The Dark Side [home]
  • home
  • interviews
  • analysis
  • discussion

john brennan

photo of brennan

From 1999 to 2004 Brennan worked closely with George Tenet, first as his chief of staff, then as deputy executive director of the CIA. He also directed the National Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to 2005. Brennan discusses here how it became obvious the Pentagon wanted to have more of a role in intelligence; the pressures the CIA felt in the run-up to the Iraq war; how Tenet reacted to the news that the intelligencee assessment on WMD programs was wrong, and his thoughts on the CIA's future. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on March 8, 2006.

[Who is Cofer Black?]

Cofer is certainly one of the true heroes, as well as characters of the agency. He had tremendous enthusiasm for his work. He was somebody who would always want to rally his troops. He, I think, took this attack on 9/11 personally, and therefore wanted to do everything possible. He was somebody who was pointing to the threat from Al Qaeda for many months before the attack on 9/11. And so he saw his responsibility to make sure that the people in CTC [Counterterrorism Center] were doing everything possible, the people overseas were doing everything possible.

And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a lot of work that needed to be done in terms of what was going to be the U.S. government's response, and what was going to be the intelligence response to that. So Cofer and his people pulled together what was going to be the next step as far as going after Al Qaeda, going after Afghanistan. And they were the ones that actually were going to bring the plans to the table first, and present them with George at the White House.

It was a hell of a coup actually for the CIA to be ready.

... I think CIA had already done more homework on Al Qaeda than any other part of the U.S. government. And so what they were able to do then was to update those proposals and plans, and then take into account what had happened and put together a proposal and a timeline as far as how the CIA could be the vanguard of the U.S. government move against Al Qaeda.

And one of the things about the agency is that it's a very agile organization. It can move very quickly. Unlike in some respects the Department of Defense, because it's just so much larger. So the agency was able to move quickly, and move people very quickly. They had established contacts, longstanding relationships in the area that they were willing to build on. And so they were able to get out there and be on the ground first and fast.

... Take me back to when Tenet gets the job, to the state of the agency then and what you think he did.

George came into the agency in 1994 as [Director of Central Intelligence] John Deutsch's deputy. He had long experience on intelligence issues, most recently at the National Security Council [NSC] as director of intelligence programs. Before that, on the Senate Select Committee of Intelligence [SSCI], he was the staff director.

He brought a lot of intelligence background and familiarity with the CIA, and he's somebody who always, I think, had a soft spot in his heart for the CIA, because -- you talked about what 9/11 allowed the agency to do, which was to demonstrate what it could do. It was a very high-profile event, and therefore CIA's role was going to be high-profile. There were a lot of things that the CIA had done over the years that were not high-profile by design, and a lot of successes that they achieved that they were not able to tout. ...

When John Deutsch left and George ramped up to be a director, I think he was already well positioned with the workforce, and with a lot of trust that the workforce had in him to take the agency to the next level. So George made it a point to try to ensure that the agency was able to fulfill its responsibilities in the operational front and the analytic front.

... [W]hen he became the director, he had the ability to turn the workforce the way he wanted to turn it. That's why, when 9/11 hit, George was able to bring to bear that type of trust from the workforce and to give it direction. The people in the agency were more than willing to salute and say, "We can meet this challenge." It was a very big challenge; it was an unprecedented challenge for the agency.

But George was somebody who was the enthusiastic leader and wanted to make sure that the troops were going to rally behind him.

What some people have told us was that he was drawn to the idea of the operatives. He was interested in connecting and being part of that group of people, that he understood it in some way or knew they needed him. Is that accurate?

I think there's a certain appeal about operational work, and the Directorate of Operations does a very good job at trying to ingratiate itself with the leadership of the agency or the places. George bonded very well with them. He took a very strong interest in operational activities and covert action and collection activities. He made a lot of trips overseas to make sure he understood the business at the working level.

[Tenet] had to rely on what the community provided him in that [NIE] ŠDid he know all the details under ... that whole report? Nobody did at that point, because it wasn't reinvestigated and revalidated.

So I think he was probably most predisposed within the agency to work with the operations directorate. He knew all the division chiefs; he knew a lot of the branch chiefs. He knew a lot of the people who were specialists there, because the agency's unique mission is collection and covert action, and he had that responsibility.

He hooks up with the Counterterrorist Center [CTC], which has had its ups and downs inside the agency. ... Of all the groups inside there, that seemed to be one that he was extremely interested in, ... because he knew that the agency was morphing anyway and needing to be something; that that something would have something to do with terrorist attacks. Am I right about that?

The Counterterrorist Center -- the title of it, it was the DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] Counterterrorist Center. He was the one who had authority and responsibility for the Counterterrorist Center. It was within the CIA, but it had a lot of the characteristics that I think that George really liked: It was a combination of operational officers as well as analysts from CIA; it had people from FBI and FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and other places; it was a hub of that type of activity.

Also, I think over the years, a lot of us have been personally affected by terrorist attacks. We all with[in] the agency know people who had been killed, injured or maimed, and during George's tenure, there are a lot of very good agency officers who were killed as a result of terrorism. I think George and others recognized that CTC had the responsibility to save American lives and help protect not just agency officers overseas, but others overseas, as well as the homeland here, and there was something that had such tremendous consequences if it didn't go well.

So I think of all the elements within the agency, the CTC embodied, first of all, the integration of effort across the agency as well as the community, but also it was at the point [of the] spear in many respects. Terrorism is something that was a serious threat to the U.S. before 9/11, and George worked it hard, so he spent a lot of time with them, particularly given Al Qaeda's promises to carry [out] the attacks, as well as its pursuit of WMD material that could be used to devastating consequence in the United States and abroad. The stakes were quite high, and that's why CTC had a lot of George's attention.

How did he get and keep the job in the new Bush administration?

I was George's chief of staff during that transition period, and George was somebody who by that time had already served about six years between deputy and director of CIA. He was questioning himself whether or not he wanted to continue into the [Bush] administration, but there were a lot of things that were going on. The terrorist threat was important. George is somebody who will throw himself into the vacuum of responsibility, and he knew that he was going to transition, one way or another, for that intelligence portfolio from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration.

When we knew that President Bush was the one who was going to take office, George let the president know that he was at his disposal and he was ready to serve in any capacity for whatever length of time. I think at that point, President Bush 43 really didn't know about George other than what he had heard from others, and I think his father and other senior U.S. officials gave President Bush a rather positive view of George.

George -- first of all, he's an extremely likable person, but also he's very knowledgeable. He is somebody who has tremendous powers of recall and the ability to integrate information from an intelligence perspective.

The Bush administration, when they took office in 2001, were not planning to keep George Tenet, but then he was able to demonstrate his skill and his contribution. Therefore, I think it was the president's decision -- first of all, that he liked him personally, but also he respected him. George has the ability to demonstrate a nonpartisanship despite whatever types of political winds may be blowing in Washington.

There was a trust factor, I think, that developed early on. Once he came in and it was decided that he was going to stay for some period of time, by the time the summer came around and then September, with 9/11, it might have been that the plan was to replace George. But at that point, the importance of pursuing Al Qaeda made, I think, the decision very easy for the administration to make. They wanted someone like George Tenet to continue along. Then when it started to go after 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq war, again, George's value was something that was, quite frankly, cherished by the president and others. ...

He was briefing [the president] almost every morning. What is it that he does, and is hard to do, when you're briefing a president?

George is the person who will speak very candidly, honestly. Sometimes he will deliver messages that are not welcome by some who have maybe political agendas or ideas. I think when George greets the president, the president will be surrounded by a coterie of individuals who are part of that administration and may have certain political views as well as policy agendas.

I think, quite frankly, President Bush appreciated his willingness to speak up and to allow the group to consider other sides of the story or implications. ...

I could imagine it being hard to speak truth to power in certain moments, especially given what was happening.

I've been in meetings with George where he spoke very bluntly to other Cabinet secretaries. He's an animated individual, and he doesn't shy away from raising the tone of his voice to make sure that the message is understood.

What is [Vice President Dick] Cheney['s relationship with Tenet] like?

The vice president is somebody who has a tremendous intellect, has tremendous commitment to the security of this nation. He has his own views and goals as far as how this nation is going to be protected and maintained. He is somebody who will be taking up all the information then, but I think, rightly, the vice president will reserve his counsel for the president in those private sessions with the president.

...He [was] always somebody who would be sort of calculating about how his intelligence would affect the course that he thought the U.S. government should proceed.

Do you feel like he had a negative view of the Central Intelligence Agency?

I didn't get that impression in any meetings I had with him. Intelligence is a very complex business. ... A lot of times, intelligence reports or analysis is generated as a result of the types of questions that are asked, and I think that Vice President Cheney and others frequently would ask certain questions in order to see what intelligence there might be -- in fact, to support certain types of policy objectives.

I don't believe that Vice President Cheney had negative views about CIA, but I think there was a feeling that sometimes the intelligence was not always going to be supportive of certain policy courses. ...

Just before 9/11, in that summer and the spring, how hard was Tenet pushing on the terrorism threat?

I think he was pushing at every opportunity he had. ... George and [former CTC Director] Cofer [Black] were very much of a mind-set that we can't sit back and wait; we need to do things. We need to do things in Afghanistan. We need to go after Al Qaeda. We need to ratchet up the pressure on the Taliban.

George took several trips out to Saudi Arabia and other places to try to gain support from the Arab states to try to put pressure on the Taliban to give up bin Laden and others. George would knock on any door. He would pursue any course. I think what he was trying to do, prior to 9/11, was to make sure the administration was focused on that.

And were they?

I think they were aware of the issue. I don't think they, in fact, appreciated the seriousness of it, because I think they were trying to get their ducks in a line on a number of fronts to include Iraq prior to 9/11. Therefore, I think they felt as though they had time, because we didn't have the tactical intelligence that told us an attack is going to take place in New York on 9/11.

That lack of specificity [about] the timing of an attack was something that I think allowed it to move on through the course of the summer and then into September. There were a number of proposals that were on the table and actions that were going to be taken, but we just never got there.

... Were you aware that from the first NSC [meeting] on, there was certainly an impetus, a lot of talk about doing something that either Bush 41 couldn't or wouldn't do, or maybe something that needed to be done [with Iraq]?

The so-called neocons, there was a fairly good track record there as far as the public statements they would make or the writings that they would do that talked about Iraq, and that focused on what they were going to have as a priority when they came in to power. So I think there were a lot of people who felt as though there was going to be an aggressive policy vis-à-vis Iraq, because that was something that, at least from the intelligence community's perspective, seemed to be at the top of the priority list for the new administration. I think they were setting their sights on that from the early days. ...

Did Tenet ever talk about it that you remember, worrying about it, worrying about those guys?

Yes, there were times when George would express concern about certain individuals within the administration [who] were going down a certain policy course, almost irrespective of the intelligence. George really felt as though it was his responsibility to ensure that the president had the intelligence base for whatever policy decision the president was going to make.

It wasn't a secret on the seventh floor of the CIA that there was this drumbeat in certain quarters of the government to move toward some type of confrontation with Iraq.

Was there any doubt that the vice president was leading that team?

I think the vice president was viewed as being somebody who was at the summit of that neoconservative group within the government and was supportive of that line. A lot of the questions that were posed to the intelligence community were related to those possible policy courses.

Now, the relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda, what Saddam Hussein had in his arsenal and other things, I think there was a feeling within the CIA prior to the war in Iraq that, was there a pressing need at that point to take action against Iraq? Well, the intelligence didn't indicate it. It was a long-festering problem. Saddam Hussein was a problem in the area and needed to be contained, but there were a lot of folks who felt as though he was being contained. Continuing to go down that confrontation course was something that was a policy decision clearly, obviously. It wasn't intelligence-generated.

Intelligence was used, I think, to support certain policy decisions. But it wasn't intelligence that was surfacing that said Saddam Hussein is going to do this, or he has the intention of doing that. You can look in the body of intelligence that is out there and always find some type of reporting that's going to support certain policy courses. The issue is to make sure that that intelligence is presented in a balanced way and in the context of all the intelligence.

As we find ourselves heading into Afghanistan, I had a couple of people who worked on the transition say there was no way Cheney wanted Tenet to continue. He wanted his own guys, but also wanted that agency, wanted certainly the dark side of that agency, the operative side of that agency, to do what they needed to do. They would even talk of [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld running the agency for a while.

Did you guys pick up on any of that? Or, what was the impact of that crossing over from Clinton to George W. Bush?

I think there was a concern within CIA, certainly, that in the early days of the administration that there was going to be somebody put in charge of CIA that was going to be more a part of the administration or more a part of the neocon community. I do believe it was the president's decision, and it probably wasn't one that was supported by everybody within that administration, that George would continue.

The CIA plan [for Afghanistan] comes forward. How unhappy do you think the secretary of defense was that the CIA had a plan like this and was ready to roll?

I think there were a lot of seniors in the Department of Defense that were dismayed that they weren't able to respond as quickly as CIA. It has been shown over the past couple of years that the Defense Department has tried to increase its role in the intelligence community and to chew away at CIA's traditional authorities and responsibilities. ...

Particularly because the counterterrorism effort is cast as a war on terrorism, the Department of Defense sees that they need to be that sort of intelligence vanguard in that war, and I think that's a mistake. The CIA needs to continue to play that very important role from an intelligence perspective.

One of the many things we're looking at as we step back with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, ... and we see that there's now a really separate effort from the Central Intelligence Agency that's been under way, created by the Defense Department, authorized to go forward and have special ops guys running around on their behalf. ... I suppose the genesis moment is when Director Tenet and [former CIA Deputy Director John] McLaughlin go out to Camp David on the 15th of September and present the plan. Meanwhile, Rumsfeld and [then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz are saying: "What about Iraq? Shouldn't we be going to Iraq?" Is that the way you remember the story?

Yes. I think Secretary Rumsfeld and others at Defense recognized that there needed to be something done immediately against Al Qaeda, because it did pose a threat. I think they were hoping that there was going to be a dual track, that Iraq would be able to continue at the same time of the move against Al Qaeda. There were efforts under way within the Defense Department to wrap the two together, so it could be this two-pronged offensive against Iraq and Afghanistan at one time, because a lot of people were trying to make the connection [that] 9/11 was connected to Iraq. In my mind, there was absolutely no connection whatsoever.

That's where the issue of maintaining an independent intelligence organization is so critically important, because departments have certain policy objectives and goals. If you have a department such as the Department of Defense that controls the intelligence function as well, there is a great potential for that intelligence to be skewed, either wittingly or unwittingly, in support of policy objectives.

Let's go for a moment to Tora Bora. [Former CIA operative Gary Schroen] says, "We had Osama bin Laden in our grasp, up in the mountains, and [head of U.S. Central Command Gen.] Tommy Franks and the Defense Department and others just wouldn't do it." Were you privy to Gary's wires and phone calls and entreaties to go get Osama bin Laden up in the mountains?

I wasn't privy to phone calls and a lot of the back-channel stuff. I was aware of the debate that was going on. Whether it was a CIA officer or whether it's a U.S. military officer, they will each come at the issue with their own perspective based on what knowledge they have. And frequently, that's incomplete knowledge on both sides.

I would just caution that each side only had a certain amount of perspective. And CIA, God love it, is always saying: "We can take that hill. We can do it, we can do it, we can do it." Sometimes it's not as easy as some within CIA believe. At the same time, I think the military comes at some of these issues in saying: "We need more. We need to make sure that we have a program or a capability that will ensure success." There is sometimes a caution on the part of the military and a sense within the agency that we need to move faster and in a much more aggressive way.

My perspective is that the truth is somewhere in between, that we probably could have moved with greater alacrity and with greater force, and possibly intercepted and taken care of some problems, but there were so many unknowns at that time and so many dynamics under way that, again, the CIA perspective was one; military's was another. ...

You don't know how hard [Tenet] advocated on behalf of "Let's go get 'em" to the president or others?

George was usually supportive of any type of operational initiatives recommended by the field. There were some very well-known instances where George said, "This is not going to go because the chance of success is so low." But generally, he would rely heavily on the recommendations, advice from the people in the CIA and the field, and would make sure that at least that perspective was shared with his counterparts in Washington. ...

Was there a moment where it became obvious that Cheney, Rumsfeld, that whole chain really didn't want to go any further in the "war on terror," and really were interested in making sure that it went in the direction of their original goal, which was Iraq, and that maybe in the first glimmers of that happening that --

I never had the sense, from at least my perspective, that either the vice president or Department of Defense decided to ratchet back on the war on terrorism and the effort against Al Qaeda. They were wanting to make sure everything was done in order to continue that. They also, though, were anticipating that there needed to be this focus on Iraq, and to the extent that both of them could have been prosecuted equally well, I think they wanted to do that.

I don't think they understood how the war in Iraq and against Iraq would sap a lot of focus, energy and resources away from the war against terrorism. There were a lot of miscalculations on the part of the senior policy-makers about moving against Iraq in that manner. ...

When did you get the first hints ... that there was this movement in the direction of Iraq ...?

The train started to leave the station before the election of 2000, with the neocons putting things out. There was a real focus that we needed to do something about Iraq. It was gaining momentum and strength. And with [Iraqi National Congress founder Ahmad] Chalabi and [former Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard] Perle and others feeding those fires, I do think they just had a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of doing something like that.

They're very outspoken and vocal about the need to take action. It's easy to execute; if there is criticism that is being made of this administration, [it] is that the decision to take action is only part of the challenge. It's the follow-through; it's the strategic planning afterward. Those areas really need to be paid attention to, because the U.S. military [has] no problem as far as just decimating the Iraqi army, but the people like Chalabi and the other neocons, and people like [then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] Doug Feith, who I think has a very superficial understanding of some of these issues -- I don't know how much time Doug Feith has spent in the Middle East or in Iraq, but it's a very, very complex society.

A lot of things look good on an academic's blackboard in terms of the actions that need to be taken. It's almost like a football coach, when you draw the X's and O's: Every play that is chalked on that board goes for a touchdown. Well, there are a lot of yards to be made between the line of scrimmage and the touchdown. A lot of people were focused on getting the ball past the line of scrimmage, and there was a real lack of appreciation about the difficulty of following through and then assuming responsibility for this war.

When we talked to [former deputy director of the CIA John]McLaughlin, he said: "We were incredibly busy in the winter and the spring of 2002 really thinking about the war on terror. We were worried about an attack on the United States." Meanwhile, the Office of Special Plans is being created at the Defense Department, this other alternative intelligence service, grabbing raw data, retyping it, "stovepiping" it up to the vice president. ... Were you guys aware that that was happening?

We knew that there were things that were going on that were continuing to focus on Iraq. Also, a lot of people look at presidential administrations, and historians say that there are certain things that need to be done at certain periods within a four-year administration. I think there were some folks with the administration that wanted to make sure that there was going to be action taken at a certain point within that first administration that would be tied up then, and a sufficient time afterward, that can go then to the next election.

There was a timeline there that they were sort of working on. And after 9/11, and after everybody came together to prosecute the war in Afghanistan and tried to move against Al Qaeda, I think in the early months of '02, those who were advocates of taking military action against Iraq wanted to continue on that timeline and were pulling together the intelligence. A lot of time it was done outside of CIA and the intelligence community.

You guys write, I think on the 21st of September, 2001, "There's no connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein." And yet they persist.

They persisted and persisted. I'd continue to ask the question; they would come up with intelligence. Again, it was trying to seek validation for preconceived either notions or policy courses that they wanted to pursue.

It's like a prosecuting attorney [who amasses] the evidence that supports a certain thesis. You can cherry-pick intelligence to support that policy course, and unfortunately, there were people within the administration who were determined to pursue that policy course because they thought that was in the best interest of the United States government. But they were going to be selective in their choice as far as what intelligence we brought to bear to justify that policy action.

By the middle of 2002, heading into the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] in the fall, it's been reported that Tenet is feeling pressure ... to do things about Iraq, pressure to write things about weapons of mass destruction. Did you ever have a conversation with him about it, or are you aware of that kind of pressure?

I think there was a feeling within the agency that intelligence was increasingly becoming the meat in the sandwich on this one; that we were being asked to do things and to make sure that that justification was out there. Responding to the requests from the Hill for that National Intelligence Estimate in a very short period of time and compressed schedule to do something as major and as significant as that, there was concern that intelligence was being pushed forward as the justification for war. ...

It was an intense period. We still were heavily engaged on trying to counter Al Qaeda, the war on terrorism. And so there were a lot of things on George's plate. And he was working, you know, from sun up to sun down and past that, seven days a week. ...

We talked to [former National Intelligence Officer] Paul Pillar last December, really trying to go through what he was feeling and observing from his vantage point as an intelligence analyst ... Did he ever talk about it?

Well, Paul had the responsibility of making sure that this [NIE] estimate was truly a community-coordinated estimate. It was not a CIA product; it was something that had the imprimatur of the intelligence community, of all the different elements. Paul had that responsibility, to orchestrate that effort.

What Paul wanted to do, my impression, is to ensure that the key questions were going to be addressed, but at the same time to ensure that the analytic augmentation and basis was solid and firm. The tight deadline that it was produced under, I think, was responsible for some of those mistakes and the due diligence that didn't take place.

But there was a lot of information in that estimate. You can only pull so many of those threads. And people tried to do the best job they could. Looking back on it, some of that intelligence was faulty, because that estimate was based on a wide body of intelligence that had built up over the years. A lot of the previous intelligence was included in it, but it was not revalidated, so some of that foundation was faulty, unknowingly at the time. Paul was trying to do his level best to make sure that the product that came out was a fair and balanced one.

He told us that ... even at the time, he wasn't aware about how politicized it was, but he was -- especially as he looks back on it, especially around the "white paper" -- really embarrassed, I think is the word he used at how faulty it was. Did it feel that way at the time, or does it just look that way in hindsight?

At the time there were a lot of concerns that it was being politicized by certain individuals within the administration that wanted to get that intelligence base that would justify going forward with the war.

Could I ask you who?

Some of the neocons that you refer to were determined to make sure that the intelligence was going to support the ultimate decision. Looking back on it now, as we put pieces together, it probably is apparent to some, including Paul, that it was much more politicized than in fact we realized. It wasn't a secret, though, at that time that there were certain people who were strong advocates of going to war, almost irrespective of what the intelligence was. ...

And Tenet, as that's all happening, what's it like for him? He's delivering the truth, and they're disregarding it apparently.

I think George had real concerns about where we were going with Iraq, and George was trying to figure out exactly what the appropriate role for him was in those policy discussions. He, I believe, went as far as he could as far as putting intelligence on the table. It's unfortunate the term "slam dunk" is one that has been now associated with George. The context of that discussion -- I leave it to people who were there.

But I think what George wanted to do was not to advocate war; it was to ensure that people understood the intelligence and that it was a difficult time. Should George have argued more strongly against some of those strong advocates? You'd have to ask George. ...

Why would the vice president, and even the secretary of defense, want to talk about or have the country or want to warn the country about going to "the dark side"?

I don't know. You'd have to ask them. ... The point is the war or the campaign against terrorism can be a long one, and that the opposition, whether it be Al Qaeda, or whether it be Iraq, doesn't play by the Marquis de Queensbury rules. Therefore, the U.S. in some areas has to take off the gloves. And I think that's entirely appropriate. I think we do have to take off the gloves in some areas, but within balance, and at the right time and the right way, and for the right reason and with full understanding of what the consequences of that might be.

One of the things that [the administration does] right away is get lots of legal justifications lined up, from the Bybee memo [the so-called "torture memo"] to everything, commander-in-chief power, the War Authorization Act. Would there have been very much difference between what Tenet believed the CIA should do in terms of renditions and all of it and what we can assume the vice president and the president and others would want the CIA to do? Was Tenet especially more careful, more cautious, more anything than they were sounding like they were?

I think George had two concerns. One is to make sure that there was that legal justification, as well as protection for CIA officers who are going to be engaged in some of these things, so that they would not be then prosecuted or held liable for actions that were being directed by the administration. So we want to make sure the findings and other things were done appropriately, with the appropriate Department of Justice review.

But at the same time, there is a question about how aggressive you want to be against terrorism in terms of, what does it mean to take the gloves off? There was a real debate within the agency, including today, about what are the minimum standards that you want to stoop to and beyond where you're not going to go, because we don't want to stoop to using the same types of standards that terrorists use. We are in this business, whether it be intelligence or the government, to protect freedom, democracy and liberty, not to violate that.

When it comes to individuals who are determined to destroy our nation, though, we have to make sure that we take every possible measure. It's a tough ethical question, and it's a question that really needs to be aired more publicly. The issue of the reported domestic spying -- these are very healthy debates that need to take place. They can't be stifled, because I think that we as a country and a society have to determine what is it we want to do, whether it be eavesdropping, whether it be taking actions against individuals who are either known or suspected to be terrorists. What length do we want to go to? What measures do we want to use? What tactics do we want to use?

Hopefully, that "dark side" is not going to be something that's going to forever tarnish the image of the United States abroad and that we're going to look back on this time and regret some of the things that we did, because it is not in keeping with our values.

I think we have to be looking at what we're doing now in terms of what our values are as a nation and a government. And sometimes war can skew that perspective. But, we don't want to sacrifice liberty in the protection of it. ...

Sometimes there are actions that we are forced to take, but there need to be boundaries beyond which we are going to recognize that we're not going to go because we still are Americans, and we are supposed to be representing something to people in this country and overseas. So the dark side has its limits.

In the fall of 2002, there's the NIE. The president wants to give the speech ... in Cincinnati; it has the yellowcake stuff in it. [Tenet] fights and writes a couple of memos to get it taken out. We're on a kind of juggernaut to war here. The State of the Union coming up, and then there's going to be the U.N. speech by the secretary of state [Colin Powell]. How is Tenet through this period? Is he on a slippery slope? Does he know it? Is he waging a kind of back-channel war?

I think it was a very personal and pensive time for George, yeah. He, I think, asked himself whether or not he wanted to continue on that road and to be part of it. I think there was a lot of agonizing that George went through about what would be in the best interest of the country and national interest: Whether or not he would stay in that position and continue along a course that I think he had misgivings about, or whether or not his leadership of the agency at a very critical time -- still with the war on terrorism and knowing that we're going to be going into Iraq -- whether his greatest contribution to the country was to stay in position. I think he had some long nights that he thought over whether or not he was going to be perceived as part of this road going against Iraq.

[What about the use of the term] "slam dunk"?

Unfortunate use of term. I think what George was basically referring to was that John McLaughlin, who is an exceptional analyst and briefer, was presenting the case as best it could be. When there were challenges made to that case, in terms of "Is that all there is?," George had his natural tendency to sort of defend his deputy and say -- whether the term "slam dunk" was used or not, I don't know. But George wanted to make sure that John was the one to present it, because John was the consummate analyst; he could present it the way it needed to be presented, and whatever that discussion was that followed that briefing, that briefing still stood. ..

Did he believe the stuff that was in the NIE and the stuff that Powell ultimately said before the U.N.? ...

He had to rely on what the community provided to him in that estimate, the language that was in there, and so he wanted to make sure that that was going to be presented fairly. Did he know all the details under ... that whole report? Nobody did at that point, because it wasn't reinvestigated and revalidated. But he, I think, felt as though it was his appropriate place to stand behind or sit behind Secretary Powell at the U.N., because it was an intelligence case that was being made, and there were a lot of long, long nights that went over that material as best they could at the time, so that the legal brief or the intelligence brief could be presented to the world. ...

[Powell's Chief of Staff] Larry Wilkerson was telling us about what it was like when Tenet would call Powell after the hostilities and say: "We're not finding this. We don't have that. We don't know this." From Tenet's end of that conversation, how must that have been for him? Do you know?

It was difficult. I think everybody did assume that there was going to be things found in Iraq. When things were not found, for whatever reason, it was a surprise to a lot of people. I think George recognized that not only was he, George, out front on this issue as far as being the representative of the intelligence, but the CIA and the intelligence community was going to be called to task if it didn't pan out.

Clearly since the decision was made to go to war [and] it happened, it would have been good to find the stuff that was used as a justification for it. When things started to fall away, there was some real concern that, oh my goodness, the justification that was given to the world for going to war in Iraq, as weak as it might have been from a justification standpoint, pre-emptive war, the evidence that was used to support it was not accurate.

Were you ever with him when he got one of those calls from [then-head of the Iraq Survey Group (ISG) David] Kay or when he got the information that something wasn't working out? What did he say?

He would be a bit animated and talk about, "We're not finding the stuff that we thought we'd find," ... which really brought into question the strength of that intelligence. Any intelligence that's used to justify some type of policy course, after that course is taken, that intelligence is going to be scrutinized in terms of, how good was it? And something as major as this, everybody in the agency knew that if it didn't pan out that there was going to be hell to pay, and that the agency was going to be taken to task for it, and there were going to be implications for the agency. I think we've seen [that].

There are people, of course, in the Republican Party around the president who say, what you're witnessing here, especially now or starting in about 2004, is a war between the Central Intelligence Agency and certainly the office of the vice president. ... What do you say to that?

Different individuals from the CIA who are speaking out, they're doing it for a variety of reasons: Some very personal; some because they really believe that the institution of the CIA was greatly misused by some individuals within the administration. I think they feel that there has been almost a corruption of the intelligence process in many areas, and they're really concerned about it, not just because of what has happened in the past, but the future course.

There was a real lack of appreciation about the importance of maintaining that integrity and independence of the CIA, and they're coming to the defense of the CIA in terms of what it stands for and what it's supposed to stand for. A lot of people -- CIA veterans and others -- are concerned that we're going down a course that is not in the best interest of the country.

Intelligence transformation is very important. The CIA, in many respects, is responsible for not helping to shape its own future, and the CIA over the years has been quite isolated and insular, and they have ... a go-it-alone attitude, because they felt as though they could do it best. In many respects, they did.

But I don't think they read the writing on the wall after 9/11 in terms of trying to lead the community. I think they're resistant to a number of changes. A lot of the changes that have taken place have been done in a rather thoughtless manner and too fast, and so the intelligence function the CIA has played over the years is really now in question, and the future is quite uncertain as far as how this is going to play out in national security. ...

home + introduction + interviews + analysis + discussion + readings & links
cheney's network + cia's realignment + paths to power + producer's chat + site map + dvd/vhs & transcript
press reaction + credits + privacy policy + FRONTLINE series home + wgbh + pbs

posted june 20, 2006; updated sept. 4, 2011

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
cheney background photo copyright © corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation