Behind the Tenet Blame Game

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Bebeto Matthews / AP

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

No matter how hard he tried, George Tenet was never going to be a Bush insider. He had worked for a Democrat on Capitol Hill. He was tapped to be CIA director by, of all people, Bill Clinton. He was the lone foreign policy holdover from eight years of Democratic rule in Washington. And so when George W. Bush told Tenet he could stay on for a while in 2001, it was on terms that sounded distinctly probationary. Which meant that while Tenet had plenty of access to the Oval Office under Bush, he was never one of the boys.

This is almost painfully clear in Tenet's new book, At the Center of the Storm, his memoir about his seven years as CIA boss currently excerpted on and in the upcoming issue of TIME magazine. The book — and Tenet's publicity tour interviews, including one with — has once again reignited all the old fights between Bush Administration neoconservatives and Republican internationalists — starting with 9/11 and continuing right through to the war in Iraq.

Because Tenet is no neo-con, his probation inside the Bush Administration never really ended. When it came time to find someone to take the blame for Iraq, Tenet maintains, he took the fall. Now, several years later, the book is partly a revealing score-settler: Tenet tags Secretary of State and former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for mishandling her job before 9/11 and being slow to realize that Osama bin Laden was preparing to attack the U.S. Rice is portrayed as a National Security adviser who avoided fights, rather than one who tried to settle them. The book suggests that the 9/11 commission protected Rice in its final report and omitted facts that would have embarrassed the relatively more-moderate Secretary of State. Tenet doesn't believe the plotters could have been stopped; but he does believe the U.S. could have moved more quickly in both the Clinton and Bush years to disrupt al-Qaeda.

And Tenet's barbs for Rice are few compared to those he directs at Vice President Cheney, his former top aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby and a host of neo-conservative fellow travelers at the Pentagon. With very few declarative sentences that anyone can quote, Tenet nonetheless repeatedly makes it clear that neoconservatives in and out of the Bush Administration quietly pushed the U.S. to war with Iraq from the very first day after 9/11. The decision to go to war was made, he said, without any clear decision meetings; it proceeded at a number of critical points without any guidance from the CIA. Tenet comes close to saying that a secret committee took the country to war and cherry-picked the evidence to sell the war to the public.

Which gets back to Tenet's own responsibility for what unfolded. At the heart of the book is a confession — but also an unconvincing argument. Tenet takes a lot of blame for the poor analysis of the prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. He explains how the CIA used unreliable sources and vague extrapolations to make a judgment about Saddam's arsenal that was little better than an educated guess. Nonetheless, Tenet says, he believed it. When it came time to make those conclusions public, the CIA (and everyone it was advising) wasn't very careful about how they worded things.

When it comes to his storied "slam dunk" comment in the Oval Office, Tenet does not deny saying it. He says instead that it was an aside and did not refer to the quality of the prewar intel. It referred instead, he says, to whether the President had the goods to make the public case for war. And the meeting in question was not about whether to go to war or not.

This is a distinction without a difference and is neither very convincingly told in his memoirs or, in his interview with TIME, very forcefully argued. "I will never believe until the day I die," he said, "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."

Cheney pointed to this comment years later when the White House was looking for others to blame. The neoconservatives had distrusted the CIA for years, decades really. The war over the intelligence and who was to blame was in many ways just the latest battle. All through the last few years, when the White House has found itself in political trouble over the war, officials there have blamed the CIA for providing poor intelligence.

In fact, on the Sunday shows, Rice more or less took the same approach as before, telling Bob Schieffer on CBS' Face The Nation, "The sad fact of how all this has gotten talked about is that there was a problem with intelligence." As for whether "slam-dunk" had been a device for scapegoating Tenet and the CIA, Rice demurred, but added, "Yes, George said it, but we all thought the intelligence was strong."

It is on the fairness of the blame game where Tenet was his most forceful in his interview with TIME. Drawing a distinction between the CIA and the White House, he said: "So here's what I'll say: we stand up and take responsibility when we're wrong. I have priority responsibility on WMD. Let's not shirk our responsibility. What's your responsibility? What's your responsibility? I find it to be disingenuous to say, "let's let it all on them when it goes wrong.'"

The book has some other surprises: it is in many ways an unabashed love letter to the CIA. Officers are praised for their wisdom and energy at every turn; even in the agency's worst moments — as when it failed to sufficiently alert the FBI about two 9/11 hijackers in the country in 2001 — Tenet is unable to find much fault with his troops.

Nor does Tenet have many — hardly any, really — discouraging words about President Bush, who gave Tenet the Presidential Medal of Freedom despite (or perhaps,in part, because) of all the backstabbing and finger-pointing that went on between the CIA and his own West Wing. One of the few times Bush appears in the book is when he finds time to comfort Tenet's son, who is discouraged by all the criticism of his father in the press.

That feeling is surely something that Bush, whose own father was CIA director at a controversial moment in history, knows something about.