In its first week of hearings, the joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee investigating September 11 chose not to call CIA Director George Tenet to testify. Which is a good thing, since Tenet wasn't in the country. As the committee began its inquiry into the greatest intelligence failure in modern American history, the man responsible for making sure it doesn't happen again was doing his other job. He was in the West Bank as the Bush administration's de facto envoy to the Middle East.
Tenet began this second job mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict six years ago, when reasonable people could still argue that preventing terrorists from killing Americans didn't warrant single-minded attention. After a spate of Hamas suicide bombings rocked the peace process in early 1996, Tenet then the CIA deputy director was sent to help Yasir Arafat combat the militants. His mission was to professionalize the Palestinian security forces, thus helping them win the confidence of their Israeli counterparts.
But as the years passed, and Palestinian terrorism continued, Israeli and Palestinian officials grew more hostile, not less. And as a result, both sides came to rely on Langley more and more. In October 1998, when former President Bill Clinton dragged Benjamin Netanyahu to Maryland's Wye River to revive the faltering Oslo process, Tenet (by then CIA director) was present throughout the nine-day-long talks. And in the end Netanyahu only agreed to additional Israeli withdrawals because Tenet assured him he would personally oversee Arafat's crackdown on terrorism. Over the course of the Clinton administration, Tenet visited the Middle East ten times. So intimate was his relationship with Arafat that at the fateful July 2000 Camp David negotiations, when Clinton could not get a yes or no answer from the Palestinian leader on Ehud Barak's final offer, he turned to Tenet. And it was the CIA director who elicited Arafat's clear reply: No.
Off the record, CIA officials worried that Tenet was diverting resources from the Agency's core mission of intelligence- gathering and analysis. And according to Rob Malley, Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs, "More than once, toward the end of the Clinton term, Tenet came to the president and the national security adviser and told them that the mediation assignment given to him is not good for him and isn't good for the Agency." But by that time Clinton had become convinced that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal was key to his legacy, and he wouldn't surrender one of the most effective tools at his disposal.
It was exactly the kind of behavior that has led post-9/11 conservatives to excoriate Clinton for ignoring the growing terrorist threat. The former president who had treated his first CIA director, R. James Woolsey, with disdain seemed almost indifferent to the Agency's traditional spy work. And in keeping with his globalization-addled view that military conflict was receding as a factor in international affairs, he appeared happy to let the CIA turn its energy from national security to conflict resolution. As former Mossad official David Kimche told the Jerusalem Post in 1998, "It is the changing face of the CIA. They are coming out in the open. They are doing more political things, and not truly intelligence actions."
But the problem with blaming Clinton for taking the CIA's eye off the ball is that George W. Bush has continued the pattern. After an initial six months in which the new administration tried to distance itself from the Israeli-Palestinian train wreck, a hideous June 2001 bombing at a Tel Aviv discotheque sent the Bushies scrambling to forestall massive Israeli retaliation and a widening crisis. Tenet the only prominent peace processor left over from the Clinton administration had a better relationship with the parties than did any member of the incoming Bush foreign policy team. And so the president ordered him to revive his mission.
Over time other Bush officials Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns, retired General Anthony Zinni, and even Secretary of State Colin Powell himself tried their hand at Mideast diplomacy. But with the change of government in Israel, the Bushies came to rely on Tenet for another reason. The cornerstone of Ariel Sharon's policy was that there could be no political negotiations until Palestinian violence ceased. And in the absence of a peace process, Tenet's security process his ongoing efforts to get Israeli and Palestinian security officials to cooperate to prevent terrorism became the only game in town. According to the oft-repeated formulation, the parties had to agree to "Tenet" (the security agreement) before they could proceed to "Mitchell" (the road map to talks about land-for-peace). But because the parties never really got to Tenet the violence never stopped for very long the CIA director kept shuttling back to the region to put his finger in the dike.
Astonishingly, Tenet's travel schedule continued even increased after 9/11. In late January of this year a senior administration official told reporters, "$(I$)t's important for Congress to review $(9/11-related$) events in a way that does not unduly burden the defense and intelligence communities, as they are still charged with fighting a war." But the following month Bush dispatched Tenet to the Middle East, the first of three peace-process-related trips he has made to the region this year.
To Tenet's credit, he has by most accounts done an excellent job in maintaining the trust of both Israeli and Palestinian security officials, even as they have lost any shred of trust in one another. But he has done well in a job he should not being doing at all. After September 11 the Bush administration should have given Tenet's Mideast security portfolio to someone at the Defense Department or risked Sharon's wrath and given it to a diplomat, who would have discussed security and political issues at the same time. Given the circumstances, it doesn't much matter it just shouldn't have been taking up Tenet's time.
CIA officials, of course, insist Tenet's peace-processing has subtracted nothing from his efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks. But stopping Al Qaeda from striking tomorrow while simultaneously restructuring a hidebound, complex bureaucracy isn't just a full-time job; it's one of the most important jobs ever entrusted to any American official. And Tenet's inability to treat it as such may be one reason that the CIA is now after FBI Director Robert Mueller's reorganization plan and Bush's proposal for a Department of Homeland Security the one major anti-terrorism agency that has not remade itself for the post-9/11 world.
In his nationally televised speech last Thursday, Bush noted sternly that if frontline anti-terrorism investigators "see something that raises suspicions ... I expect your supervisors to treat it with the seriousness it deserves." But for the six days leading up to the speech, the CIA's top supervisor, George Tenet, had been in Israel pursuing Middle East peace. Which makes you wonder whether the CIA's mission to stop terrorists from killing Americans is being treated "with the seriousness it deserves" by Tenet's supervisor, President George W. Bush.
This article originally ran in the June 24, 2002, issue of the magazine.