Sunday, April 29, 2007

Time's Interview with George Tenet

In an exclusive Time excerpt, the ex-CIA director says the White House's Iraq policy is a 'slow motion car crash':

TIME: Slam Dunk? What were you thinking?

TENET: The way this is portrayed is that this was the decision meeting. That's just ridiculous. I walk out of the room that day [and] I never thought anything of that. I will never believe until the day I die that that comment had anything to do with the timing or the legitimacy of going to war. It was about we were trying to construct a public case. Yes, we had a responsibility to make sure that the — we just produced an estimate. We testified. We talked to hundreds of members of Congress. We said [we had] high confidence on chem/bio weapons. I believed it. But the way this gets dressed up and thrown out the door is, 'wow, this was the moment that this decision was made.' It's just not right.

TIME: So when 'slam dunk' comes out in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, did you think the hard-liners inside the White House and Pentagon were hanging you out to dry?

TENET: Well, you know, so this is a really painful moment for me. This is a matter of honor and trust, and trust was broken. Trust in the sense of, what are you doing here? So here are the guys [at the CIA] that give [the White House], you know, four days after 9/11, we give [them] the war plan on Afghanistan. Here are the guys that do A. Q Khan. Here are the guys that do Libya. Here are the guys who [the White House] sends to see the [Saudi] Crown Prince anytime there's a problem. And now what you've done is, you know, it's all going to shit. It's not particularly good, so now we're going to justify this by saying — I have to tell you, it's just enormously, you know, you live with it for the rest of your life, and you think it's wrong, and it's not honorable.

TIME: You complained about this treatment to White House chief of Staff Andy Card, he said nothing—

TENET: He's a very disciplined guy and I understood. I understood where we were and there it is. But here's the teaching point, if you're teaching kids about intelligence and policy: Intelligence does not absolve policymakers of responsibility to ask tough questions, and it doesn't absolve them of having curiosity about the consequences of their actions. So here's what I'll say: we stand up and take responsibility when we're wrong. They need to take responsibility for the way they, for how they integrate their thinking with us and don't simply say, "Well, they told us," when it's convenient. "They told us, and we don't ask any questions when they tell us because that's not the way this works." When you're telling them things that they don't like, there are 100 questions. When you're telling them things that essentially comport with what I want to do, well, maybe there aren't very many. Well, that's not the way this works.

So let's all understand that there's always collective responsibility. And so what obligation does the policymaker have to get underneath something? We have priority responsibility. I have priority responsibility on WMD. Let's not shirk our responsibility. What's your responsibility? What's your responsibility? You know, make sure that you understand that we're in the right place, and make sure you understand the texture with which you're doing it. So I find it to be, you know, I find it to be a little bit disingenuous to say, "Well, let's let it all on them when it goes wrong."

TIME: You write in the book that there was never any serious debate about whether to go to war; instead, at some mysterious point in 2002, it just became obvious inside the government that the U.S. was going to war with Iraq. When did the U.S. decide to go to war?

TENET: Well, I don't know the answer to that question. [Other CIA analysts] and people who are going to these meeting which they describe in kind of weird terms —

TIME: Weird terms?

TENET: They describe these meetings. I mean, one of them says in the book something like, you know, "It's not a question of if we're going to do it, but how we're going to do it." And that's the feeling they are getting but I can't tell you that I go to a meeting when I can say, well, boom, here's the moment that this is going to happen.

TIME: What is the source of the neoconservatives' obsession with Iraq?

TENET: I wasn't in the same geopolitical strategic loop. It brought the town a certain fixation about regime change in Iraq as the means and mechanism by which we will change the face of the Middle East and democratize the region. This was a compelling, unstated, overwhelming, you know, thought process on the part of these folks. This was the way to transform a region that needed transformation. And they thought about this in macro, big terms, sometimes without much understanding of the cultural context that this was all going to occur in. There was a quality of that. There was a quality of unfinished business.

TIME: How aware were you that there were some in the Vice President's office and the Pentagon didn't like the CIA, didn't trust its conclusions?

TENET: Look, look, look, were we aware that neocons in particular don't like us and think we don't evaluate threats the way we should evaluate threats, we're too close to the Sunnis, we have not a particularly good view of what — you know, we understand all that.

TIME: Did you ever feel that the West Wing pushed the agency to produce a certain outcome?

TENET: On the WMD question, absolutely not. They didn't even really know the [national intelligence] estimate was under way because we were doing it at the request of Congress.

TIME: But what about when it came to linking Saddam and Al-Qaeda?

TENET: Well, the al-Qaeda thing, you've got quotes from analysts, did they feel that we were being pushed? Yes. Did they buckle? No. We understood all that. But we were good boys and girls, and we understand there's gambling in this. We understand how this works. That was a different issue because of the way it was, you see, that issue is different because there was always the urge, the attempt to create command linkages where none existed. There was always that push, but at the end of the day, we never went that far and we never buckled.

TIME: But you said in the book that the CIA was in some places more assertive with the President than it was elsewhere—

TENET: I think that we were more assertive on aluminum tubes. We were not as assertive on saying [Saddam was going to have] a nuclear weapon real soon, but on some issues. Now, do I think the analysts ever would have said he has no weapons? I seriously doubt it.

TIME: How come the CIA trusted the source, codenamed Curveball, who turned out to be a fabricator? How does that happen? Did you know even who he was?

TENET: Well, I didn't know his name, no. I mean, I know a lot about Curveball. So, you know, we're working throughout this period. We're trying to get direct access to him, and we can't have direct access to him� But so you've got this, you know, indirect access, analysts doing the validation, lots of what he was saying made sense� The implication, of course, as you look at this, is this an organization in some sort of meltdown or something? Well, no, because the whole ethos of the place is report what you've got. If it's not good news, when someone says fabricate in our business, you push it up, you stop the train. At the end of the day, we could have saved a lot of pain in the estimate. We could have saved the Secretary of State a whole lot of pain.

TIME: We learned in the Libby trial that Vice president Cheney's Chief of Staff Scooter Libby arranged to have parts of the CIA's intelligence work declassified and then leaked to make it appear Saddam wanted a weapon. Did you know that was going on?

TENET: I don't know, other than to say this was a revelation to me. I don't know. I don't know what they were doing with you guys. Only you guys know what they were doing with you guys.

TIME: Are you confident that the U.S. never crossed the line into torture?


TIME: Why?

TENET: Look, first of all, torture doesn't work. Second of all, the vast preponderance of data, it's not about the harshness of the techniques, it's about smart people. We don't believe in torture. Look, this is a country of laws. There's authorization. There's legal opinions. We did this by the numbers. We corroborate this stuff. We have other sources. There are plot lines that are broken. They give us enormous access and understanding of al-Qaeda, insights into operatives that we didn't know about. Enormous value to us. Huge insight. You want to talk about connecting dots, you connect dots as you have never before.

TIME Have we degraded al-Qaeda or are they reconstituting?

TENET: Once you get very disruptive and you get inside the sanctuary and you catch Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and you catch Abu Zubayda and you catch Abu Faraj Al-Libbi, once you start taking down senior operational planners, logisticians, financiers, then you start to understand your impact on the capability of an organization to do things because it's that operational level just below Bin Laden and Zawahiri that you care about the most. Is it a permanent kind of report card? No, because they're always going to try to reconstitute. The issue for them, of course, is the people who succeed, that layer that you've taken away, are never quite as good and the game is against them before they get as good. So, you know, that's the whole deal here.

TIME: Why can't we find and kill bin Laden?

TENET: You've got to keep working against that layer below bin Laden and Zawahiri who are operators, planners, logisticians, financiers, who are going to be responsible for that next operational act against us or an allied country, and you have to systematically keep eroding their ability to hurt you. And out of that, sooner or later, you're going to get a lead, you're going to get data, you're going to have an opportunity.

TIME: Why hasn't there been another attack inside the U.S.?

TENET: I'm not so arrogant to believe that everything we did has stopped them. You've got to say you've hurt them on one level operationally, the country thinks about security differently, there's a different deterrent posture in the country. They're trying to figure out what it all means. And, ultimately, what they're trying to figure out is, are they going to be consistent and stay with it, or are we going to have the luxury of time and just wait for them to essentially get tired of doing this?

TIME: What does your gut tell you?

TENET: Nothing that you see tells you that there's not anything but intense interest, and the United States is continuing to be a target.