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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It's also a very good bet that CIA goodies proffered to these countries are small compared with the support given to the Saudis, Pakistanis, and Egyptians. Yet the intelligence and political relationship that the United States has with the Europeans is vastly more reliable, even with the turbulence provoked by the Iraq war. Vice presidents don't have to fly off to Europe to ensure "allied" intelligence and security services act responsibly. Personal "trust" among security VIPs of various countries isn't a particularly lasting foundation; shared Western culture and self-evident mutual interest are the bonds that matter.

Second, such extra liaison cash will further fatten Langley's domestic bureaucracy and overseas stations and bases, and attenuate the CIA's espionage ethic. Clandestine human intelligence collection, if done "unilaterally," is in constant tension with any liaison relationship since unilateral espionage operations can greatly anger foreign intelligence and security services if they discover undeclared CIA operations on their soil.

Since the overwhelming number of CIA case officers serve overseas with weak official covers, and since helpful foreign internal-security services in counterterrorism tend to be accomplished in counterespionage, allied governments in the war on terror can usually shut down unilateral American operations if so inclined. It's doubtful that the CIA is actually running unilateral agents of any great note in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan: The environment is tough, and case officers with official cover in such places stick out like sore thumbs. And the CIA, according to active-duty case officers, remains extremely wary of deploying nonofficial cover officers (NOCs) to hostile environments. According to these same officers, the CIA has refused to develop any NOC-based counterterrorist strategy in the Middle East. But whatever the CIA is doing in these countries from official facilities could dry up if the host service wanted to get unpleasant.

An inevitable byproduct of this liaison-centered intelligence is greater CIA caution overseas. And Langley is already an enormously cautious organization. Since the death of John Michael Spann in November 2001, have we heard about any CIA deaths in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or elsewhere, in the war on terror? It's unpleasant to say this, but if the Clandestine Service were seriously engaged on the ground against our enemies, operatives would be dying and the outside world would be hearing about it. Tenet, who brags about everything conceivable in this memoir, would have anonymously underscored the deaths of CIA operatives--and would have been right to do so. He does not do so.

Tenet's character--and, more important, the character of the senior cadre that Tenet has promoted--was revealed in all its tepidness by his commentary on Michael Scheuer's recommendation to try to capture or assassinate Osama bin Laden in 1998 using friendly Afghans. The plan no doubt had great faults; but Scheuer, who was in charge of the CIA's bin Laden unit, was ahead of his time. Scheuer may be an oddball neo-isolationist, but he was unquestionably correct to recommend that we do something lethal, regardless of possible collateral damage, as soon as possible.

Tenet sided with the "pros." He writes:

I took [Scheuer's] recommendation seriously, but six senior CIA officers stood in the chain of command between Mike and me. Most of them were seasoned operations officers, while Mike was an analyst not trained in conducting paramilitary operations.

What's striking is that Tenet still defends that decision, citing the sagacity of rank. It's doubtful that those six case officers, or the progeny they have promoted, are now any bolder. "Seasoning" in the Operations Directorate does not make men adventurous. Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon, two counterterrorist officials on the Clinton National Security Council staff, recently recommended in the New York Times that the CIA be given responsibility for paramilitary strikes into Pakistan to kill al Qaeda personnel, since the Pentagon has proven too cautious in planning and recommending such operations. Credit goes to Benjamin and Simon for seeing past mistakes and for fearing the future, but it's unlikely that the senior cadre in the Clandestine Service's Near East Division, or even in the marginally more adventurous Counterterrorism Center, will jump at the task.

Barack Obama may discover--and Tenet's book is an excellent primer on the subject--that his favored kind of "partnership program" leads the CIA into a close--at times blinding--embrace of the intelligence and security services of the three countries Obama regularly (and correctly) criticizes for abetting the growth of Islamic extremism: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.