Why are you doing this?

GEORGE TENET: Well, Jim, I think I've written something -- I hope that it's something that people will take the time to reflect on. There may be some things in it that spark some debate. That's a good and healthy thing in America.

And I just thought that this period of -- look, historians -- in 20 years, everybody will fill in all the blanks, and I wanted to make sure that, since intelligence was such an important part of it, that our story be told.

JIM LEHRER: Let me read you what Howard Kurtz wrote about this. He said that, "Whatever Tenet's strengths and weaknesses as CIA director, he quit three years ago. He accepted a Presidential Medal of Freedom and then remained silent until now when he's peddling a book. If he felt so strongly about these intelligence issues, about the rush to war in Iraq, about the way he says he's been besmirched, why didn't he speak out before now? How does he justify remaining silent?"

GEORGE TENET: Well, Jim...

JIM LEHRER: What's the answer?

GEORGE TENET: ... it took me a long while to think about what I lived through. I lived through seven years. I interviewed scores of people. I didn't want to write immediately. I don't think you write coming out of a caldron when you're emotionally drained and you're tired.

You don't want to write in anger. You want to write thoughtfully. You want to reflect on what happened. I talked to scores of people. I looked at thousands of documents. I may not have all the answers. I wanted to do this in a patient and methodical way, and that's the way I decided to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Did the CIA vet your book?

GEORGE TENET: Yes, they did.

JIM LEHRER: And is there anything that they asked you not to put in the book or to take out of the book?

GEORGE TENET: They certainly did, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Anything that you wish you had been able to say that you were unable to say, anything big?

GEORGE TENET: No, absolutely not. Things that they asked me to remove were legitimate. There would have been some nice spy stories I would have loved to tell, but what they asked me to take out were legitimate, and I took them out, appropriately.

JIM LEHRER: And the message, the total message of the book, and now all of the public appearances and all of that, what do you want people to think about George Tenet?

GEORGE TENET: Well, I guess, at the end of the day, Jim, all you can ask for is people believe you had a tough job, you got up everyday, did it to the best of your ability, you led your people well, and honestly, and history will judge the rest.

That's all you can expect. People will have different views on it. This is America, and it's a great country, and everybody will have opinions. I want to lay down what my views were, and people will judge.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe you're worse off or better off for having written this book and gone so public?

GEORGE TENET: Jim, I'll never know that. We're in, right?

JIM LEHRER: We're in the middle of it.

GEORGE TENET: We're in the water and, over the course of time, better off or worse off, I think historians will say, perhaps, I hope that we're better off for knowing what he thought. Whether I'm better or worse off, it's not really relevant at this point. People are always going to think what they're going to think. The only people I care about are the men and women I led. I think I know what they think.

JIM LEHRER: Some of them, of course, have issued statements criticizing your book and what you've said.

GEORGE TENET: Well, Jim, none of them were -- none of those six worked with me. And another six have issued a letter, with 150 years of experience, who saw me up close, but nobody much cares about them. And at the end of the day, you know, they have a view. They can express that view. Others have a far different view. And over the course of time, people will express themselves.

JIM LEHRER: Your head remains high, in other words?

GEORGE TENET: Yes, sir, it is.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, sir.

GEORGE TENET: Thanks very much, Jim.