At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2007, 12:00am

At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA

by George Tenet with Bill Harlow

HarperCollins, HK$413

George Tenet made a few mistakes as director of the CIA. The first was failing to anticipate the September 11 attacks. The second was failing to catch Osama bin Laden. The third was encouraging President George W. Bush to invade Iraq by claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - it was a 'slam dunk', he said. A man with such a track record might be expected to disappear into obscurity. But this book, part self-justification and part apology, sets out Tenet's mistakes in detail for all the world to see.

There is at least some logic behind Tenet's public self-flagellation. Since his resignation in 2004, Republicans have insinuated that the CIA, rather than the administration, was responsible for getting the US into Iraq because it served up faulty intelligence. That, Tenet says, is unfair. Spies provide the administration with the information necessary to make decisions. They don't make the call themselves. The CIA did provide flawed intelligence that led to the war, he says, but that doesn't make the war its responsibility.

To bolster his point, Tenet lists just about every mistake the CIA made during his seven-year tenure at the top. It seems odd that a former chief spook would want to air his dirty laundry in this way.

The first part tells of Tenet's involvement in peace talks between Palestine and Israel in the 1990s. At the time, he says, he became aware of the threat that al-Qaeda, and specifically bin Laden, posed to the US. By mid-2001, Tenet says he knew that a terrorist attack on American soil - by al-Qaeda and bin Laden - was imminent. The difficulty was, he just couldn't get those damn politicians to listen.

This is less than convincing. He had direct contact with the president, and seemed cosy with then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Tenet was pleased by CIA operations in the immediate aftermath of September 11, he says. With the invasion of Afghanistan the CIA carried out contingency plans drawn up before September 11 efficiently. Of course, with the twin towers in ruins, it was a case of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. And there's no explanation of why the horse was never caught - bin Laden is, of course, still at large.

The third part takes in Tenet's statement that it was a 'slam dunk' that Hussein had WMD - taken to mean he believed it was a certainty. That became the justification for war. But, in a semantic twist worthy of Bill Clinton, Tenet says he meant that selling the public a war based on Hussein's possession of WMD was a 'slam dunk'. Yet he still felt comfortable enough to sit directly behind Colin Powell while he put this flawed case for war to the UN.

Tenet argues that the administration was so determined to invade Iraq that any intelligence was interpreted to fit its purposes. That's generally held to be true. But Tenet undermines his credibility on the first page by claiming to have met neocon defence adviser Richard Perle on the steps of the West Wing on September 12.

'Iraq has a price to pay for what happened yesterday,' he quotes Perle as saying. But Perle was out

of the country on September 12.

So how much else of what he says is reliable?

Center of the Storm may be self-serving, but it's not worthless. Tenet's analysis of the Afghanistan campaign seems solid and detailed. He also makes the case that the administration was bent on an invasion of Iraq. WMD were just used to sell it to Congress and the public, he says. Still, it's difficult to swallow Tenet's apologia.

If he felt that intelligence was being ignored or distorted by the Bush administration, he should have resigned to make the point.