Mr. Tenet resents that the CIA was criticized for its work on Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, in particular, Iraq’s relationship with al Qaeda. On this score he is especially angry at Vice President Dick Cheney, at Mr. Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, at Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and at me — I was the head of the Defense Department’s policy organization. Mr. Tenet devotes a chapter to the matter of Iraq and al Qaeda, giving it the title: “No Authority, Direction or Control.” The phrase implies that we argued that Saddam exercised such powers — authority, direction and control — over al Qaeda. We made no such argument.
Rather we said that the CIA’s analysts were not giving serious, professional attention to information about ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. The CIA’s assessments were incomplete, nonrigorous and shaped around the dubious assumption that secular Iraqi Baathists would be unwilling to cooperate with al Qaeda religious fanatics, even when they shared strategic interests. This assumption was disproved when Baathists and jihadists became allies against us in the post-Saddam insurgency, but before the war it was the foundation of much CIA analysis.
Mr. Tenet’s account of all this gives the reader no idea of the substance of our critique, which was that the CIA’s analysts were suppressing information. They were not showing policy makers reports that justified concern about ties between Iraq and al Qaeda. Mr. Tenet does tell us that the CIA briefed Mr. Cheney on Iraq and al Qaeda in September 2002 and that the “briefing was a disaster” because “Libby and the vice president arrived with such detailed knowledge on people, sources, and timelines that the senior CIA analytic manager doing the briefing that day simply could not compete.” He implies that there was improper bullying but then adds: “We weren’t ready for this discussion.”
This is an abject admission. He is talking about September 2002 — a year after 9/11! This was the month that the president brought the Iraq threat before the United Nations General Assembly. This was several weeks after I took my staff to meet with Mr. Tenet and two-dozen or so CIA analysts to challenge the quality of the agency’s work on Iraq and al Qaeda. …
Mr. Tenet hosted our briefing because my boss, Donald Rumsfeld, personally suggested he do so. Mr. Tenet knew that the Agency’s dismissive view of Iraq’s relationship with al Qaeda was controversial — and of importance to the nation. So there was no excuse, weeks later, for senior CIA officials to be so thoroughly un-ready to brief Mr. Cheney on the subject. The September 2002 meeting was not a surprise bed-check, after all; it was a scheduled visit by the vice president. …
Fairness, evidently, was not Mr. Tenet’s motivating impulse as an author. His book is defensive. It aims low — to settle scores. The prose is humdrum. Mr. Tenet includes no citations that would let the reader check the accuracy of his account. He offers no explanation of why we went to war in Iraq. So, is the book useless? No.
What it does offer is insight into Mr. Tenet. It allows you to hear the way he talked — fast, loose, blustery, emotional, imprecise, from the “gut.” Mr. Tenet proudly refers to the guidance of his “gut” several times in the book — a strange boast from someone whose stock-in-trade should be accuracy and precision. “At the Center of the Storm” also allows you to see the way he reasoned — unimaginatively and inconsistently. And it gives a glimpse of how he operated: He picked sides; he played favorites. The people he liked got his attention and understanding, their judgments his approval; the people he disliked he treated harshly and smeared. His loyalty is to tribe rather than truth.
Mr. Tenet makes a peculiar claim of detachment, as if he had not been a top official in the Bush administration. He wants readers not to blame him for the president’s decision to invade Iraq. He implies that he never supported it and never even heard it debated. Mr. Tenet writes: “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.”
Mr. Tenet’s point here builds on the book’s much-publicized statements that the author never heard the president and his national-security team debate “the imminence of the Iraqi threat,” whether or not it was “wise to go to war” or when the war should start. He paints a distorted picture here.
But even if it were true that he never heard any such debate and was seriously dissatisfied with the dialogue in the White House Situation Room, he had hundreds of opportunities to improve the discussion by asking questions or making comments. I sat with him in many of the meetings, and no one prevented him from talking. It is noteworthy that Mr. Tenet met with the president for an intelligence briefing six days every week for years. Why didn’t he speak up if he thought that the president was dangerously wrong or inadequately informed?
One of Mr. Tenet’s main arguments is that he was somehow disconnected from the decision to go to war. Under the circumstances, it seems odd that he would call his book “At the Center of the Storm.” He should have called it “At the Periphery of the Storm” or maybe: “Was That a Storm That Just Went By?”