At 5:23 am the fire alarm goes off in the Charles Hotel. I spring out of bed; grab my pants, shoes and T-shirt; sprint down the corridor toward the red exit sign; push open the fire door; bolt down ten flights of stairs; and emerge into a dark and chill December morning. Cambridge still sleeps.
I make my way to the hotel’s front entrance and into the lobby. Behind the reception desk a beleaguered woman is picking up the phone every five seconds to say “It was a false alarm… it was a false alarm… it was a false alarm.” Beside me stands a man in a camel-hair overcoat and red baseball cap. He is chewing the stub of a stogie. He is familiar but the name escapes me, so I ask.
“George Tenet,” he says.
For years I have tried to speak with him, leaving messages across a broad landscape, but to no avail. Now the alarm has brought him to me.
“Ted Gup,” I say, extending a hand. He smiles. He knows my work–the last chapter of the book I wrote on CIA operatives killed in service was deleted because of Tenet’s appeal on national security grounds. He says he knows of my recent book on secrecy (I am here to give a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government on the dangers of secrecy) but has not read it. On our way to a still bundled stack of the day’s New York Times, he mentions the National Intelligence Estimate and the story that broke the day before, declaring that Iran had abandoned its quest for nuclear weapons in 2003.
“Interesting,” he intones. A cryptic one-word pronouncement, it is part of Tenet’s oracular gift for ambiguity. He always stood ready to confirm anyone’s and everyone’s predisposition, all the while leaving room to wriggle out when self-interest demanded. Shortly after retiring from a devastated CIA he declared before an audience at Georgetown that with regard to WMDs in Iraq he never used the word “imminent.” That must have come as something of a jolt to Colin Powell, in whose ear Tenet whispered at the United Nations making the case for immediate action against Iraq.
Tenet is a man who always has one eye on the fire exit, just in case.
Even this morning, compared with the other disheveled guests now assembling, he appears well coifed, almost natty, as if he had drilled and readied himself for just such an occasion. He broke his sphinxlike silence only when it was compensated by tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees and a multimillion-dollar book advance. Now here was “Mr. Slam Dunk” reborn as The Great Equivocator.
Our conversation founders. I ask if I may interview him and he tells me with scrupulous ambiguity that he can be reached through a former CIA spokesman. I scribble the number down across the top of the morning’s Times, just above the headline “Bush Insists Iran Remains a Threat Despite Arms Data.”
“I’m going back up to my room,” he declares.
“So you’re trusting the intelligence of the hotel?” I ask mischievously.
“If it were real,” he says resolutely, “the hotel would have burned down by now.” Here was a little window on Tenet as intelligence chief–the fatalist, credulous and malleable.