The Magazine

George Tenet's CIA

Picking up the pieces at Langley will be no slam dunk.

Sep 3, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 47 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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At the Center of the Storm

My Years at the CIA

by George Tenet

HarperCollins, 549 pp., $30

On the left and the right, George Tenet has been skewered for his role in the Iraq war, and this memoir has been universally trashed.

The left sees him as part of the disingenuous Bush team that distorted intelligence to get America into an unnecessary and unwinnable war, and besmirched the nation's honor through secret prison sites, rendition, and the "aggressive" interrogation of terrorist suspects. If George Tenet had been a man of mettle, instead of a political crony, he might have prevented such folly.

The right attacks him for dissembling about Baathist Iraq's role in supporting terrorism and, more specifically, CIA analysis about the contacts between al Qaeda and Saddam's regime before and after 9/11. He also gets whacked for allowing, if not encouraging, the CIA to become an anti-Bush bastion, actively working against the policies of the president.

Both sides find him whiny and self-serving. Both sides give him and the CIA some credit for responding quickly to Osama bin Laden after 9/11 in Afghanistan, where the CIA provided the plans and personnel for America's first response. Left-wing and right-wing journalists generally give Tenet some credit for restoring morale at Langley, at least before Iraq bummed everybody out.

The real story of George Tenet is much worse than the usual animadversions. No other director so abysmally failed to undertake the longstanding need for reform in the CIA. No other director had such an enormous opportunity to restructure the place into an organization possibly capable of penetrating al Qaeda, clerical Iran, and other hard targets. But in operations, if not in analysis, Langley remains a decrepit institution, incapable of fulfilling basic counterterrorist, espionage, and covert-action tasks.

The Iraq war and the political controversies surrounding it have distorted the conversation in Washington. Never has intelligence been so central to foreign-policy discussions; never has the emphasis been so misplaced. "Better" CIA analysis would not have prevented the Iraq war; the best possible CIA analysis will have little or no impact on whether (not when) an American president decides to attack Iran's nuclear-weapons facilities.

The 2008 campaign is upon us, and we can rest assured that every serious candidate--with the possible exceptions of John McCain and Fred Thompson--will call for better American intelligence and more money for the CIA. (McCain has expressed serious reservations about the general competence, and ideological neutrality, of the Agency. Thompson, who was once on the Senate's intelligence oversight committee, knows the organization has unresolved systemic problems. Both men seem to know that more money is not the answer.)

The Democrats are unlikely to be so astute. Barack Obama recently suggested that he would, as president, create a "Shared Security Partnership Program" that would "forge an international intelligence and law enforcement infrastructure to take down terrorist networks from the remotest islands of Indonesia, to the sprawling cities of Africa." Obama's program could actually be a subtitle for Tenet's book, since Tenet and his CIA spent an enormous amount of time on liaison relationships, building them up (as Tenet puts it) so the United States could draw down on the "goodwill" and "trust"--and on the large amounts of cash and security goodies delivered by the CIA since 9/11.

It's a decent bet that the CIA and the Pentagon have, in the war on terror, probably already delivered at least $5 billion in goods, cash, and manpower to "allied" intelligence and internal-security services. Obama would put these "partnerships" into overdrive.

Two things are certain. First, such liaison-building has the lifespan of a tsetse fly. Throughout At the Center of the Storm Tenet, Vice President Cheney, and other senior officials are having to visit the Middle East--usually Pakistan and Saudi Arabia--to fortify longstanding intelligence relationships, which Tenet sees as the cornerstone of national security. It's a very good bet that the French, Germans, and Italians have kicked out of their countries more clumsy (often misdirected) CIA officers than have the Saudis, the Pakistanis, and the Egyptians.