Respond to this Article March 2006

George Tenet chose appeasement

Review of State of War.

By Spencer Ackerman

It's a testimony to James Risen's ability as a reporter that his exposure of the most controversial national-security program in a generation is a relatively minor part of his explosive new book. Risen, along with his New York Times colleague Eric Lichtblau, broke the story in December that President Bush authorized widespread domestic surveillance, including the communications of American citizens, without court-issued warrants. If the surveillance program is legal--a dubious proposition, according to most constitutional lawyers--it is only barely so. Senators of both parties, alarmed by an initiative most of them knew nothing about, planned to hold hearings. Conservatives furious at the disclosure assailed the Times for jeopardizing national security to sell Risen's book--following the lead of Bush, who blasted Risen's exposť as a "shameful act."

But there isn't much more in State of War (Free Press, $26.00) about the warrantless eavesdropping program than what the Times has already published. Instead, there is a wealth of information and insight into how the intelligence community has been pushed by the Bush administration--and, in many cases, willingly jumped--into its own shameful acts. Far from being a narrowly focused depiction of a particular scandal, Risen documents how most of the fateful national-security decisions of the Bush administration--from the invasion of Iraq to the botched occupation to the maintenance of secret detention facilities overseas--can be traced to the hostile relationship between Bush and the intelligence community. In particular, it excoriates the CIA under George Tenet's leadership for sacrificing the agency's independence and what Risen calls its "gravitational force"--its ability to draw policy-makers away from mistaken or dangerous ideas and towards the agency's presumably more accurate view of the world--by yielding to the relentless pressure that the administration placed on it.

When the administration began centering its case for war against Saddam Hussein in 2002 on his phantom weapons of mass destruction, intelligence officials whispered to reporters that the administration pressured them to come up with information that supported the decision to invade Iraq.

Administration officials have vociferously denied the charges for years, and you can understand why: The accusation suggests, at the very least, that the war's architects were more interested in selling the decision to invade than in assessing the actual threat from Saddam. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley blasted "the notion that somehow this administration manipulated the intelligence" on Iraq and countered that "those people who have looked at that issue, some committees on the Hill in Congress, and also the Silberman-Robb Commission have concluded it did not happen."

It's true that the 2005 Silberman-Robb Commission report concluded that no analyst changed his assessment based on administration pressure. (The Senate Intelligence Committee report in June 2004, which did not look at how policymakers interacted with the intelligence community, nevertheless stated baldly that no one was pressured, a conclusion Democrats on the panel dispute.) But, like the Senate report, the story presented in the commission's conclusion casts doubt on that assertion. For instance, Paul Pillar, the National Intelligence Council's Middle East analyst, told the commission that "permeat[ing] the analytic atmosphere... [was] the gathering conviction among analysts that war with Iraq was inevitable by the time the [National Intelligence Estimate] was being prepared." The commission neither elaborates nor explains how that "analytic atmosphere" came to be, or what its effect was on the intelligence justifying the war.

Risen does. His book portrays pressure on the intelligence community from the administration as ranging from explicit to subtle and readily translated from senior CIA officials to their subordinates. It reaches far beyond Iraqi WMD. It traces back to what future intelligence historians may regard as among the most monumental bureaucratic blunders ever made by an intelligence chief.

That blunder was George Tenet's. Tenet, the head of both the CIA and the entire 15-agency, $40-billion intelligence community, attempted in 2000 to solve a structural problem with a personal maneuver. The structural problem was that the CIA, frequently assaulted from both the left and the right for much of its history, had lost its reason for being when the Cold War ended--and, as a result, lost much of its bureaucratic influence in the '90s. After Bush's victory in 2000, Tenet saw his chance. Risen vividly details how, in the hope of restoring the CIA to prominence, Tenet bound himself to Bush. Charmed by Tenet's gregariousness and towel-snapping machismo, Bush asked him to stay on as Director of Central Intelligence, thus denying Donald Rumsfeld the job.

Tenet made a Faustian bargain. Risen observes that in national security debates, the intelligence community, like the bureaucracy as a whole, "does serve one purpose: It tends to weed out really stupid or dangerous ideas, unethical and even immoral ideas, ideas that could get people killed or could even start wars." But with Tenet betting the agency's status in the Bush administration on appeasing Bush, its independence--and therefore its potential to mitigate the self-deceptions to which any administration is vulnerable--was completely compromised. What's more, Tenet's pandering to Bush was actually counterproductive to maintaining the CIA's bureaucratic status: The CIA would quickly learn that in the hands of a radical administration, no amount of appeasement would ever suffice.

The effects manifested quickly. Risen charges that Tenet caved to Bush entirely on the torture of al-Qaeda detainees. After the 2002 capture of Abu Zubaydah, a bin Laden deputy, failed to yield much information due to his drowsiness from medical treatment, Bush allegedly told Tenet, "Who authorized putting him on pain medication?" Not only did Tenet get the message--brutality while questioning an enemy prisoner was no problem--but Tenet also never sought explicit White House approval for permissible interrogation techniques, contributing to what Risen speculates is an effort by senior officials "to insulate Bush and give him deniability" on torture. CIA operatives watched apprehensively, remembering the long history of presidents who authorize covert actions only to leave low-level field agents holding the bag when scandals surface.

Once Tenet supplicated himself to Bush--one of Tenet's former aides terms his old boss "a pussy"--the CIA was in no position to exert its influence on the policy toward Iraq. Pressure to ratify the invasion took a variety of forms, and Risen details them richly. When Hadley, now the national security adviser, instructed Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, "that the agency had to get over its dislike of [Ahmed] Chalabi," the Iraqi exile politician and neoconservative favorite who provided dubious Iraq intelligence to policymakers, "McLaughlin made it clear to Hadley that the CIA wouldn't stand in the way and passed the White House message back to CIA management." Similarly, when Paul Wolfowitz complained about the CIA's rejection of the debunked "connection" between Saddam and al Qaeda, an ex-Pentagon official tells Risen, "George would say that he would fix it."

In Risen's telling, Tenet "fixed it" vigorously. When senior CIA officials, fearful that invading Iraq would jeopardize the war on terror, took their concerns to Tenet, "He would just come back from the White House and say they are going to do it" no matter what, one ex-official tells Risen. As he writes, "Agency officials who appeared to be unenthusiastic about Iraq soon mysteriously found themselves sidelined, while their more eager and ambitious colleagues began to rise." A 2002 CIA meeting became a "pep rally" for the war: "The pressure from the Bush administration was being transmitted directly into the ranks of the nation's intelligence community."

CIA appeasement only emboldened its enemies. Here lies the difference between previous administrations and Bush's. While no policymaker accepts the CIA's judgments uncritically, neither did any of Bush's predecessors seek to cripple the agency outright. In an incident detailed in the Senate report, Jami Miscik, head of CIA analysis, pulled the agency's Mideast experts, who were dubious of an Iraq-al Qaeda connection, off an assessment of those ties entirely, leaving it to the more credulous terrorism analysts. But when even those analysts were constrained by the facts--the paper was sub-headlined "Assessing a Murky Relationship"--the Pentagon's Douglas Feith had his analysts prepare a briefing for senior officials arguing that CIA skepticism should be ignored. The briefing, which sought to highlight "Fundamental Problems with How Intelligence Community is Assessing Information," suggested that the administration should shunt the CIA to the side on any issue in which it expressed inconvenient doubts.

Risen mines journalistic gold about the CIA's recent history with Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other flashpoints. But in his justifiable outrage at Tenet's pliability, he occasionally lets Bush off easy. About Iraq's WMD, he writes, "If someone had spoken up clearly and forcefully [to Bush], the entire house of cards might have collapsed." Risen qualifies this, suggesting that Bush might have still have "ignored the warnings." But it's hard to see how there's any doubt that he would have. The pressure Risen details existed for a reason: not just to enable the Iraq War, but to permanently neutralize the "gravitational force" that the CIA represents. No wonder that under the Bush administration the country drifts from one disaster to another.

Spencer Ackerman is an associate editor at The New Republic.


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