Greek Tragedy

George Tenet’s memoir is basically about two stories: the fight against Al-Qaeda both before and after 9/11 and the Iraq War. And on these matters, his story—if not always his performance—is basically on target.

George TenetAt the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 576 pp., $30.00.

Famous figures write memoirs for different purposes: some because they were always frustrated writers, others to settle old scores, still others to impart a bit of wisdom. George Tenet's memoir is an example of the defensive memoir, a book written to plead his case against the legion of accusations leveled against him.

And they are a multitude, from every direction and ranging from charges of incompetence to outright malevolence. The reader can sense Tenet's exasperation as he methodically lays out his side of the story on the talismanic controversies of the period during which he was Director of Central Intelligence (DCI): Did the intelligence community cook the books for the Bush Administration? No, the community just got the intelligence wrong. What about "slam dunk?" That was an ill-advised phrase that was not relevant to the decision to go to war against Iraq, which in any case did not result from the community's assessments about WMD. Was the CIA asleep at the wheel before 9/11? Far from it-the CIA and Tenet were pounding the table for action against Al-Qaeda before it was fashionable, but human error was not absent, as in the infamous watchlisting case. Why didn't Tenet push for the administration to take action against Al-Qaeda before 9/11? He did to some extent, but it was not his role to advocate policy. And so on. Tenet also addresses the Clinton Administration's negotiations with Israel and the Palestinians, the Sixteen Words incident1, the hunt for WMD after the invasion of Iraq and the other usual suspects. Those who have followed the twists and turns of the more esoteric of these scandals, such as the 'Curveball' intelligence-source incident, will find more grist for the mill.

On the whole, Tenet's testimony is plausible but, unsurprisingly, biased. Some peers are pictured as political animals, scrambling for influence in the shark-infested waters of the Washington interagency world, but Tenet draws himself as an "aw-shucks" Greek guy from Queens, just trying to do his job. While there is certainly a good bit of truth in this, there is also a reason why Tenet owns a reputation as a skilled political infighter. He was no lamb among wolves.

Regardless of how precisely these fraught incidents actually transpired-a historical timeline even Patrick Fitzgerald could not conclusively reassemble-the more important point is that the main lines of Tenet's narrative are convincing and largely true. The book is basically about two stories: the fight against Al-Qaeda both before and after 9/11 and the Iraq War. And on these two matters, the defining events of his tenure, Tenet's story-if not always his performance-is basically on target.

The heart of his book is a description of how the CIA came to recognize the Al-Qaeda threat in the 1990s, reoriented itself to combat this new threat, consistently warned policymakers of the seriousness of the impending threat and was in a position to take immediate action after tragedy struck on 9/11. While Tenet's narrative will not add much to those already acquainted with this history, it does provide a reminder that, instead of condemnation, Tenet and the CIA generally deserve plaudits for pounding the table on terrorism well before policymakers, Congressmen or the American people at large took much notice of the threat of catastrophic terrorism. Tenet's exasperation at the tendentious criticisms of the 9/11 Commission and others who blithely argue that the "CIA should have done more" is well-justified. As he argues, the intelligence agencies can only do so much. They are not independent-let alone omnipotent-actors; they are, instead, the servants of the American people and their elected representatives. The CIA could and did warn both the Clinton and Bush Administrations, Congress and the American people of the threat Al-Qaeda posed and repeatedly asked for more resources and authorities to pursue the target. Indeed, it cut from its own funding and personnel elsewhere to go after Al-Qaeda, even during demanding crises in the Balkans and Middle East. The threat, however, remained too ethereal and distant for the nation until 9/11 drove its immediacy painfully home. And when that happened, the CIA stood ready with a plan of attack and a network of allies to depose the Taliban regime in Afghanistan-what Tenet without exaggeration calls the "CIA's finest hour."

Ultimately, charges that the CIA should have just "gone out and gotten the bad guys" are not fairly directed against the CIA, but must be shouldered by the American government and people as a whole. The CIA was telling us of the danger and was asking for more leeway and resources, but we and our representatives were not prepared to give them that. The threat just seemed too unreal, and what the CIA was asking for was not negligible. As Tenet fair-mindedly describes, the pre-9/11 problems of whether to launch missile or other strikes against Bin Laden that might involve killing innocent (and sometimes diplomatically important) people, how to deal with the truculent Pakistanis and so forth were profoundly difficult ones. These were not technical questions that simply demanded an assertion of will, but deeply political ones, involving complicated and risky tradeoffs. Anyone who remembers the atmospherics of 1998 and Wag the Dog will recall that the nation had not steeled itself to deal with the Al-Qaeda threat. The failure to "get Al-Qaeda" before 9/11 is therefore our collective responsibility, certainly not to be borne by the one group within the government who were actually calling for greater focus and more action.