Powers: George Tenet, the CIA & the Invasion of Iraq by Tom Engelhardt

Powers on George Tenet, the CIA, and the Invasion of Iraq

by Tom
Engelhardt[Note for Tomdispatch readers: Think of this as the first “gone fishing” notice of the summer. The next Tomdispatch will probably appear the Sunday after July 4th. By the way, if you have a moment on the Fourth, check out the Declaration of Independence for a glimpse of the bad old days when Americans were ruled by a King George, who, as the document’s authors made clear, refused “his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good,” “affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power,” and “transport[ed] us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.” Tom]

In a week dominated by the CIA — the Agency of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s — it might be easy enough to forget the Agency of the new century, the one known for creating its own offshore Bermuda triangle of injustice, including a global system of secret (or borrowed) prisons, as well as for kidnappings, ghost prisoners, torture, assassination, covert programs aimed at “regime change” in countries like (as in 1953) Iran, and, of course, everything we don’t yet know because the “family jewels” for this period are nowhere near being released. Note, by the way, that even the recently released “family jewels” from that older era are not complete and remain heavily redacted — in the case of one document (scroll down), far more so than in a version that was released in the 1970s.

In addition, this cache of documents seems to deal only passingly, at best, with the Vietnam War, despite the CIA’s infamous Phoenix Program; nor does it focus on the Agency’s covert wars and other major actions abroad, many of which were laid out in Roger Morris’ three-part profile of Robert Gates at this site. Of course, one difference between those ancient decades and today is that the CIA is now but one jostling agency among the 16 that make up the official American “Intelligence Community,” whose combined budget, while unknown, runs into the many tens of billions of dollars.

All that’s missing, as Thomas Powers, an expert on the CIA and author of Intelligence Wars, makes so clear in the following essay, posted at this site thanks to the kindness of the editors of the New York Review of Books, is actual, serviceable “intelligence.” Tom

What Tenet Knew

Unanswered Questions

by Thomas Powers

[This essay, which considers At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA by George Tenet with Bill Harlow (HarperCollins, 549 pp., $30.00) appears in the July 19th, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books and is posted here with the kind permission of the editors of that magazine.]

How we got into Iraq is the great open question of the decade but George Tenet in his memoir of his seven years running the Central Intelligence Agency takes his sweet time working his way around to it. He hesitates because he has much to explain: the claims made by Tenet’s CIA with “high confidence” that Iraq was dangerously armed all proved false. But mistakes are one thing, excusable even when serious; inexcusable would be charges of collusion in deceiving Congress and the public to make war possible. Tenet’s overriding goal in his carefully written book is to deny “that we somehow cooked the books” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. If he says it once he says it a dozen times. “We told the president what we did on Iraq WMD because we believed it.”

But repetition is not enough. Tenet’s problem is that the intelligence and the war proceeded in lockstep: no intelligence, no war. Since Tenet delivered the (shockingly exaggerated) intelligence, and the President used it to go to war, how is Tenet to convince the world that he wasn’t simply giving the boss what he wanted? Tenet naturally dislikes this question but it is evident that the American public and Congress dislike it just as much. Down that road lie painful truths about the character and motives of the President and the men and women around him. But getting out of Iraq will not be easy, and the necessary first step is to find the civic courage to insist on knowing how we got in. Tenet’s memoir is an excellent place to begin; some of what he tells us and much that he leaves out point unmistakably to the genesis of the war in the White House — the very last thing Tenet wants to address clearly. He sidles up to the question at last on page 301: “One of the great mysteries to me,” he writes, “is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable.”

Hans Blix, director of the United Nations weapons inspection team, did not believe that war was inevitable until the shooting started. In Blix’s view, reported in his memoir Disarming Iraq, the failure of his inspectors to find Saddam Hussein’s WMD meant that a US invasion of Iraq could certainly be put off, perhaps avoided altogether. For Blix it was all about the weapons. Tenet’s version of events makes it clear that WMD, despite all the ballyhoo, were in fact secondary; something else was driving events.

Tenet’s omissions begin on Day Two of the march to war, September 12, 2001, when three British officials came to CIA headquarters “just for the night, to express their condolences and to be with us. We had dinner that night at Langley,….as touching an event as I experienced during my seven years as DCI.” This would have been an excellent place to describe the genesis of the war but Tenet declines. We must fill in the missing pieces ourselves.

The guests that night were David Manning, barely a week into his new job as Tony Blair’s personal foreign policy adviser; Richard Dearlove, chief of the British secret intelligence service known as MI6, a man Tenet already knew well; and Eliza Manningham-Buller, the deputy chief of MI5, the British counterpart to the FBI. Despite the ban on air traffic, Dearlove and Manningham-Buller had flown into Andrews Air Force Base near Washington that day. But David Manning was already inside the United States. The day before the attack on the World Trade Center, on September 10, he had been in Washington for a dinner with Condoleezza Rice at the home of the British ambassador, Christopher Meyer. Early on September 11 Manning took the shuttle to New York and from his airplane window on the approach to Kennedy Airport he saw smoke rising from one of the World Trade Center towers. By the time he landed the second tower had been struck.

It took a full day for the British embassy to fetch Manning back to Washington by car, and he arrived at Langley that night carrying the burden of what he had seen. It was a largish group that gathered for dinner. Along with the three British guests and Tenet were Jim Pavitt and his deputy at the CIA’s Directorate for Operations; Tenet’s executive secretary Buzzy Krongard; the chief of the Counter Terrorism Center, Cofer Black; the acting director of the FBI, Thomas Pickard; the chief of the CIA’s Near East Division, still not identified; and the chief of the CIA’s European Division, Tyler Drumheller.

Tenet names his British guests, but omits all that was said. Tyler Drumheller, barred by the CIA from identifying the visitors in his own recent memoir, On the Brink, reports an exchange between Manning and Tenet, who were probably meeting for the first time. “I hope we can all agree,” said Manning, “that we should concentrate on Afghanistan and not be tempted to launch any attacks on Iraq.”

“Absolutely,” Tenet replied, “we all agree on that. Some might want to link the issues, but none of us wants to go that route.”