George Tenet's At the Center of the Storm is a self-serving and often whiny recollection of his time as director of central intelligence. Among other failings, the author seems to have fabricated the story that frames his discussion of the Iraq war, an impossible meeting with Richard Perle at the White House on September 12, 2001--impossible because Perle was in France on that date and remained there for three days. The context he provides for his famous "slam dunk" comment makes it arguably more damaging to his reputation rather than less. And yes, it's a bit rich to read the former CIA director's complaints about unfair leaks when a small group of unelected bureaucrats from his agency, including some close to Tenet, leaked almost daily against the White House. Clearly, President Bush made a mistake by retaining Tenet, a Clinton appointee, in the job for the better part of his first term.
Despite all of this, the book provides surprising evidence--some of it new--that Bush was right to take the war on terror to Iraq, and that he might be well advised to get more serious about Iran. Tenet offers this evidence inadvertently, for it undercuts the fashionable critique of the Iraq war that he now seeks to associate himself with. But precisely because the evidence cuts against Tenet's polemical thrust, it should be given considerable weight.
For instance, Tenet devotes several pages to a reexamination of the ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. And though he tries to stake out politically safe middle ground--by arguing against imaginary Bush administration officials who claimed Iraq was behind 9/11--he concludes that Iraq did have a relationship with al Qaeda that the Bush administration was right to be worried about:
The intelligence told us that senior al-Qa'ida leaders and the Iraqis had discussed safe haven in Iraq. Most of the public discussion thus far has focused on Zarqawi's arrival in Baghdad under an assumed name in May of 2002, allegedly to receive medical treatment. Zarqawi, whom we termed a 'senior associate and collaborator' of al-Qa'ida at the time, supervised camps in northern Iraq run by Ansar al-Islam (AI).
We believed that up to two hundred al-Qa'ida fighters began to relocate there in camps after the Afghan campaign began in the fall of 2001. The camps enhanced Zarqawi's reach beyond the Middle East. One of the camps run by AI, known as Kurmal, engaged in production and training in the use of low-level poisons such as cyanide. We had intelligence telling us that Zarqawi's men had tested these poisons on animals and, in at least one case, on one of their own associates. They laughed about how well it worked. Our efforts to track activities emanating from Kurmal resulted in the arrest of nearly one hundred Zarqawi operatives in Western Europe planning to use poisons in operations.
What was even more worrisome was that by the spring and summer of 2002, more than a dozen al-Qa'ida-affiliated extremists converged on Baghdad, with apparently no harassment on the part of the Iraqi government. They had found a comfortable and secure environment in which they moved people and supplies to support Zarqawi's operations in northeastern Iraq.
Other high-level al Qaeda terrorists also set up shop in Baghdad:
Thirwat Shihata and Yussef Dardiri, two Egyptians assessed by a senior al-Qa'ida detainee to be among the Egyptian Islamic Jihad's best operational planners, . . . arrived by mid-May of 2002. At times we lost track of them, though their associates continued to operate in Baghdad as of October 2002. Their activity in sending recruits to train in Zarqawi's camps was compelling enough.
There was also concern that these two might be planning operations outside Iraq. Credible information told us that Shihata was willing to strike U.S., Israeli, and Egyptian targets sometime in the future. Shihata had been linked to terrorist operations in North Africa, and while in Afghanistan he had trained North Africans in the use of truck bombs. Smoke indeed. But how much fire, if any?
Tenet also confirms an internal intelligence community dispute, reported in this magazine 18 months ago, over the debriefings of senior al Qaeda terrorist Ibn Shaykh al Libi. The story of al Libi's disputed claims provides an illuminating look at how Michigan senator Carl Levin has dishonestly (and dishonorably) driven mainstream news reporting on the issue of prewar Iraq intelligence.
In November 2005, Levin managed to have declassified excerpts of a Defense Intelligence Agency report from February 2002, in which an analyst suggested that al Libi was misleading his interrogators when he told them the Iraqi regime had provided support and training to al Qaeda on weapons of mass destruction. For Levin, and the reporters he hoodwinked, this report was further proof that the Bush administration had exaggerated the intelligence on Iraq and al Qaeda. A breathless New York Times article claimed that an al Qaeda official had been "identified as a likely fabricator months before the Bush administration began to use his statements as the foundation for its claims that Iraq trained al Qaeda members to use biological and chemical weapons." The Times faulted Bush, Cheney, and Colin Powell for using information from al Libi in public debates.
But there was a simple reason the Bush officials continued to use al Libi's claims: Senior CIA officials believed al Libi's highly detailed confessions were true, and that his recantation was false. Indeed, Tenet himself testified to Congress a full year after the DIA report that Iraq "has provided training in poisons and gases to two al Qaeda associates."
The DIA report Levin had declassified was hardly the whole story. As Tenet reports in his book, "there was sharp division on [al Libi's] recantation" inside the CIA. And many al Qaeda detainees who provided information on al Qaeda's pursuit of WMD later recanted their original stories. Al Libi "clearly lied," Tenet says, but we don't know when. Either his initial confession or his later denial could be accurate. Tenet concludes: "The fact is, we don't know which story is true, and since we don't know, we can assume nothing." In sum, it is still possible--some CIA officials believe likely--that al Qaeda received WMD training and support from Iraq.
Tenet also discloses new intelligence about the activities of the al Qaeda leadership living under what he calls "loose house arrest" in Iran:
From the end of 2002 to the spring of 2003, we received a stream of reliable reporting that the senior al-Qa'ida leadership in Saudi Arabia was negotiating for the purchase of three Russian nuclear devices. Saudi al-Qa'ida chief Abu Bakr related the offer directly to the al-Qa'ida leadership in Iran, where Sayf al-Adl and Abdel al-Aziz al-Masri (described as al-Qa'ida's "nuclear chief" by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) were reportedly being held under a loose form of house arrest by the Iranian regime. The al-Qa'ida leadership had obviously learned much from their ventures into the nuclear market in the early 1990s. Sayf al-Adl told Abu Bakr that no price was too high to pay if they could get their hands on such weapons. However, he cautioned Abu Bakr that al-Qa'ida had been stung by scams in the past and that Pakistani specialists should be brought to Saudi Arabia to inspect the merchandise prior to purchase.
Sayf al Adl, who helped plan the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, has also reportedly ordered attacks around the globe from his house arrest/safe haven in Iran. As WEEKLY STANDARD contributor Thomas Joscelyn asked earlier this week: How meaningful is this "detention" if al Qaeda leaders are plotting attacks and openly discussing the acquisition of nuclear weapons from Iranian soil?
In another section of the book, Tenet defends Dick Cheney against the ridiculous claim made in Ron Suskind's book, The One Percent Doctrine, that Cheney urged his colleagues to ignore evidence that did not serve his war- mongering purposes.
Tenet says Cheney asked a CIA analyst named "Kevin K." if Langley thought al Qaeda had already acquired a nuke. Kevin responded, "Sir, if I were to give you a traditional analytical assessment of the al-Qa'ida nuclear program, I would say they probably do not. But I can't assure you they don't."
Cheney, according to Tenet, "then made a comment that in my view has since been misinterpreted." Tenet's Cheney replies to Kevin: "If there's a one percent chance they do, you have to pursue it as if it were true." Tenet does not interpret this comment the same way Suskind does:
I am convinced the vice president did not mean to suggest, as some have asserted, that we should ignore contrary evidence and that such a policy should be applied to all threats to our national security. On the contrary, the vice president understood instinctively that WMD must be managed differently because the implications were unique--such an attack would change history. We all felt the vice president understood this issue. There was no question in my mind that he was absolutely right to insist that when it came to discussing weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists, conventional risk assessments no longer applied; we must rule out any possibility of terrorists succeeding in their quest to obtain such weapons. We could not afford to be surprised.
So there were significant and dangerous al Qaeda-Iraq ties. There were and are al Qaeda-Iran ties. Saddam's WMD programs remained a threat. George Tenet may not have intended to tell these truths. But he has.
Oh, and one more thing (highlighted last week by National Review's Rich Lowry): Tenet had this to say about the CIA view of Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions:
[The CIA] assessed that Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon and that if he had to make his own fissile material, he probably would not be able to do so until 2007 to 2009. However, we indicated in the NIE that we had only moderate confidence in that judgment. We also indicated that [the Bureau of Intelligence and Research] thought that, although Saddam clearly wanted nuclear weapons, there was inadequate evidence to prove that he had an ongoing integrated and comprehensive program to develop them.
If Saddam could obtain fissile material elsewhere, it would not be hard for the regime to make a weapon within a year. After all, we believed that some terrorist groups could do so if they came into possession of the all-important highly enriched uranium or plutonium.
It's 2007. Fortunately, Saddam is gone.
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