On May 28, George Tenet delivered for the Bush administration. Nearly two months had passed since the fall of Baghdad. U.S. forces had turned up no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, raising the specter of gross misjudgment on the part of the U.S. intelligence community and allegations of presidential dishonesty. But, that day, the CIA announced that two trailers found in northern Iraq the previous month were actually mobile biological-agent production facilities. "Coalition forces have uncovered the strongest evidence to date that Iraq was hiding a biological warfare program," the CIA declared in a white paper immediately posted on its website. Within two days, President Bush was claiming vindication: "For those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they're wrong; we found them."
Almost immediately, the story began to unravel. On June 2, the State Department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), analyzed the white paper and declared its findings premature. Within a month, The New York Times has reported, engineering experts from the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had concluded that the most likely use for the trailers was to produce hydrogen, not bioweapons. Experts at the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington arms-control think tank, reached a similar conclusion, though the military did not permit them direct access to the trailers. In late spring, David Albright, a former Iraq arms inspector who founded the institute, was told by Mahdi Obeidi--the Iraqi nuclear scientist who made international headlines in June when he offered up components of a gas centrifuge buried for more than a decade in his backyard--that the discovered trucks did not conform to the designs of Iraq's bioweapons program. According to Obeidi, the Iraqi fermenters for biological agents were stainless steel; yet the truck's fermenters had an exterior of galvanized steel.
Experts from around the world soon pointed out other flaws in the CIA's analysis. The trailers had canvas exteriors, which would have resulted in considerable downwind contamination had they been used to handle virulent biological agents. Yet no evidence of these agents has been found. The trailers also lacked autoclaves and other equipment for steam sterilization, an omission that would have risked contaminating the system. The pipes in the trailer were connected with threaded fittings or bolted flanges, though bio-production requires welding pipes together to prevent microorganisms from seeping through. Expressing a common sentiment, Steve Aftergood, an intelligence policy expert at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), says that the white paper is "not about laying out all the facts and reaching a reasoned judgment. It is a piece of advocacy."
Indeed, both the conclusions about the trailers and the process that produced them closely resemble other CIA intelligence fiascos during the last seven years: the controversial targeting of the Al Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan as a chemical weapons plant in August 1998, the release of a revised National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the ballistic missile threat to the United States in 1999, and the NIE on Iraq's WMD in October 2002. In each case, the CIA's official verdict did not represent the best judgment of the intelligence community--or even the best judgment of the CIA's own analysts. Rather, it reflected an apparent desire to please political masters on Capitol Hill or at the White House. And, while those authorities bear responsibility for their own actions, so does the man who gave them intellectual and political cover: CIA Director George Tenet. Tenet surely deserves praise for his accomplishments throughout the last seven years, among them restoring the agency's sense of pride and putting it at the forefront of the war against terrorism. But, at several key junctures, he has failed at what he described in his May 1997 confirmation testimony as the CIA's main mission: to "deliver intelligence that is clear and objective and does not pull punches." In that respect, Tenet has seriously damaged the agency he sought to revive.
A New Penny
While CIA officials have traditionally hailed from the New England aristocracy, Tenet is the son of Greek immigrants who ran a diner in Queens's Little Neck neighborhood. His colleagues and friends attest to The New Republic that his bluntness, sharp wit, and sense of loyalty are pure "New York Mediterranean." After working his way through Georgetown and earning another degree from Columbia, he went to work on arms-control legislation in 1982 for Pennsylvania Republican Senator John Heinz; three years later, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy appointed him to the staff of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. When Tenet first came to the committee, he knew very little about intelligence--one former staffer describes him as "truly innocent, ignorant"--but he learned the job quickly. Says one former colleague on the committee, "He was no rocket scientist, but he was grounded in the political process, he worked very hard, and he had good relations with other members of the committee." Committee Chairman David Boren, an Oklahoma Democrat, promoted Tenet to staff director in 1988. That winter, Tenet made his mark by drafting a position on the Reagan administration's Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that was acceptable to both Republicans and Democrats. Then, in 1993, Tenet joined the Clinton White House as a national security staffer, where he drafted Presidential Decision Directive-35, which laid out priorities for the intelligence community, and where he also won friends among his colleagues. "It's sort of his chumminess," a former National Security Council (NSC) official recalls. "He gets really close to you, puts his hand on your shoulder."
As the NSC's point man on intelligence, Tenet had a front-row seat to watch the unraveling of the CIA. President Clinton had little interest in the agency. When a deranged aviator crashed a small Cessna onto the White House lawn in 1994, aides quipped that it was CIA Director James Woolsey trying to get Clinton's attention. Frustrated by his lack of access--and facing hostility from the Senate Intelligence Committee for his handling of the Aldrich Ames spy case--Woolsey resigned in December 1994. Clinton belatedly appointed John Deutch to succeed him and made Tenet his deputy. But Deutch, who longed to be defense secretary, was a disaster. In response to liberal complaints about rogue agents, Deutch made it more difficult for case officers at the Directorate of Operations (D.O.) to recruit spies. He put CIA Executive Director Nora Slatkin--whom many considered clueless--in charge of approving covert operations. And he sealed his fate with the D.O. by telling a New York Times reporter that, "compared to uniformed officers, [D.O. officers] certainly are not as competent." When Clinton passed Deutch over for the top Pentagon job in 1996, he resigned--to the delight of many at Langley.
That left another vacancy, one Clinton tried to fill with national security adviser Anthony Lake. But congressional Republicans, who had disdained Deutch, positively despised Lake, whom they blamed for everything they didn't like about Clinton's foreign policy. When they refused to confirm him, Clinton, eager to get someone confirmed after the bruising fight over Lake, quickly nominated Tenet, who had remained popular with the committee Republicans. At the time, recalls one administration member, "the big joke was when Tony Lake was shot down [by the Intelligence Committee] as being too political to be DCI [director of central intelligence]--and they're going to George instead. George as a political operator ran rings around Tony."
Tenet inherited an agency in disarray. Morale, especially at the D.O., which is responsible for human intelligence and covert action, was in a tailspin. Tenet's charm served him well from the start. While Deutch had tried to maintain a regal aloofness--bodyguards would shadow him when he visited the cafeteria--Tenet was open and friendly, dribbling basketballs down Langley's hallways and blasting opera and Motown from his office. Says Jeffrey Smith, who served as the CIA's general counsel in 1995 and 1996, "George is the first director in recent times that has really been embraced by the CIA family. Most of them going back to [Carter administration CIA Director Stansfield] Turner have had pretty rocky relations with the career CIA people. George is, I think, almost universally adored. ... [S]omeone says, `Hi George,' and he just brightens up like a new penny." Tenet radiated appreciation for the case officers and agents that Deutch had scorned. One former intelligence aide says of Tenet, "George is great at putting his feet up, chewing on a cigar in his mouth, and talking dirty like the D.O. guys. He fits in great." Robert Baer, a legendary case-officer-turned-author who irritated his superiors at times, recalls, "When I got into trouble--which was fairly regularly--[Tenet] would put his arm around me and say, `Ah, those jerks.' He could look you in the eye. He was a real person."
But Tenet faced a more daunting task in charming an indifferent White House. Clinton had ignored Woolsey and Deutch and had initially paid little attention to Tenet, asking for occasional memos but not seeing the CIA chief in person--and, in relationships with the White House, face time is everything. But Tenet finally got his chance to demonstrate usefulness to the president. After the Al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassies in East Africa in August 1998, he was called to the White House to help plan how and where the Clinton administration should retaliate. Tenet was determined to win the access that had been denied him and his predecessors. And he did--but in a way that provides an unsettling preview of what would happen four years later in the debate over WMD in Iraq.
Al Shifa On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda suicide bombers hit the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 257 people. To decide how to retaliate, Clinton convened a small group of principals, including the secretaries of state and defense, the national security adviser, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA director. The White House wanted to attack Al Qaeda both in Afghanistan, where it had training camps and where Osama bin Laden resided, and in another country, preferably in Africa, where Al Qaeda's terrorist network enjoyed support. Tenet's job was to provide targets. Says one former CIA official, "He thought it was the key mission of the agency and wanted to be very involved in the decision-making and was." The intelligence on Afghanistan was excellent. Satellite imagery had shown that bin Laden was operating out of training camps in Khost, near the Pakistan border. But the target in Africa was more difficult. If Tenet had presented what the intelligence community actually knew of Al Qaeda at that time, he might have had to acknowledge that he didn't have a sure target to propose. But Tenet was unwilling to disappoint the White House. So, in addition to training camps in Afghanistan, he proposed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, called Al Shifa. Tenet claimed that the factory was known to be producing empta, a chemical compound that is an ingredient in the deadly nerve gas VX, and that its owners were linked to Al Qaeda.
Even before the attack occurred, The New York Times would later report, intelligence officials at the CIA and at the State Department raised doubts about both charges. But, at the meeting, Tenet, according to two knowledgeable sources, banged his fist on the table, arguing that Al Shifa was the right target to hit. On August 20, 1998, the United States attacked the factory with cruise missiles, killing one Sudanese and injuring ten others while demolishing the factory and its surroundings. Tenet reveled in his influence: According to a former CIA official who heard this from someone who was present, Tenet appeared at a meeting at CIA headquarters after the attack where he "boasted about his role in the nomination of the targets."
In the weeks and months that followed, however, the case for targeting Al Shifa fell apart. Tenet had based his claim that Al Shifa was producing VX on a single soil sample of empta that a Sudanese informer had delivered to the CIA eight months before the embassy bombings. But, in the past, Sudanese informers had proved to be completely unreliable: In the mid-'90s, the CIA had to retract more than 100 intelligence reports based on Sudanese information that it discovered to be fabricated. The CIA never subjected the sample to the usual rigorous tests, and, what's more, it turned out the sample was collected 60 feet from the plant, off its property. One year after the cruise missile attacks, after the United States had blocked a U.N. attempt to send inspectors to the plant, the plant's owner hired Thomas D. Tullius, the chairman of Boston University's department of chemistry, to conduct tests on soil samples from where the plant had stood. Tullius sent soil samples to several laboratories that specialized in testing for weapons precursors, and they found no evidence of empta or of empa, the compound into which it breaks down, even though traces of empa should have survived the missile attack.
At a Pentagon briefing on the day of the strike, an intelligence official had declared, "We ... [have] seen no commercial products that are sold out of this facility." But international observers, including NBC chief medical correspondent Bob Arnot and the German ambassador to Sudan, attested that it was Sudan's main pharmaceutical plant, producing about half of the country's drugs. Earlier, American officials at the United Nations had even approved the sale of veterinary drugs produced by the factory for export to Iraq under the oil-for-food program. Intelligence officials had also claimed that the plant had a "secured perimeter" and was "patrolled by the Sudanese military." But Pentagon aerial photographs, taken before the missile attack, failed to show any kind of security fence, and foreign observers familiar with the plant denied that it was guarded by the Sudanese military. One former CIA analyst who specialized in reading aerial photographs tells tnr, "When I looked at the prestrike imagery, in no way did it appear to be WMD-associated. It wasn't secure; there weren't any special security measures around it." The connections between the plant and Al Qaeda would also prove tenuous. Tenet and the Clinton administration had claimed that the plant and its owners had benefited from bin Laden's largesse. But, in March 1998, a Saudi businessman named Salah Idris had bought the plant from its original owners, apparently unbeknownst to the CIA.
With these complaints swirling around, the State Department's INR conducted a study of the Al Shifa attack. According to an intelligence official who was involved, INR "came up with the politically embarrassing conclusion that there was weak evidence." INR was particularly critical of the claim that the plant was producing VX or its precursor chemicals. Faced with these cascading doubts about the intelligence he had provided, Tenet upped the ante. At a closed Senate meeting on September 1, 1998, Tenet claimed that the CIA had now uncovered links between the plant's new owner and Al Qaeda. But, when the U.S. Treasury froze Idris's U.S. bank accounts, the plant owner sued. Required in court to show evidence of Idris's links to bin Laden, the Treasury Department backed off and unfroze his accounts. Tenet denied a request for an interview for this story, but he and top Clinton administration officials continue to defend the bombing. Yet Idris's connection to Al Qaeda and the plant's production of VX remain unproved.
The very same month that Al Qaeda was striking in East Africa, North Korea launched a three-stage ballistic missile known as the Taepo Dong-1 over the Sea of Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. It would spark a clash between the CIA and conservative Republicans in Congress--setting another unhappy precedent for the battles over intelligence that would mark the Bush administration.
In their 1994 Contract With America, House Republicans, citing the threat of "Third World attacks," had called on the Clinton administration Pentagon to deploy, "at the earliest possible date," a national missile defense. But the intelligence community's 1995 NIE had maintained that no country outside of existing nuclear powers "will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next fifteen years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada." So, in 1997, Republicans in Congress established a nine-member commission, chaired by then-former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and including two other missile defense enthusiasts, Woolsey and Paul Wolfowitz. The Rumsfeld commission concluded in a July 1998 report that North Korea and Iran would be capable of deploying a missile that "would be able to inflict major destruction on the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability" and that, "during several of those years, the U.S. might not be aware that such a decision had been made." Moreover, the report implied that both North Korea and Iran had already made that decision, placing "a high priority on threatening U.S. territory, and each ... pursuing advanced ballistic-missile capabilities to pose a direct threat to U.S. territory." Both countries, the report suggested, would be ready to threaten the United States with nuclear weapons by 2003.
Initially, Tenet stood by the CIA's 1995 findings that no such threat existed--and rightly so. Although the launching of the Taepo Dong-1 seemed to vindicate the Rumsfeld commission, the missile was no intercontinental-ballistic-missile (icbm) precursor. Its all-important third stage could not withstand atmospheric reentry. Its softball-sized payload--much smaller than a nuke--fell helplessly into the sea. It even lacked a guidance system. And, today, neither North Korea nor Iran is anywhere close to an icbm capability. But the Taepo Dong-1 launch gave congressional Republicans an opportunity to squeeze the CIA. Recalls former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey, who was then the vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, "There was tremendous pressure from people who were in a position not to appropriate money for [the] agency."
Tenet, who was also under attack from Republicans for allegedly allowing Chinese subversion at U.S. weapons labs, steadily gave way to the political pressure, ultimately agreeing to Republican demands for a new NIE on the missile threat and assigning the task to Robert Walpole, the national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs. Since coming to the CIA from State, Walpole--an earthy, motorcycle-riding, Mormon bishop with a fierce intellect--had become Tenet's all-purpose troubleshooter, taking on such delicate tasks as the Chinese-subversion inquiry. Once handed the missile defense dossier, Walpole wasted no time smoothing ruffled feathers. Within weeks of the Korean launch, Walpole heaped praise on the Rumsfeld commission in a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Then, in early 1999, he convened a group of analysts from the CIA, INR, DIA, National Security Agency, Air Force intelligence, and Department of Energy (DOE) to draft a new NIE.
The drafting process was overtly political. When analysts would propose formulations that diverged too far from Rumsfeld's report, Walpole would tell them, "We can't go to Congress with that," according to a participant. To make sure that the analysis didn't stray from what Congress wanted, Walpole brought in Rumsfeld himself as an outside expert to evaluate the NIE. "I never imagined that [Walpole] would be that blatant," an analyst who worked on the NIE tells tnr. But the analysts understood that Walpole was not acting without his boss's blessing: "We all assumed that major decisions involving this estimate would be vetted with George Tenet."
But Walpole still had a problem renouncing the 1995 NIE. Except for the abortive Korean missile launch, the intelligence community had not acquired data that would merit new conclusions about the foreign missile threat. Walpole solved the problem by subtly changing the criteria by which the threat would be evaluated. Missile threats had previously been judged according to "initial operating capability," a militarily significant term referring to successful missile tests and deployments. But, for this NIE, Walpole insisted that the standard be something called "initial threat availability"--or when a missile is first flight-tested, even though years typically pass between an initial test and a successful one. At the first meeting, one participant recalls, Walpole encountered "a lot of resistance by DIA and CIA line analysts and senior analysts who thought this was unprofessional." The same thing happened when Walpole wanted to characterize the North Korean missile as an icbm prototype capable of delivering WMD: "The specialists said, `Oh, come on.'" But, as the meetings went on and as it became clear that Walpole would not change his criteria, many analysts gave up trying to change his mind. By the fourth and final NIE meeting, dissenters were resigned to citing their objections in footnotes.
Tenet didn't participate until the final meeting, which featured the heads of the intelligence community's various agencies, with Tenet presiding. But, by that point, traditionally, most objections to NIEs are cosmetic: "The further along you get, the harder it is to raise big-picture questions," says one former analyst. According to a participant at the meeting, Tenet was "charming, backslapping, cracking jokes, passing coffee and cookies around. He was a very good schmoozer" who tried to display his neutrality by asking some questions about the NIE's findings, the participant says, but everyone understood the main points were not subject to change. In the end, only INR filed a formal dissent from the findings of Walpole and Tenet's NIE. Having won what amounted to a CIA endorsement of their findings, Rumsfeld and the congressional Republicans were predictably jubilant. Floyd Spence, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised the report for its "troubling picture" of "a world where rogue states" could "hold the American people at risk here at home." But the Republicans were not merely happy. They were wiser, too. They had learned that, with the application of enough pressure, Tenet and his CIA could be rolled.
September 11, 2001--and the intelligence failures that preceded it--brought forth calls for Tenet to resign, most notably from Republican Richard Shelby, then-vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But they fell on deaf ears at the White House. Tenet had cultivated a close relationship with President Bush since before the 2000 election, even naming the new CIA building after Bush's father. Tenet's irreverent cigar-in-the-mouth style also appealed to the young Bush. Says one knowledgeable source, "They were buddies, got along very well personally. Bush liked George's style." While Clinton had rarely opened the Oval Office to Tenet, Bush invited him to give briefings several times each week.
But, during the week after the September 11 attacks, Tenet became indispensable. Since becoming the director in 1997, Tenet had been holding daily meetings with the agency's Counterterrorism Center to plot a course of action against bin Laden and his organization. When the attacks came, he was ready. While the Pentagon admitted to the president that it had no war plan for carrying the battle to Al Qaeda, Tenet produced one practically off the shelf. Says one former CIA official, "When the political will caught up with what they were doing, which unfortunately took September 11, then they were in a position to take quick action because of all the legwork they had done." The plan worked marvelously, ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan within months. The CIA director became a valued asset to Bush. Tenet now briefed the president daily at 8 a.m. He had gained greater access to the White House than any director since Ronald Reagan's, William Casey.
But, just as the CIA's work was ending in Afghanistan, a new challenge to Tenet and the agency was emerging. Since the September 11 attacks, Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and other neoconservatives had been calling on the administration to oust Saddam Hussein from Iraq. By the winter of 2002, they had gained the support of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Rumsfeld, who had returned for a second tour as secretary of defense. To gain congressional and public support for a possible war, they wanted to demonstrate that Saddam posed an impending threat to the United States through his links to Al Qaeda and his access to WMD. But the CIA posed a formidable obstacle. In its annual report to Congress on "worldwide threats," the CIA had downplayed any immediate danger from the Iraqi regime, and, in its initial analysis of the September 11 attacks, it had rejected any connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda.
In response, Pentagon neoconservatives put into motion the same strategy they used with the Rumsfeld commission. Acting through a newly reconfigured Pentagon bureau under the direction of Undersecretary Douglas Feith, his deputy William Luti, and rand Corporation academic Abram Shulsky, they pored over previously analyzed CIA data to connect Saddam to bin Laden. And they had powerful allies. Despite his daily CIA briefings, Cheney, in mid-2002, made several unusual visits to Langley to discuss the Iraq threat with the low-ranking analysts working on the file. According to a former CIA official still close to many of these analysts, Cheney's visits created a "chill factor" to "get the analysts on the same page." Says former analyst Pat Eddington, who worked at the CIA for eight years, "I will tell you that, in my time there, I never saw anything in the way of the kind of radical pressure that clearly existed in 2001 and 2002 and on into 2003."
Tenet was once again caught in a political pressure chamber--with the vice president's office and the Pentagon on one side and the intelligence community, much of which was very skeptical about the justifications for an invasion of Iraq, on the other. In the middle of 2002, Tenet confided to a friend that he was feeling "isolated" and was worried about pressure from the neoconservatives. As the friend recalls to tnr, "He has felt ... that they were pushing an agenda and wanted intelligence to agree with the agenda." Tenet was even thinking about quitting the CIA, a move his friend thought prudent. "I personally said to him, `You stay too long, and your name is circled,'" the friend says. "`You're not part of the inner group. If things go wrong with the Iraq war, whose name is going to be circled to take the blame?'" Better, the friend advised, to leave at a relatively inconspicuous time, such as after the fall elections--before the final decisions on war had been made. But Tenet decided to stay on. "Like Colin Powell, he is a good soldier, who will stay as long as he's needed," his friend says.
Initially, Tenet resisted the pressure from the Pentagon and the vice president's office. During the summer of 2002, Democratic Florida Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Tenet in a private meeting to provide him with everything the CIA knew about Iraq's WMD, its ties to Al Qaeda, and the consequences of a war. Tenet had gotten along with Graham far better than he had with Shelby, and, before the end of the August recess, Tenet delivered to Graham a classified 25-page paper, with no cover or letterhead, answering Graham's questions on every item of concern. According to an official who read Tenet's classified responses, "It was a reasonable document," candid and balanced, summarizing what the CIA believed to be the threat from Iraq and the repercussions of using force to redress it. Since this report and a DIA assessment on chemical weapons that the committee received in early September 2002 were completely at variance with what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other administration officials were saying publicly, Graham and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin called on Tenet to provide more information, including an NIE.
But Tenet didn't deliver another balanced assessment. Instead, in mid-September 2002, he and the CIA produced a classified document described by several officials who have read it as written, one recalls, "to take the most aggressive view of all available information." According to a source who saw the document, the assessment was indeed aggressive--it highlighted "extensive Iraqi chem-bio programs and nuclear programs and links to terrorism" and detailed every known or faintly rumored contact between Saddam's regime and bin Laden. What Intelligence Committee members found particularly objectionable was the document's treatment of the link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. According to a former CIA official who read the document, "They put everything that they found for the last twelve years and put it all into one document. It was a joke. It had eight hundred disclaimers in it. It basically said nothing, [but] they put it together anyway."
Stunned by what they read, Graham, Durbin, and others on the committee intensified their demand for Tenet to produce an NIE on the Iraq threat. It was not a request that Tenet could easily fulfill. "The White House didn't want it," says a source with direct knowledge of the effort. "They wanted to draw their own analytical conclusions." Faced with escalating and conflicting demands from the Bush administration and the committee, Tenet turned to the national intelligence officer who fended off the dogs the last time: Walpole.
Walpole produced an NIE by the end of September 2002, taking less than three weeks to complete what is usually a painstaking process--less time, jokes a longtime intelligence official, than it takes to coordinate "an interagency bathroom pass." Just as he had done in 1999, Walpole constructed an artificial consensus within a community that was sharply divided over the threat from Iraq. There were dissents, but they were relegated to footnotes and appendices. On some issues, the intelligence community indeed had reached a rough consensus. Practically all analysts agreed that Saddam had produced unaccounted-for chemical and biological weapons; the disagreement was over whether the programs were ongoing and whether they had yielded recent stocks. On the question of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program, however, Walpole's NIE far outpaced what the analysts were concluding. The NIE claimed that Iraq was "reconstituting its nuclear weapons programs"--a determination that earlier CIA statements had elided and that INR, along with most DOE analysts, continued to reject. It further claimed that Iraq was trying to acquire aluminum tubes to use for enriching uranium suitable for a nuclear bomb. INR and DOE analysts, who knew the most about nuclear weapons production, adamantly rejected the charge. And the classified version of the NIE reported that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger and other African countries--a contention that CIA and INR analysts alike had found laughable and that would later generate so much controversy. On the basis of these highly unreliable claims, the NIE concluded, "Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material."
Notwithstanding these distortions, the Walpole paper was still less overheated than administration rhetoric. For example, when presenting intelligence on the aluminum tubes, the NIE presented analytic opinion as "kind of a fifty-fifty split, take it as you will," according to an intelligence official who read it--a sharp contrast with what senior administration officials were telling the public. As a result, Graham requested that Tenet issue a declassified version of the NIE so members could use the document to inform their upcoming votes on the war. In early October 2002, Tenet delivered--only in this new version, he wiped clean the qualifiers, alternative explanations, and dissents. Whereas the DIA had told Congress its analysts had "no reliable information" about whether Iraq was producing chemical weapons, the declassified version of the NIE declared that Iraq had "begun renewed production of chemical warfare agents." An outraged Graham insisted that more be declassified, but Tenet sent only a single-page letter. Echoing the empty claims of the "aggressive" white paper that the agency had delivered to the committee in September, Tenet's letter spoke of "solid reporting of senior-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qaeda going back a decade"--quite in contrast to what his analysts had actually found. These reports didn't "go back" a decade; they were a decade old and didn't reveal any current contacts between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda.
In his response to Graham, Tenet conceded that there was a "low" likelihood of Iraq launching an unprovoked attack on the United States. But, when Bush, in a speech in Cincinnati on October 7, 2002, suggested that Iraq posed an "urgent" danger to the United States, Tenet insisted that he had fact-checked the president's speech. Tenet issued a further clarification, saying, "There is no question that the likelihood of Saddam using weapons of mass destruction against the United States or our allies ... grows as his arsenal continues to build." In this statement, in his letter, and in the findings he provided to the Senate that fall, Tenet had already stopped acting as the head of a quasi-independent intelligence agency charged to deliver unvarnished information. As one former intelligence official put it, "He seemed like a man who had collected information that his bosses wanted to collect."
Tenet's service to the administration had won him a place in the war Cabinet--and in Bush's heart. The president even seemed aware of the toll Tenet's compromises were taking on him and, according to his friend, communicated a simple but consistent message: "Stay." But, as the controversy over the missing WMD finally began to rattle the White House this summer, the ties of loyalty that bound the two men frayed. Dogged by questions about the 16 words in his State of the Union address asserting Iraq's attempt to purchase uranium from Africa, Bush and his top advisers decided to blame the CIA chief. On July 11, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said that Tenet bore responsibility for the inclusion. "If the CIA, the director of central intelligence, had said, `Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone, without question," Rice said. Afterward, Bush said, "I gave a speech that was cleared by the intelligence services."
But Tenet's famous political talents also included skill at the age-old Washington game of CYA, or "cover your ass." The same day that Rice and Bush blamed Tenet, the CIA director issued a formal statement taking responsibility for Bush's misstatement. But Tenet also made it clear that he had not personally seen or approved the 16 words. And, over the next few weeks, a succession of leaks revealed that Tenet had repeatedly warned Bush, Powell, and White House aides that they could not rely on the accuracy of the Niger claim. Two weeks later, two memos surfaced that had been written by Tenet to Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, advising them to remove the reference to Niger from Bush's speech in Cincinnati. Hadley and Rice then had to apologize for the 16 words. Says one intelligence veteran who knows Tenet well, "He is always very careful about not putting himself in a bad position. When he took responsibility for the Niger stuff, look at what he said. He knew the letters were at the White House." Adds a former Clinton administration official who worked with Tenet, "He is an unbelievable paper-trail guy."
Tenet's counteroffensive put the blame squarely on the White House--where, certainly, much of it belongs. Says former CIA official Jeffrey Smith, "It seems to me a classic case where a president is trying to make the case for something that he believes is in the national interest and is prepared to selectively quote from the intelligence. ... They were pushing the community very, very hard." Kerrey points a finger at Rumsfeld in particular: "The secretary of defense has masterfully pushed all this onto George." But Tenet deserves blame, too. He encouraged public illusions about Iraq's WMD. And, in spite of his denials, he must take some responsibility for the recurrent claim that Iraq was trying to import uranium from Africa. Just days before Tenet had warned Hadley and Rice to remove references to Niger from Bush's Cincinnati speech, he allowed the same references into the NIE, which is supposed to be the gold standard of intelligence documents. Four days before Bush's State of the Union address, Tenet's trusted lieutenant, Walpole, advised Powell to include the uranium reference in his February speech to the United Nations. And who can believe that Tenet, who had fact-checked Bush's far less important Cincinnati speech in October, did not look over his State of the Union address before it was given?
Tenet must also take responsibility for the hyped report on Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda that the agency delivered to the Intelligence Committee in September. (Says Steve Aftergood of FAS, "In the fall of 2002, anything Congress is asking for on Iraq is going to be personally reviewed by [Tenet].") And, finally, he must take responsibility for the white paper on the trailers. In the past, the CIA, faced with evidence like the two trailers, would have first assembled experts from all the intelligence agencies and even from academia; it would have conducted a careful study--for months or even a year--and then issued a classified NIE. The White House or State Department could have then used the NIE as the basis for its own declassified white paper. But, in Tenet's eagerness to deliver ammunition against the administration's critics, the CIA completed the study within weeks, limiting the investigation to the CIA and the DIA (which answers to Rumsfeld's Pentagon) with no input from outside experts at State or elsewhere.
Within the CIA, episodes like this have taken their toll. While Tenet remains "wildly popular" in the D.O., there is a split among the analysts, according to the former official close to them. Some understand the pressure Tenet was under. Others feel he should have gone much further in protecting the integrity of their analysis. According to one ex-official, "They sort of think the success of his workings in the Clinton administration has been squandered." Tenet is probably secure in his job--Bush can't fire him without reopening questions about who is truly responsible for misleading the public about Iraq's WMD, and Tenet's friend is convinced that he will leave on his own timeline. But the careful balance he tried to construct between Congress, the White House, and the CIA has collapsed. Congressional leaders--such as Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the ranking minority member on the Armed Services Committee--have soured on him. Moreover, the agency's intelligence statements now lack credibility not only on Capitol Hill but also within the larger scientific and policy community that sustains it--to say nothing of how they sound to foreign ears.
According to David Boren, Tenet has for years thought about how "history will judge" the CIA's top officials. Given the CIA's sorry state when Tenet inherited it, he may yet be credited with reviving the agency, giving it a sense of purpose, marshalling its resources to fight the war against terrorism, and keeping its critics at bay. But, at a moment when many in the CIA, probably including Tenet, had their doubts about the factual premises of the Iraq war, Tenet compromised his agency's mandate to "deliver intelligence that is clear and objective." The CIA--and the nation--will suffer the consequences for a long time.
By Spencer Ackerman and John B. Judis