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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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.