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.
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.
The CIA and the State Department are virtual twins in their tendency toward "clientitis"--the inclination to see the world as a host country does--and the process was occurring inside the CIA before the end of the Cold War. The post-9/11 world and George Tenet accelerated the process. Under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, he even transformed the long-standing PLO liaison relationship into an open foreign-policy role--the first time, I believe, that any Western intelligence service has so publicly elevated itself into foreign policy and politics.
Tenet's performance here was distressing:
I would walk into [Yasser] Arafat's headquarters and there would be forty or fifty people all talking at the same time, yelling, laughing, telling lies to each other because they didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings by telling the whole truth, and I would think to myself, This is just like the Greeks I knew growing up in Queens.
No, George: Fatah, the trailblazing mother ship of Middle Eastern terrorism, doesn't have much in common with Greek Americans. The nature and range of Fatah's mendacity are of a different species. But that Washington's political class would even think of using the CIA, which at its core is supposed to be an espionage and covert-action service, as an adjunct to the State Department tells a lot about why Washington has shown so little sustained, serious interest in ensuring that the CIA can execute its core missions.
However much one might approve of CIA officials doing what they can to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, this Foggy Bottom trend with Langley, of a part with its growing liaison equities, does not bode well for a service tasked to penetrate the inner circles of al Qaeda. The thousands of officers being added to the CIA are not there for liaison work: Even when bloated, such dealings do not demand a big staff. Tenet brought a flood of new people into the CIA, and Congress paid for them, in great part to improve the quality and quantity of clandestine human-intelligence collection.
After 9/11, fear of weapons of mass destruction focused minds on the here and now, and the advantages that rough foreign security services provide the United States can be significant. But these liaison "partnerships" are not cost-free, especially when the autocrats in question have done so much to fuel anti-American Islamic radicalism. With Tenet, however, there really is no problem here since he pays the thinnest lip service in At the Center of the Storm to the idea of reform or self-government in the Middle East.
The lack of nuance and contradiction in his assessment of Arafat, Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf, the Saudi royals, the Hashemites of Jordan, and Hosni Mubarak ("He has a tremendous amount of wisdom, but although a serious man, he also had a lighter side") is well below the bland, standard CIA writings on these subjects: His account of the nature and evolution of Islamic radicalism takes up less than a page in a 549-page book. Yet some of America's intelligence relationships ought to become subjects of open, vigorous debate since they directly affect national security. If the Democrats want to have a debate about rendition, they should openly question the nature and depth of CIA liaison work.
Still, there is no reason to believe that Hillary Clinton wouldn't throw more cash at the CIA, either, and probably pump up liaison work. It's the easy, quick thing to do. The argument that money spent on intelligence is a pittance compared with money saved on defense is appealing to everyone, but especially to those who'd rather spend as little as possible on the military. Good intelligence, if left politically untwisted, is supposed to save us from bad wars, and much of the current Democratic critique of the Iraq war hinges on this view.
Under the Democrats, and perhaps under certain Republicans--Mitt Romney seems seriously enamored of the idea that the Clandestine Service is malnourished--the CIA is likely to grow even bigger than Tenet envisioned, and Tenet's plans had the Clandestine Service back up to Cold War levels. In an ironic twist, the intelligence contretemps surrounding the Iraq war has made Democrats more reliable supporters of the CIA than Republicans.
As an institution, the CIA has certainly tried through leaks to walk away from its formative and approving role in rendition and the aggressive interrogation of suspected terrorists. The odds are excellent that senior operational personnel were as responsible as anyone in Dick Cheney's office in devising the most controversial aspects of America's response to 9/11. Tenet does not talk about this, but you can infer from his defense of the practices that the Clandestine Service (and probably Tenet himself) were instrumental, as they were in quickly offering a blueprint for a CIA/Special Forces incursion into Afghanistan, and in putting forth the manner and methods used to prosecute the intelligence war against al Qaeda.
We're now beginning to hear stories of senior officers retiring because of their opposition to the "illegal" activities of the Bush administration since 9/11. Buyer be warned: Case officers in general, and operatives raised in the Near East Division in particular, are not tender-hearted. They would probably much prefer to have foreigners aggressively interrogate terrorist suspects than do it themselves, but few harbor doubts about the occasional utility of rough questioning. That is one big, unspoken reason why liaison relationships with Middle Eastern regimes have grown so enormously since Islamic terrorism started targeting the United States.
If there is any real damaging politics going on at the CIA, it is here: Agency personnel, good bureaucrats that they are, don't like to be on the losing side. Since late 2003, the CIA had known that Iraq was going south: This didn't take great perceptive powers or access to classified information; officers just needed to be free from the authority of Donald Rumsfeld. Whatever loyalty the CIA as an institution may have to President Bush is countered by the institution's stronger desire to survive the Iraq war, and the dark sides of the war on terror, unscathed.
The CIA has been wrongly attacked over the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate about Iraq. Without numerous deep, verifiable penetrations into Saddam Hussein's inner circle, CIA analysts could not have known that Saddam had changed gears on WMD development. We know for a fact that many of Saddam's senior officials thought he still had WMD stockpiles in March 2003. Totalitarian regimes are the hardest targets--"walk-ins," volunteers, are the only way you strike gold with them--and we did not have these kind of agents against Saddam Hussein.
Take away the disputed language in the intelligence estimate, take away any allusion that any senior official may have made to an Iraqi-delivered "mushroom cloud," take away Joe Wilson IV and Niger, take away any errant Iraqi information, take away the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans, and the Senate ballot authorizing the war would not have changed by a single vote. We would still have had the powerful arguments put forth by the former Clinton official Kenneth Pollack in The Threatening Storm, without doubt a vastly more influential work than anything Ahmad Chalabi ever whispered into Dick Cheney's ear.
The most honest response to the intelligence estimate came initially from Hillary Clinton. She didn't read it before voting in favor of the war. She didn't need to. Over the years she and her husband had, no doubt, thoroughly discussed the evidence as we knew it. Like the larger issue of Saddam's bellicose appetite, it was damning. So it is embarrassing to see George Tenet try, ex post facto, to rework the language of the intelligence estimate so that more doubt is expressed. It has been similarly disheartening to see senior administration officials casting blame on the "slam-dunk" CIA director and his agency. It didn't matter then, and it doesn't matter now--except in how the affair has spooked and hyperpoliticized the CIA.
The Central Intelligence Agency has many problems, a number of which George Tenet compounded. It did not need to add poor political judgment. Once political leaking becomes routine, it's hard to break the habit, no matter who is in the White House.
So it's difficult to conceive of Langley's army of case officers doing all that much in the fight against Islamic extremism and the war in Iraq, or against Iran's nuclear-weapons program, or against China, where Langley has long had problems. At the Center of the Storm provides a good guide to why the CIA, when it comes to espionage and covert action, is little changed since 9/11. If there is any truth to the Democratic charge that the United States is no more safe today than before 9/11, it is in part because the CIA, the lead agency in counterterrorism, has failed to adapt to the post-9/11 world. Even before then, George Tenet put his money on liaison relationships with Middle Eastern autocracies as the best means to save us from attack. Since there is so little else at Langley to fall back on, let us hope that this time around he is right.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.