Former CIA chief Tenet rebounds against White House on Iraq war
Ending two years of silence on his role in the Iraq war, former CIA Director George J. Tenet is using a new book and a barrage of upcoming television appearances to accuse the White House of making him a scapegoat and of ignoring early CIA warnings that Iraq was sinking into chaos.
In a taped interview scheduled to air Sunday on CBS, Tenet said President Bush had made up his mind to invade Iraq long before the CIA director made his infamous Oval Office remark that it was a “slam-dunk” case that Saddam Hussein’s government had banned weapons.
Tenet was even more forceful in his criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, saying that the two had destroyed his reputation by repeatedly using the “slam-dunk” line to pin blame on him for the decision to go to war.
“It’s the most despicable thing that ever happened to me,” Tenet said in the “60 Minutes” interview, according to an excerpt CBS released Thursday.
Speaking about the December 2002 meeting in which he sought to assure President Bush that the evidence against Iraq was solid, Tenet said: “I’ll never believe that what happened that day informed the president’s view or belief of the legitimacy or the timing of this war. Never.”
Tenet’s comments represent a new and potentially politically damaging source of fire in the ongoing battle among Bush administration officials over blame for the Iraq war. Tenet’s entry is remarkable because he previously had been seen even by many of his supporters as excessively loyal to the Bush White House, which awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom when he left the CIA in 2004.
Tenet’s book, “At the Center of the Storm,” is to be released Monday.
The book’s publisher, HarperCollins, has not issued advance copies.
But colleagues of Tenet and former CIA officials who have read all or portions of the 576-page book said it offers a detailed account of the CIA’s role -- as well as the agency’s increasingly dysfunctional relationship with the White House -- through a tumultuous period including the Sept. 11 attacks and the aftermath of the Iraq invasion.
Former officials said the book makes a compelling case that Cheney and other administration hawks pressured the CIA to find nonexistent links between Iraq and the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and often were hostile to post-invasion assessments that portrayed conditions in Iraq as deteriorating.
“The administration is not going to be happy,” said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior aide to Tenet at the CIA who said he reviewed portions of the book. “But the administration is not happy with George anyway. This administration and the intelligence community became estranged in 2004 to the point where the administration was convinced the CIA was actively working to elect John Kerry.”
A spokesman for the White House National Security Council said administration officials had not seen the book or Tenet’s interview, but he defended the decision to invade Iraq.
“The president made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein for a number of reasons, mainly the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and Saddam’s own actions,” the spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said.
Lowenthal declined to discuss details of the book, saying he had promised to keep its contents under wraps until its release. Other officials discussed aspects of the book on the condition that they not be identified because they were not authorized to disclose its contents.
Cheney has continued to suggest there was an IraqAl Qaeda connection in interviews and speeches, despite congressional findings and other investigations that have concluded that Hussein and Al Qaeda did not collaborate and were wary of each other.
“George is going to talk not so much about Cheney the person but about what Cheney’s actions caused,” a former CIA official said. “We spent thousands of man-hours trying to prove this case.”
As it became clear after the invasion that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction or close ties to Al Qaeda, Tenet initially defended the Bush administration, saying the CIA was not pressured into reaching conclusions before the war. But a former senior CIA colleague of Tenet said there was a difference in how the White House approached the two issues.
“We’ve always drawn a distinction between the way the administration dealt with us on WMD and the way the administration dealt with us on the issue of Saddam’s potential or possible links to 9/11,” said the former colleague. “On WMD, they asked a lot of questions and they pushed the evidence as far as they could.... On the other issue, we developed the belief early on there was not a close connection between Saddam and Al Qaeda that could be called operational. It’s not really much of a secret that the administration kept looking for one.”
Two former CIA officials said the part of the book with the most new information focuses on post-invasion warnings. The book “plowed some new ground as far as agency views and comments on the situation on the ground in Iraq,” one official said.
In particular, the readers said, the book describes warnings from the CIA station in Baghdad that were greeted with dismay and mounting suspicion within the White House, including a November 2003 assessment that described the situation as an insurgency.
After that assessment was leaked to the press, Bush summoned Tenet and other CIA officials to the White House and warned that he didn’t want anyone in his administration to use the term “insurgency,” according to the officials.
“There’s a lot of stuff in the book that paints a picture of an administration wrapped in its own beliefs, not being able to handle information that was contrary to those beliefs,” said the former official who commented about Tenet’s view of Cheney.
The official said the book is also critical of Rice.
Tenet “has a strong belief that Condoleezza Rice has been a failure as a national security advisor, and that’s one of the themes,” the official said.
Tenet, who served as CIA director for seven years, engages in some hairsplitting over his role in certain controversies. He acknowledges having used the term “slam-dunk,” for example, but in his interview with “60 Minutes” he insisted he had not meant that the evidence was unequivocal that Iraq possessed banned weapons -- only that he had believed the government could make a compelling case to the public.
Former officials said the book also examines the “16 words” controversy surrounding the CIA’s efforts to warn the White House against including in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa.
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.