George Tenet

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Bebeto Matthews / AP

George Tenet, former CIA director, listens during an interview in New York, Monday April 30, 2007.

TIME: Slam Dunk? What were you thinking?

TENET: The way this is portrayed is that this was the decision meeting. That's just ridiculous. I walk out of the room that day [and] I never thought anything of that. I will never believe until the day I die that that comment had anything to do with the timing or the legitimacy of going to war. It was about we were trying to construct a public case. Yes, we had a responsibility to make sure that the — we just produced an estimate. We testified. We talked to hundreds of members of Congress. We said [we had] high confidence on chem/bio weapons. I believed it. But the way this gets dressed up and thrown out the door is, 'wow, this was the moment that this decision was made.' It's just not right.

TIME: So when 'slam dunk' comes out in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, did you think the hard-liners inside the White House and Pentagon were hanging you out to dry?

TENET: Well, you know, so this is a really painful moment for me. This is a matter of honor and trust, and trust was broken. Trust in the sense of, what are you doing here? So here are the guys [at the CIA] that give [the White House], you know, four days after 9/11, we give [them] the war plan on Afghanistan. Here are the guys that do A. Q Khan. Here are the guys that do Libya. Here are the guys who [the White House] sends to see the [Saudi] Crown Prince anytime there's a problem. And now what you've done is, you know, it's all going to shit. It's not particularly good, so now we're going to justify this by saying — I have to tell you, it's just enormously, you know, you live with it for the rest of your life, and you think it's wrong, and it's not honorable.

TIME: You complained about this treatment to White House chief of Staff Andy Card, he said nothing—

TENET: He's a very disciplined guy and I understood. I understood where we were and there it is. But here's the teaching point, if you're teaching kids about intelligence and policy: Intelligence does not absolve policymakers of responsibility to ask tough questions, and it doesn't absolve them of having curiosity about the consequences of their actions. So here's what I'll say: we stand up and take responsibility when we're wrong. They need to take responsibility for the way they, for how they integrate their thinking with us and don't simply say, "Well, they told us," when it's convenient. "They told us, and we don't ask any questions when they tell us because that's not the way this works." When you're telling them things that they don't like, there are 100 questions. When you're telling them things that essentially comport with what I want to do, well, maybe there aren't very many. Well, that's not the way this works.

So let's all understand that there's always collective responsibility. And so what obligation does the policymaker have to get underneath something? We have priority responsibility. I have priority responsibility on WMD. Let's not shirk our responsibility. What's your responsibility? What's your responsibility? You know, make sure that you understand that we're in the right place, and make sure you understand the texture with which you're doing it. So I find it to be, you know, I find it to be a little bit disingenuous to say, "Well, let's let it all on them when it goes wrong."

TIME: You write in the book that there was never any serious debate about whether to go to war; instead, at some mysterious point in 2002, it just became obvious inside the government that the U.S. was going to war with Iraq. When did the U.S. decide to go to war?

TENET: Well, I don't know the answer to that question. [Other CIA analysts] and people who are going to these meeting which they describe in kind of weird terms —

TIME: Weird terms?

TENET: They describe these meetings. I mean, one of them says in the book something like, you know, "It's not a question of if we're going to do it, but how we're going to do it." And that's the feeling they are getting but I can't tell you that I go to a meeting when I can say, well, boom, here's the moment that this is going to happen.

TIME: What is the source of the neoconservatives' obsession with Iraq?

TENET: I wasn't in the same geopolitical strategic loop. It brought the town a certain fixation about regime change in Iraq as the means and mechanism by which we will change the face of the Middle East and democratize the region. This was a compelling, unstated, overwhelming, you know, thought process on the part of these folks. This was the way to transform a region that needed transformation. And they thought about this in macro, big terms, sometimes without much understanding of the cultural context that this was all going to occur in. There was a quality of that. There was a quality of unfinished business.

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