Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Excerpted George Tenet

From George Tenet's new book At the Center of the Storm:

In an exclusive interview with TIME, George Tenet says the Bush administration has yet to take responsibility for its mistakes on Iraq.

I first flew into Iraq just about the time Jerry Bremer took over as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, during the third week of May 2003. I took a helicopter ride with Jerry right over Baghdad. It was daylight. The helicopter door was wide open, and I was looking out as we flew. On the ground, the environment was strikingly permissive, considering that a foreign army had just invaded the capital and deposed the country's long-term dictator. People were going out, eating in restaurants. You half expected to see double-decker buses rolling down the main streets, with curious tourists gaping out the windows.
When I returned to Iraq in February 2004, the environment had changed dramatically. We flew into Baghdad at night, because you couldn't come in during the day. The C-17 bringing us there made a full-combat landing—a steep dive, quick on the ground. I was seated far forward, wearing flak jacket and helmet. There was no sightseeing this time. In those intervening ten months, Iraq had become a very different place, but not at all in the way that the U.S. government had intended. How did it get that way? Through a series of decisions that, in retrospect, look like a slow-motion car crash.

In fact, the problems started well before the war. There was little planning before the invasion concerning the physical reconstruction that would follow. But regarding the political reconstruction of Iraq—how the country was to be administered and what role, if any, Iraqis would play in determining their political future—there was a great deal of spirited interagency discussion, often at the highest levels. Condi Rice and the vice president took an intense interest and often participated directly.

The debates generally broke down along familiar lines: State, CIA, and NSC favored a more inclusive and transparent approach, in which Iraqis representing the many tribes, sects, and interest groups in the country would be brought together to consult and put together some sort of rough constituent assembly that might then select an advisory council and a group of ministers to govern the country.

The vice president and Pentagon civilians, however, advocated a very different approach. Rather than risking an open-ended political process that Americans could influence but not control, they wanted to be able to limit the Iraqis' power and handpick those Iraqis who would participate. In practice, that meant Ahmed Chalabi and a handful of other well-known, longtime exiled oppositionists, along with the leaders of the essentially autonomous Kurdish areas. The differences in approach were clear and starkly articulated. The vice president himself summed up the dilemma: The choice, he said, was between "control and legitimacy." [Undersecretary of Defense] Doug Feith clearly stated his belief that it would not be necessary for the Iraqi exiles to legitimize themselves: "We can legitimize them," he said, through our economic assistance and the good governance the U.S. would provide. They never understood that, fundamentally, political control depends on the consent of the governed.

No consensus was ever reached, and no clear plan ever devised.

Hovering over this entire process was the figure—seldom acknowledged, almost never mentioned—of Ahmed Chalabi. Time and again, during the months leading up to the invasion and for months thereafter, the representatives of the vice president and Pentagon officials would introduce ideas that were thinly veiled efforts to put Chalabi in charge of post-invasion Iraq. Immediately before the invasion, the effort took the form of a proposal, put forward insistently and repeatedly, to form an Iraqi "government in exile," comprised of the exiles and the Kurdish leaders. These exiles would then be installed as a new government once Baghdad fell. My CIA colleagues were aghast. It was as though Defense and the vice president's staff wanted to invite comparison with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when Russian troops deposed the existing government and installed Babrak Karmal, whom they had brought with them from Moscow.
2. Two fateful — and secret — decisions
Bremer made two decisions in 2003, Tenet alleges, that opened the doors to the insurgency that plagues Iraq today. And kept the CIA in the dark about both.
Although he was a presidential envoy, Bremer would report directly to the secretary of defense. His organization was given the title Coalition Provisional Authority. Once CPA had been established, Condi Rice ordered the interagency committee that had been constituted to deal with postwar planning issues to fold its tent. It was only a short while later, however, that, as one White House official told me, "The shit hit the fan and we had to rely on the British to tell us what was going on because we were getting no political reporting out of CPA." Rice then ordered the NSC process to start up again. But by then, fundamental decisions on disbanding the army and de-Ba'athification had already been made. The early returns filtering back to me on CPA indicated that it was not running smoothly. What Iraq needed were Arabists and Foreign Service officers who understood the country's tribal allegiances, or who at least knew a Sunni from a Shia. What CPA seemed to be getting were people anxious to set up a Baghdad stock exchange, try out a flat-tax system, and impose other elements of a lab-school democratic-capitalist social structure. One of my officers returned from a trip to Iraq a month or two after CPA had taken over and told me, "Boss, that place runs like a graduate school seminar, none of them speaks Arabic, almost nobody's ever been to an Arab country, and no one makes a decision but Bremer."

Shortly before going to Baghdad, Bremer met with Doug Feith in the Pentagon. Feith, he says, urged him to issue an order as soon as possible upon arriving in Iraq that would prevent former Ba'ath Party members from having a role in the new government. Bremer did just that, on May 16, just four days after landing in Iraq. That morning's New York Times carried a hint of what was to come: "Shortly I will issue an order on measures to extirpate Baathists and Baathism in Iraq forever," Bremer was quoted as saying. "We have and will aggressively move to seek to identify these people and remove them from office."

Just a few weeks before the war started, senior U.S. officials were saying publicly that the conflict might be avoided if Saddam and a few dozen of his top henchmen simply left. This concept was never embedded in our war goals. Now, the war having been waged, the United States apparently was saying that thousands of officials around the country would be aggressively removed.

Bremer writes in his memoir that the intelligence community estimated that this order would affect only about 1 percent of the Iraqi population. That could be taken to imply that [CIA] supported the move and thought it was a good idea, but that was definitely not the case. In fact, we knew nothing about it until de-Ba'athification was a fait accompli. Clearly, this was a critical policy decision, yet there was no NSC Principals meeting to debate the move. As for the 1 percent number Bremer cites, he didn't ask for that estimate until the date after he issued the order, and once he got it he ignored the two fold context: first that many of those Ba'athists were technocrats of exactly the sort Iraq would soon need if it were to again resume responsibility for its governance, and, second, that every Ba'athist "extirpated" from Iraq, to use Bremer's word, had brothers and sisters and aunts, uncles, and cousins with whom to share his anger.

We soon began hearing stories about how Iraqis could not send their kids to school because all the teachers had been dismissed for being members of the Ba'ath Party. In the context of a country armed to the teeth, this was not a good thing. If the kids and teachers were not in school, they were on the streets. I went to see Condi Rice and complained that the indiscriminate nature of the de-Ba'athification order had swept away not just Saddam's thugs but also, for example, something like forty thousand schoolteachers, who had joined the Ba'ath Party simply to keep their jobs. This order wasn't protecting Iraqis; it was destroying what little institutional foundations were left in the country. The net effect was to persuade many ex-Ba'athists to join the insurgency. Condi said she was very frustrated by the situation, but nothing ever happened. Several months later, with a full-blown insurgency under way, an interagency group headed by Deputy National Security Advisor Bob Blackwill desperately looked for ways to reach out to dissident Sunni Arabs. We again raised the subject of rolling back the de-Ba'athification order. Doug Feith retorted that doing so would "undermine the entire moral justification for the war."

Bremer's de-Ba'athification order became known as CPA Proclamation Number One. As bad as that was, CPA Proclamation Number Two was worse. Again, without any formal discussion or debate back in Washington—at least any that included me or my top deputies—Bremer, on May 23, ordered the dissolution of the Iraqi army.

At meetings in the White House and in Baghdad after the two proclamations were issued, we argued that the orders were having unintended negative consequences. The actions had taken large numbers of common Iraqis and given them few prospects beyond being paupers, criminals, or insurgents. One of our senior officers tallied the numbers, including affected family members and the like, and came up with a pool of a hundred thousand Iraqis who had been driven toward the brink by the de-Ba'athification order alone. In the end, too many of them chose insurgency.

For some officials in the Pentagon, the accelerating violence simply proved the wisdom of excluding these Ba'athists and ex-army members from the future of Iraq. As late as the spring of 2004, at a meeting in the White House, one of our officers was asked for "out-of-the-box" ideas to stem the violence. He suggested rescinding CPA Proclamation Two and mounting an aggressive campaign to round up former army members and enlist them to help secure Iraq's borders and maintain internal security. As later described to me, a U.S. Army colonel present, who had been DIA's liaison to Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, said, "I agree. We should round them all up and shoot them."

The moves the U.S. government was making were driving a wedge between the various factions in Iraq. [Longtime US weapons inspector] Charles Duelfer was told by an Iraqi friend that, in the past, Iraqis were not accustomed to thinking of themselves primarily as Shia or Sunni. But the way we implemented democracy had led people to believe that they deserved a piece of the pie based on their membership in a certain group. So the whole dynamic was to pull away from the center. The decisions we made tended to fracture Iraq, not to bring it together.

On one of his trips to Iraq, [Deputy Defense Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz told our senior man there, "You don't understand the policy of the U.S. government, and if you don't understand the policy, you are hardly in a position to collect the intelligence to help that policy succeed." It was an arrogant statement that masked a larger reality. In many cases we were not aware of what our own government was trying to do. The one thing we were certain of was that our warnings were falling on deaf ears.

3. A Mysterious Obsession with Chalabi

Both the Pentagon and the Vice Presidents office backed exiled Iraqi Ahmed Chalabi as a possible Iraqi leader after the invasion. Tenet compares aides in Cheney's and Rumsfeld's office to schoolgirls in love.

By mid-November 2003, it was clear in the minds of many that something was going to have to change in Iraq. Condi Rice asked Ambassador Robert Blackwill of the NSC staff to go to Baghdad just before Thanksgiving. Blackwill asked [CIA Iraq mission Manager Robert] Grenier to accompany him. On the way out, Grenier asked him, "What is your mandate?" Blackwill said that Rice had charged him with trying to bring about some changes and that he was going to have a "Socratic dialogue" with Bremer. Nobody wanted to give Bremer specific marching orders. According to Blackwill, Rice felt she could not order changes, but she wanted Blackwill to lead Bremer in the direction they thought they needed to go.

On the way back, Blackwill and Grenier agreed that CPA was essentially hopeless; as currently constituted, it would be neither willing nor capable of doing what was necessary. Blackwill summed up his feelings to Grenier: "The only hope we have is you, CIA, and the deployed military. So it is over to you guys, to figure this thing out and do what you can."

Equally futile, or so it seemed, were our efforts to form a credible and durable Iraqi governing body. In Afghanistan, we had started from the ground up, allowing the various political groups to legitimize themselves, then building toward a central, representational government. In Iraq, the process couldn't have been more different. We never had a conference comparable to the Afghan Loya Jirga that produced a leader, Hamid Karzai, around whom the country could coalesce. We had won the war; we had the guns, the tanks, the soldiers, and the air power. We were in charge, and by God, we knew what was best. Alas, what too many people in the U.S. government were convinced would be best was an Iraqi government headed up by Ahmed Chalabi.

Sometimes Chalabi's name would be strangely absent from the discussion, although he was obviously on everyone's mind. We would sit around these White House meetings expressing the hope that a strong, unifying Iraqi leader would emerge, and while you could tell that one name was on the minds of many in the room, no one would utter it. You had the impression that some Office of the Vice President and DOD reps were writing Chalabi's name over and over again in their notes, like schoolgirls with their first crush. At other times, so persistent was the cheer-leading for Chalabi, and so consistent was our own opposition to imposing him on Iraq, that I finally had to tell our people to lay off the subject.

During President Bush's State of the Union speech on January 20, 2004, Chalabi was given a seat of honor in the gallery near the First Lady. In March he appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes blaming U.S. intelligence for not doing a good enough job checking out the flawed information his organization was peddling.

"What the hell is going on with Chalabi?" the president asked me at a White House meeting that spring. "Is he working for you?" [Senior CIA officer] Rob Richer, who was with me at the meeting, piped up, "No sir, I believe he is working for DOD." All eyes shifted to Don Rumsfeld. "I'll have to check what his status is," Rumsfeld said. His undersecretary for intelligence, Steve Cambone, sat there mute. "I don't think he ought to be working for us," the president dryly observed.

A few weeks later the president again raised the issue. "What's up with Chalabi?" he asked. Paul Wolfowitz said, "Chalabi has a relationship with DIA and is providing information that is saving American lives. CIA can confirm that." The president turned to us. "I know of no such information, Mr. President," Richer said. The president looked to Condi Rice and said, "I want Chalabi off the payroll."

At a subsequent meeting, chaired by Condi Rice, DIA confirmed that they were paying the INC $350,000 a month for its services in Baghdad. We knew that the INC's armed militia had seized tens of thousands of Saddam regime documents and was slowly doling them out to the U.S. government. Beyond that it was unclear to me what the Pentagon was getting for its money. Somehow the president's direction to pull the plug on the arrangement continued to be ignored.

4. Was Condi Overmatched?
Without using her name, Tenet alleges that then-National Security Adviser Condi Rice did not exert the kind of scrutiny of Rumsfeld's and Cheney's ideas as she did of the CIA and the State Department. Tenet says the lack of clear White House oversight of reconstruction efforts in Iraq meant US policy was "almost guaranteed" to fail.

The true tragedy of Iraq is that it didn't have to be this way. I can't begin to say with absolute clarity how things might have worked out, but I have to believe that if we had been more adept at not alienating entire sectors of the Iraqi population and elites; if we had been smarter at the front end; if we had thought about reconstruction from the perspective of how much money we could put in people's hands so that they would know they had a steady stream of income; if we had figured out a way to let Iraqis know that they actually did have a role in their future that went beyond words, a role they could see being implemented in practice on the ground—we would be far better off today.

Whenever you decide to take the country to war, you have to know not only that you can defeat the enemy militarily but that you have a very clear game plan that will allow you to keep the peace. There was never any doubt that we would defeat the Iraqi military. What we did not have was an integrated and open process in Washington that was organized to keep the peace, nor did we have unity of purpose and resources on the ground. Quite simply, the NSC did not do its job.

Despite the consequences of decisions regarding de-Ba'athification or disbanding of the army, and the inability to use the billions of dollars at our disposal to implement a political strategy that might have succeeded, not much was done to change course. The National Security Council was created in 1947 to force important policy decisions to be fully discussed, developed, and decided on. In this case, however, the NSC did not fulfill its role. The NSC avoided slamming on the brakes to force the discussions with the Pentagon and everyone else that was required in the face of a deteriorating situation. By sending Bob Blackwill out to chat with Bremer, NSC substituted a time-tested process for one almost guaranteed to fail.

The critical missing element was an Iraqi government that could have helped us. We decided instead to have Americans administer Iraq. It may have worked in World War II, after the entire world fought against Nazi Germany for many years. But in the context of the Middle East, it was not going to work any more than the French occupation of Algeria. To Arabs it looked as though this was all about occupation as opposed to liberation. We were dismissive about the capacity of Iraqis to control their own future. We have struggled ever since.