Tenet and the King’s New Clothes

US President George W. Bush seemed quite nervous on TV last Sunday as he defended his policy on Iraq. The American press now has its hands full in trying to draw something positive from the president’s appearance on “Meet the Press.”

But still more irony can be seen in the fact that February 5 has been chosen two years running for rhetoric aimed at what Socrates termed “making the worse cause appear the better”–last year by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN and Thursday by CIA Director George Tenet at Georgetown University.

As in the case of Powell’s spurious depiction of the threat from Iraq, Tenet’s disingenuous tour de force becomes more embarrassing the closer you look.

Tenet chose to defend the indefensible–the bogus National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) hurriedly conjured up in September 2002 to support spurious charges made by Vice President Dick Cheney on August 26, 2002 in beating the drum for war on Iraq. The conclusions of that estimate have now been proven –pure and simple–wrong.

Even so, that is not the most important point. What all should know is that the Bush administration’s decision for war against Iraq came well before any intelligence estimate. There is ample evidence that that decision was made, at the latest, by spring 2002.

That there was no NIE before that speaks volumes. During my 27 years of service as a CIA analyst, never was a foreign policy decision of that magnitude made without FIRST commissioning a National Intelligence Estimate. Why did Tenet not take the initiative and see that one was done? Surely, if he did not know that decisions on war and peace were being made at the White House and Pentagon in early 2002, he was the only one in Washington so unaware.

There was no NIE because Tenet realized that an honest one would show how little the intelligence community knew about the threat from Iraq and would hardly support a case for war. And so, consummate bureaucrat that he is, he kept his head down for as long as he could.

It was only when the somnolent Senator from Florida, Bob Graham, then Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was nudged awake by committee colleague Dick Durbin that Graham nodded, yes it did seem odd that no NIE had been prepared. And especially odd at a time when Congress was being asked to cede to the president its constitutional prerogative to declare war.

So Graham called Tenet, and Tenet got the go-ahead from his masters in the White House–WITH THE PROVISO that the estimate’s conclusions dovetail with the case for war just made by Cheney. Tenet saluted, and then picked his most malleable manager, Robert Walpole, to ensure that a politically correct NIE was produced.

In other words, the purpose of the estimate was not to inform an (already reached) decision on whether war was necessary. Rather, it was to enlist intelligence in the campaign to deceive Congress into thinking that Iraq posed such a threat that the legislative branch’s prerogative must be surrendered to the president, and–not incidentally–to make so persuasive a case to the nation that those who dared vote against the president would be highly vulnerable in the mid-term election of 2002. That worked too.

Thanks to inspector David Kay’s refreshing honesty, we now know that Cheney’s charges, and the cognate conclusions of the estimate, were bogus.

The NIE: Lynchpin or Window-Dressing?

Am I saying that the fall 2002 Estimate on Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” was irrelevant? In the narrow sense that it was ex post facto the decision for war, yes. It was decidedly NOT the “linchpin of the Bush administration’s case for invasion,” that former CIA analyst and Iraq specialist Kenneth Pollack recently claimed it was.

But enlisting the intelligence community in a deliberate campaign to mislead our elected representatives into surrendering their power under the Constitution–that is highly relevant, and unconscionable. In 40 years of following such issues quite closely, I have never seen politicization of intelligence so cynical, so sustained, so consequential. And I was there for Vietnam.

Bob Graham voted against the war. But he was never able to stay awake long enough tell his colleagues they were being conned. His behavior, and that of House Intelligence Committee Porter Goss, give an entirely new meaning to the word “oversight” customarily used to describe their committees’ function.

The Tenet Speech on Thursday

“Now I am sure you are asking: Why haven’t we found the weapons? I have told you the search must continue and it will be difficult.”

But, Mr. Tenet, it has been over ten months since we invaded Iraq. Your former chief inspector David Kay concluded “probably 85 percent of the significant things” have now been found–but no WMD. And his successor, Charles Duelfer told the press four weeks ago “the prospect of finding chemical weapons, biological weapons is close to nil at this point.” On what basis do you now say “we are nowhere near 85 percent finished”?

Tenet is obediently arguing the administration’s brief that the search for WMD is far from over and that it will, in Cheney’s words, “take some additional considerable period of time in order to look in all the cubbyholes and ammo dumps.” A safe guess is that the administration’s current plan is to drag out the quest until after the election in November.

Taking his cue from Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, in testimony before Congress on Wednesday, also stressed the need for additional time. And yesterday, in an unguarded moment, Rumsfeld gave the game away, when he disparaged David Kay’s judgment on the status of the search for WMD:

“Kay said we’re about 85 percent complete. Tenet said what I said: there’s work yet to be done.”

Indeed, Tenet says what Rumsfeld and Cheney say. Tenet is the quintessential “team player,” an attribute antithetical to his statutory duty to tell the emperor when he had no clothes on. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, like Cheney a frequent visitor to CIA Headquarters, recently told the press “George Tenet is so grateful to the president [presumably for not firing him on Sept. 12, 2001] that he will do anything for him.”

Are you surprised that intelligence has been politicized?

RAY McGOVERN is a 27-year veteran CIA analyst whose duties included chairing National Intelligence Estimates. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, and co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an outreach ministry in the inner city of Washington, DC. He can be reached at: rmcgovern@slschool.org


Ray McGovern was an Army officer and CIA analyst for almost 30 year. He now serves on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). He can be reached at: rrmcgovern@gmail.com. A version of this article first appeared on Consortiumnews.com.