Michael Scheuer, the CIA chief of the now-defunct Osama bin Laden unit, wrote a book recounting his frustrations spanning more than a decade of counterterrorism work for Langley. The author of such books as Imperial Hubris and Through Our Enemies’ Eyes has spent the last few years detailing how senior intelligence officials have failed several administrations and the nation. Now he responds to George Tenet and his new memoirs, and warns Americans that Tenet has not told the truth:
At a time when clear direction and moral courage were needed, Tenet shifted course to follow the prevailing winds, under President Bill Clinton and then President Bush — and he provided distraught officers at Langley a shoulder to cry on when his politically expedient tacking sailed the United States into disaster.
At the CIA, Tenet will be remembered for some badly needed morale-building. But he will also be recalled for fudging the central role he played in the decline of America’s clandestine service — the brave field officers who run covert missions that make us all safer. The decline began in the late 1980s, when the impending end of the Cold War meant smaller budgets and fewer hires, and it continued through Sept. 11, 2001. When Tenet and his bungling operations chief, James Pavitt, described this slow-motion disaster in testimony after the terrorist attacks, they tried to blame the clandestine service’s weaknesses on congressional cuts. But Tenet had helped preside over every step of the service’s decline during three consecutive administrations — Bush, Clinton, Bush — in a series of key intelligence jobs for the Senate, the National Security Council and the CIA. Only 9/11, it seems, convinced Tenet of the importance of a large, aggressive clandestine service to U.S. security. …
But what troubles me most is Tenet’s handling of the opportunities that CIA officers gave the Clinton administration to capture or kill bin Laden between May 1998 and May 1999. Each time we had intelligence about bin Laden’s whereabouts, Tenet was briefed by senior CIA officers at Langley and by operatives in the field. He would nod and assure his anxious subordinates that he would stress to Clinton and his national security team that the chances of capturing bin Laden were solid and that the intelligence was not going to get better. Later, he would insist that he had kept up his end of the bargain, but that the NSC had decided not to strike.
Since 2001, however, several key Clinton counterterrorism insiders (including NSC staffers Richard A. Clarke, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon) have reported that Tenet consistently denigrated the targeting data on bin Laden, causing the president and his team to lose confidence in the hard-won intelligence. “We could never get over the critical hurdle of being able to corroborate Bin Ladin’s whereabouts,” Tenet now writes. That of course is untrue, but it spared him from ever having to explain the awkward fallout if an attempt to get bin Laden failed. None of this excuses Clinton’s disinterest in protecting Americans, but it does show Tenet’s easy willingness to play for patsies the CIA officers who risked their lives to garner intelligence and then to undercut their work to avoid censure if an attack went wrong.
In fact, what Scheuer describes here is only a hair short of cowardice. Tenet willingly went along with the flow, regardless of who was in charge. With Clinton, he was only too happy to undermine the intelligence for a pre-emptive strike on bin Laden, because he sensed that Clinton didn’t want to take any risks. With Bush, he went along with the strongest possible analysis of the intelligence because he sensed that Bush would take action anyway. And if Tenet really means what he says in this book — Scheuer gives examples of his accusations against Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, and the “neocon” cabal — Tenet never bothered to mention it to Congress or the 9/11 Commission, years after the fact.
Scheuer says that Tenet wants to get back into the good graces of the Democrats, his first political home. He well might. Some in Congress have already mentioned Tenet’s name on witness lists for their investigation, and Scheuer sees that as a rehabilitation opportunity that Tenet will not allow to pass. Tenet apparently lets Bush off the hook, as well as Colin Powell, but seems willing to throw everyone else under the bus to protect himself.
Don’t think that Scheuer is defending the decision to go into Iraq: far from it. Scheuer believes it to have been a huge mistake, which he also states forcefully in his column. He also says that the CIA warned Tenet of the problems, and that Tenet never acted on their analysis. Now Tenet says he tried, but this is the first time he’s made that assertion, and he has had a number of opportunities to tell that story between 2002 and now.
Scheuer offers this contemptuous evaluation of Tenet as CIA chief:
Still, he may have been the ideal CIA leader for Clinton and Bush — denigrating good intelligence to sate the former’s cowardly pacifism and accepting bad intelligence to please the latter’s Wilsonian militarism.
And now Tenet can sell the American public what it wants to hear.