False Alarm

False Alarm

A predawn fire drill propels a writer into an unexpected encounter with a former CIA director–and an unexpected lesson on the uses and limits of intelligence.


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.

Just then firefighters rushed through the front doors and Tenet thought better of his decision to return to the room. Ten minutes later, the all-clear sounded. I nodded goodbye to Tenet and took the elevator back to the tenth floor.

But as I walked down the corridor the fire doors swung wide to make way for a bellman pushing an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair. The man was clutching a cane and was visibly miffed. He too looked familiar.

“Gore Vidal?” I ask.

“I still am,” he said.

He told me no one had come to get him for twenty minutes, how he had waited and waited. I paid my respects and made my way back to bed. It was 6 am.

Two minutes later, the fire alarm sounded again, this time followed by a public address system that declared it was a false alarm. It was an utterly contradictory chorus–the piercing fire alarm, pulsating with urgency, and the calming voice that bid us to ignore it. “I assure you it’s a false alarm,” said the voice. “Please enjoy the rest of your day.”

I imagined I was in some kind of Kafkaesque setting, a parable of intelligence gone awry, awakening into a dream. I thought of the morning’s headlines, of the NIE that cleared Iran of nuclear intentions and of President Bush still yelling “Fire!” proclaiming the dangers posed by Iran. The strident alarm, the bid to ignore it. How to respond?

Once again, I got up–a little slower this time, a little wiser (aren’t we all after so many false alarms?)–and made my way down the fire escape and then to the lobby, now empty but for one lone figure in the corner, reclining in his wheelchair. It was Gore Vidal.

I made my way over to him and asked if he minded some company. He graciously consented and I took a seat. I told him of my encounter with Tenet. Vidal had little kind to say of him. “He probably started the fire,” he mused. I asked what had brought him to Cambridge. He had come, he said, to see his friend Gorbachev, who was in town.

Vidal was wearing a crimson Harvard letter jacket. I asked him when he went to Harvard. “I didn’t,” he said. The jacket had been a costume prop in a movie, the 1994 film With Honors, in which he had played the demanding professor Pitkannan. (His character declared presciently, “Faith in the wisdom of the people is exactly what makes the Constitution incomplete and crude.”) The jacket was the only warm clothing Vidal had brought.

He was still brooding over his abandonment. “The greatest fear of a gimp,” he said, “is getting stuck on an elevator.”

But our talk of Tenet and of the state of things–the WMDs, the war in Iraq, the groundless assumptions made by politicians and press alike–had kindled in Vidal a mix of contempt and anguish. He appeared brokenhearted, as if he had been betrayed by the love of his life. “The United States has been a great disappointment,” he said. “I often wish I had been assigned to a different country.”

“I never thought the Republic would die so quickly–and without a squawk,” he lamented.

We spoke for close to an hour. All the while he was waiting for his attendant to come for him. It is hard not to see in this patrician figure something of liberalism itself, unbowed, even defiant, but immobilized and still waiting to be delivered.

That is where I left him, sitting in the corner of the lobby, waiting. Later that morning I bumped into a man named Paul–I know his name because it was embroidered on his shirt along with the fact he was the hotel engineer. I asked him about the fire alarm. He told me it was a faulty smoke detector on the third floor. It had mistaken simple dust for smoke.

It’s often that way with intelligence, confusing dust with smoke, and for the rest of us, not knowing when to heed the alarm and when to ignore it, a question that resonates well beyond the Charles Hotel. After so many false alarms, the system itself becomes suspect, and even after the “all clear,” there really is no going back.

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