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George Tenet's Disgraceful New Book By: Christopher Hitchens
Slate | Wednesday, May 02, 2007


It's difficult to see why George Tenet would be so incautious as to write his own self-justifying apologia, let alone give it the portentous title At the Center of the Storm. There is already a perfectly good pro-Tenet book written by a man who knows how to employ the overworked term storm. Bob Woodward's 2002 effort, Bush at War, was, in many of its aspects, almost dictated by George Tenet. How do we know this? Well, Tenet is described on the opening page as "a hefty, outgoing son of Greek immigrants," which means that he talked to Woodward on background. Further compliments are showered upon him. We discover that his main protector on Capitol Hill, Sen. David Boren, who represented Oklahoma until 1994, had implored President-elect Bush to retain this Clinton-era head of the CIA and if he had any doubts, to "ask your father":

When the younger Bush did, the former President George H.W. Bush said: "From what I hear, he's a good fellow," one of the highest accolades in the Bush family lexicon. Tenet … later led the effort to rename CIA headquarters for Bush, himself a former DCI.

No need to draw a very complex picture here: Tenet knows how the kiss-up and kiss-down game is played. And, for a rather mediocre man, he did well enough out of the arrangement while it lasted. Woodward was even willing to describe him as one who "had developed an understanding of the importance of human intelligence, HUMINT in spycraft." But let's not get ahead of ourselves. I only mean to say that it was a very favorably disposed chronicler who wrote this, in describing Tenet's reaction on the terrible morning of Sept. 11, 2001:

"This has bin Laden all over it," Tenet told Boren. "I've got to go." He also had another reaction, one that raised the real possibility that the CIA and the FBI had not done all that could have been done to prevent the terrorist attack. "I wonder," Tenet said, "if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training."

Notice the direct quotes that make it clear who is the author of this brilliant insight. And then pause for a second. The author is almost the only man who could have known of Zacarias Moussaoui and his co-conspirators—the very man who positively knew they were among us, in flight schools, and then decided to leave them alone. In his latest effusion, he writes: "I do know one thing in my gut. Al-Qaeda is here and waiting." Well, we all know that much by now. But Tenet is one of the few who knew it then, and not just in his "gut" but in his small brain, and who left us all under open skies. His ridiculous agency, supposedly committed to "HUMINT" under his leadership, could not even do what John Walker Lindh had done—namely, infiltrate the Taliban and the Bin Laden circle. It's for this reason that the CIA now has to rely on torturing the few suspects it can catch, a policy, incidentally, that Tenet's book warmly defends.

So, the only really interesting question is why the president did not fire this vain and useless person on the very first day of the war. Instead, he awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom! Tenet is now so self-pitying that he expects us to believe that he was "not at all sure that [he] really wanted to accept" this honor. But it seems that he allowed or persuaded himself to do so, given that the citation didn't mention Iraq. You could imagine that Tenet had never sat directly behind Colin Powell at the United Nations, beaming like an overfed cat, as the secretary of state went through his rather ill-starred presentation. And who cares whether his "slam dunk" vulgarity was misquoted or not? We have better evidence than that. Here is what Tenet told the relevant Senate committee in February 2002:

Iraq … has also had contacts with al-Qaida. Their ties may be limited by divergent ideologies, but the two sides' mutual antipathy toward the United States and the Saudi royal family suggests that tactical cooperation between them is possible, even though Saddam is well aware that such activity would carry serious consequences.

As even the notion of it certainly should have done. At around the same time, on another nontrivial matter, Tenet informed the Senate armed services committee that: "We believe that Saddam never abandoned his nuclear weapons program." It is a little bit late for him to pose as if Iraq was a threat concocted in some crepuscular corner of the vice president's office. And it's pathetic for him to say, even in the feeble way that he chooses to phrase it, that "there was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat." (Emphasis added.) There had been a very serious debate over the course of at least three preceding administrations, whether Tenet "knew" of it or not. (He was only an intelligence specialist, after all.) As for his bawling and sobbing claim that faced with crisis in Iraq, "the administration's message was: Don't blame us. George Tenet and the CIA got us into this mess," I can say, as one who has attended about a thousand postmortems on Iraq in Washington, that I have never, ever, not once heard a single partisan of the administration say anything of the kind. The White House may have thought that it could count on the CIA to present some sort of solidity in a crisis but, as Sept. 11 had already proved, more fool the White House.

In the post-Kuwait-war period, there was little political risk in doing what Tenet had always done and making the worst assumption about anything that Saddam Hussein might even be thinking about. (Who but an abject idiot would ever make a different assumption or grant the Baathists the smallest benefit of the least doubt?) But we forget so soon and so easily. The problem used to be the diametrically opposite one. The whole of our vaunted "intelligence" system completely refused to believe any of the warnings that Saddam Hussein was about to invade and occupy Kuwait in 1990. By the time the menace was taken seriously, the invasion itself was under way. This is why the work of Kenneth Pollack (this time titled The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq) was received with such gravity when it was published in 2002. Pollack had interpreted the signals correctly in 1990—and been ignored—and was arguing that another final round with Saddam was inevitable. His book did more to persuade policy-makers in Washington than anything ever said by Ahmad Chalabi. To revisit these arguments is to be reminded that no thinking person ever felt that the danger posed by a totalitarian and aggressive Iraq was a negligible one. And now comes Tenet, the man who got everything wrong and who ran the agency that couldn't think straight, to ask us to sympathize with his moanings about "Iraq—who, me?"

A highly irritating expression in Washington has it that "hindsight is always 20-20." Would that it were so. History is not a matter of hindsight and is not, in fact, always written by the victors. In this case, a bogus history is being offered by a real loser whose hindsight is cockeyed and who had no foresight at all.

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Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.


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