“Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk.”
George Tenet may come to rue his confident prediction to George Bush about the threat from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. His abrupt resignation yesterday crowns a track record of faulty intelligence-gathering on his watch that blinded the world’s most powerful espionage agency to the dramatic events since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
“Who lost Russia?” was the cry after the Central Intelligence Agency failed in the 1980s to predict the demise of the Soviet Union. “Who lost Iraq and the war on terror?” may be a similar refrain of the early 21st century. The Bush administration would prefer America and the world to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Mr Tenet, who headed the agency from 1997, rather than the administration ideologues who made the political case for toppling Saddam.
But 11 September was not the first world-shaking event in the making that Mr Tenet’s team failed to detect. In May 1998, the CIA was caught off guard by India’s surprise nuclear tests that sparked fears of holocaust on the sub-continent when Pakistan followed suit in a series of tit-for-tat explosions.
Mr Tenet ordered an outside investigation into that intelligence failure which pointed up flaws that are still being criticised in the context of Iraq – first and foremost the lack of “humint”: in plain language, spies on the ground. By the time of the 11 September attacks, the agency had manifestly not learnt the lessons of the cold war and reformed itself to deal with the threat of stateless terrorists practising “assymetrical” warfare against the world’s lone superpower.
He missed the warning signs of al-Qa’ida’s attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and, when the Clinton administration chose to retaliate against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, it was bad CIA intelligence that led to a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum to be bombed in the mistaken belief that it was a chemical weapons facility.
The following year, more faulty intelligence led to the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
Calls for Mr Tenet’s resignation reached a peak in April, when he was flayed by a panel investigating the 11 September attacks for failing to fully appreciate the threat posed by al- Qa’ida. Mr Tenet acknowledged that the agency had not hired the right people, or ensured the correct channelling of data.
In his mea culpa to the bipartisan commission, he said: “We all understood [Osama] bin Laden’s attempt to strike the homeland. We never translated this knowledge into an effective defence of the country.” But when asked whether, in retrospect, anything could have been done to prevent the attacks, he defended the agency, saying: “I don’t believe so. The plot was off and running. Operators were moving into the country. Decapitating any individual, even Bin Laden, in this context would not have stopped this plot.”
On that occasion, he may have saved his skin because, while he held overall responsibility for the intelligence failures as CIA director, Mr Tenet could not be personally blamed. But the blame for President Bush’s most public intelligence gaffe, in which he alleged in his January 2003 State of the Nation address that Iraq had tried to smuggle uranium from Niger for its secret nuclear weapons programme, can be laid at his door.
Mr Tenet signed off on the final text of the address, which was delivered three months before the invasion of Iraq. In July last year, as the controversy over Saddam’s apparently non-existent weapons of mass destruction gripped Washington, Mr Tenet took the blame for allowing the disputed claim into the text. In return, just as he was yesterday at the moment of his departure, he was lavishly praised by Mr Bush. “I’ve got confidence in George Tenet,” declared the President, who on occasion is loyal to a fault.
However, others in the administration had even greater grounds for a personal grudge against the CIA director. Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, has let it be known that he was furious to have been fed dud information by the agency before he delivered his crucial speech in February last year at the United Nations, in which he set out the Bush case for war. In what at the time seemed a bravura performance, employing maps using satellite photos and communications intercepts (and even a make-believe phial of anthrax), General Powell said to the Security Council: “These are not assertions. What we are giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
Sitting directly behind the Secretary of State as he delivered his speech was Mr Tenet, his presence lending a personal imprimatur to the evidence. The intelligence was anything but solid. A year later Gen- eral Powell admitted that he did not know whether he would have recommended the invasion of Iraq had he known there were no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Hans Blix, the former chief UN weapons inspector, has castigated the Bush administration for its “faith-based” approach to intelligence and lack of critical thinking. It may also be asked whether the CIA checked thoroughly enough the allegations of Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress before the Iraq war. Mr Chalabi, who is now accused of having passed on US secrets to the Iranians, was once a CIA protege, though in recent years the agency had come to regard him as a charlatan. At the very least it may be said – as it may also of in the uranium-from-Africa debacle – that the CIA had failed to head off a disaster in the making.
Paradoxically, however, Mr Tenet leaves an agency which – by its own clandestine and nefarious standards – is in somewhat better shape than when he took over in 1997. For years the CIA had been buffetted by scandal (Aldrich Ames), internal controversies (such as the dispute over whether it discriminated against women employees) and a loss of nerve. The new director symbolised his approach by putting on prominent show in his office a photo of Richard Helms, a Nixon-era predecessor who was much reviled but whose loyalty was such that he even perjured himself before Congress to protect the agency’s secrets. The message was plain: Mr Tenet would put the agency first.
A start at least has been made to rebuilding “humint”. The 9/11 catastrophe and the Iraqi WMD embarrassment exposed the structural flaws at the heart of the US intelligence bureaucracy. Possibly the 2001 attacks might have been prevented, had the CIA and the FBI pooled their resources. Then there is the proliferation of intelligence agencies, of which Mr Tenet is in charge of only one.
Just possibly, Mr Tenet’s departure will be the catalyst for a root-and-branch shake-up.