CIA chief George Tenet should have left a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean he should be the fall guy now.
When Tenet announced his resignation after seven years in the job, he claimed that there was one reason–and one reason alone–for his quitting: his family. In Washington, few believed that. The timing of his departure was rather convenient in that the CIA is about to be blasted by several reports due out in the coming weeks. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has wrapped up its investigation of the prewar intelligence on WMDs. The 9/11 Commission’s final report has to be released by the end of July. The administration’s chief WMD hunter in Iraq is scheduled to produce a report this summer. And the various investigations into the prison abuse scandal in Iraq could implicate CIA officers. Tenet had good reason to skedaddle before all this incoming arrives. He reportedly tried to argue against the findings of the Senate report (which Senator Pat Roberts, the chairman of the intelligence committee, has characterized as scathing), but ultimately he gave up.
Tenet remained in the spy chief’s chair longer than he should have. He should have submitted his resignation–or been fired by George W. Bush–after 9/11, and then again after it became clear there were few, if any, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (See this previous Capital Games column for a reminder of how a pre-9/11 CIA screw-up prevented the FBI from chasing after two of the 9/11 hijackers at least 18 months before the September 11 attacks.) But Bush kept supporting Tenet and insisting that the prewar intelligence had been “good” and “solid.”
Bush’s defenders have pointed to Tenet’s prewar declaration to Bush (per Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack) that the WMD case was a “slam-dunk.” This, the Bush-backers claim, proves that Tenet, not Bush, is the one to blame for those embarrassingly absent WMDs, that Bush was not disingenuous or deceitful. He was merely misinformed by his CIA director.
That is not the full story. Bush repeatedly exaggerated the case presented to him by the CIA. He, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice took bad intelligence and made it worse. I have written about this extensively elsewhere (click here to see a catalogue of such Bush misrepresentations), but one notable example is Bush’s claim that Iraq had a “massive stockpile” of biological weapons. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced by the CIA in October 2002 concluded that Iraq had biological weapons, but it was referring to a biological weapons development program. A development program is not the same thing as a “massive stockpile.” But that did not stop Bush from claiming Iraq was sitting on a giant arsenal of bioweapons. By the way, the White House conceded last summer that neither Bush nor Rice ever bothered to read the entire 90-page NIE (which contained information challenging the view that Iraq was loaded to the gills with weapons of mass destruction).