April 30th, 2007

On the couch with Tenet: “This was personal”

George Tenet has written a tell-all book, another example of the talk show mentality that has pervaded this country in recent years. Correct me if I’m wrong (I know you will!), but I don’t recall that it used to be customary for retired CIA officers, much less heads of the CIA, to write self-serving memoirs.

But Tenet has written a book entitled At the Center of the Storm—interesting choice, that title. I assume he’s referring to himself in his capacity as CIA director, but he also could be referring to the accusations that he messed up, charges that appear to weigh extremely heavily on his mind.

Extremely heavily, indeed. In fact, if you read Tenet’s interview with “60 Minutes,” you’ll find he is exceptionally emotional about the entire subject. Perhaps his emotionality is clouding his judgment, because (as Bill Kristol has written in this Weekly Standard piece, and Roger Simon has elaborated on here) Tenet is either lying or sadly mistaken about some of his facts.

Tenet attributes comments to Richard Perle that Perle not only denies, but it turns out the conversation could not have occurred as Tenet states because Perle wasn’t in Washington at the time. The sloppiness of Tenet’s assertion about Perle (he speaks as though it had been “seared into” his brain, but now he says he must have gotten the date wrong) doesn’t engender a great deal of confidence in his ability to tell a narrative that depends on attention to detail and an excellent memory.

Andrew McCarthy points out many other anomalies in Tenet’s story. I’m sure the blogs will be duking it out as to who’s right and who’s wrong on statements such as whether the CIA was able to “verify” Iraq’s involvement in 9/11 (as well as what the word “verify’ signifies, and why it’s used here), and whether the CIA had actually “knocked down” the Niger uranium claim Bush made in his State of the Union speech.

But I was struck, on reading Tenet’s “60 Minutes” interview with Scott Pelley, by his extreme emotional intensity. The entire thing reads less like the dispassionate relating of a sequence of events and more like a plea to the jury for leniency and the restoration of Tenet’s honor (the latter is a word he uses many times in the interview).

The CBS report on the “60 Minutes” interview leads with a remarkable statement by Tenet that illustrates the sort of thing I’m talking about: “People don’t understand us, you know,” complains Tenet (the “us” here being Tenet and his fellow employees at the CIA).

Tenet vents on:

…they think we’re a bunch of faceless bureaucrats with no feelings, no families, no sense of what it’s like to be passionate about running these bastards down. There was nobody else in this government that felt what we felt before or after 9/11…This was personal.

Yes indeed, very very personal. Tenet is understandably and extraordinarily sensitive to charges that he fell asleep at the switch—because, in fact, he was the one at the switch, from 1997 on. It would be too much to ask, perhaps, that he remain objective; too much of his personal reputation is at stake. But once people give themselves over to this sort of heated emotionality, it becomes likely that their intense human need to vindicate themselves can easily make them, if not lie, then misperceive and misremember events in order to throw the softest and kindest possible light on their own actions.

Here’s some more of the extraordinary feeling emphasis from Tenet:

All these commissions, and all these reports never got underneath the feeling of my people. You know, to see us written about as if we’re idiots. Or if we didn’t understand this threat. As if we didn’t understand what happened on that day. To impugn our integrity, our operational savvy.

And the following is the most telling exchange of all, perhaps:

“Somebody who was in the Oval Office that day decided to throw you off the train. Was it the president?” Pelley asks.

“I don’t know,” Tenet says.

“Was it the vice president?” Pelley asks.

“I don’t know,” Tenet says.

“Who was out to get you, George?” Pelley asks.

“Scott, you know, I’m Greek, and we’re conspiratorial by nature. But, you know, who knows?” Tenet says. “I haven’t let myself go there, but as a human being it didn’t feel very good.”

I’m all for feelings, and talking about them. But there’s a place and time. This sort of thing rightly belongs in a therapist’s office. But sometimes it seems as though the whole world has turned into a therapist’s office.

31 Responses to “On the couch with Tenet: “This was personal””

  1. Dale Broun Says:

    To really know what lead up to the horrors of 9/11 you should read THE TERROR TIMELINE by Paul Thompson(HarperCollins). It uses only mainstream media and official reports and it makes no one look good. Clinton was an appeaser. Bush noncompetant. It makes a strong case for Saudi and Pakistani involvement; both are allied with the Bushies. This book may convert you to a realpolitik point of view.

  2. Gerard Says:

    Considering the prices, why not emote in public on TV and get some catharsis cheap?

  3. james wilson Says:

    I seem to recall Bush giving this toady a pat on the back and attaboy after 9-11, as usual. The CIA and FIB have long been in needing of massive firings and complete restructuring, including downsizing of middle and upper management. What we get instead is the addition of Fatherland Security. The FIB couldn’t find their own balls in the shower. The CIA doesn’t want to. They are the children and grandchildren of original employees.

  4. norma Says:

    I can’t imagine why Bush kept this hold-over from Clinton, nor why he is now crying when he was in charge of the intelligence everyone from Clinton forward believed about WMD. I’m puzzled that he’d want to expose himself again and his incompetent behavior. Is the desire for justification that strong?

  5. Thinkaloud Says:

    I find Bob Woodward and Cheney fairly dispassionate (to the point of dullness on Woodward’s part), but you can’t say it really influences their critics all that much.

  6. Paul (Europe) Says:

    norma I think the reason Bush kept him (and others) was the pre-9/11 desire to change the behaviour and partisanship in Washington. Perhaps Bush was/is naive in this regard but it would explain a lot (it still seems to continue).

    Tenet knows better than any that the UN records themselves pointed out unnaccounted for biological and chemical weapons material and delivery systems and a host of other issues and that there was no reason to believe Saddam had given up on such weapons or military aggression. Those very same UN records were the base on which one could possibly convince the UN Security Council to take military action, nothing else would pass muster and thus it became the central issue in the UN.

    Tenet also knows that Saddam still had subordinates with the appropriate knowledge base (and even past experience) in manufacturing such weapons. In some ways that’s even more important as it combined with dual use equipment (which Saddam had – at least some of it has been found) as well as the motivation (something no-one doubts Saddam had) will eventually result in having the weapons ready for use.

    Most people realize that once you’ve done something difficult once then it will be easier the next time. Add to that a demonstrated will to use it and scale it up and you get a clone of the North Korea situation in the middle of a region already filled with active conflict. In such a situation the UN attempts at inspections only serves as a kind of evolutionary pressure rather than a deterrent and has no hope of success.

    Unless Tenet was/is grossly incompetent he would be well aware of all of these things and should simply just explain it and the plethora of other valid reasons but instead he makes stuff up. He’ll join the questionable company of Hans Blix; another person who did a 180 and started to contradict just about every past statement he had made.

  7. alphie Says:

    Maybe Tenet is upset because Michael Hayden, the guy who was running the NSA during 9/11 and the Iraq invasion, got his old job running the CIA.

  8. jake Says:

    I’ll bet a lot of you are probably thinking that Bush and Cheney will never be impeached. Maybe. Maybe not. But they will be held accountable. So which do you prefer impeachment or a war crimes trial after the butchers have left the Whitehouse. Those are your choices. Your only choices.

  9. Tim P Says:

    Unfortunately, Tenet seems to be the latest in an ever growing gallery of former government officials who write self-serving memoirs for the purpose of blaming others and getting even.

    I have to wonder, what ever happened to character? Perhaps it’s symptomatic of a greater problem in our times. I don’t remember Neville Chamberlain trying to explain away his error in the judgment of the nature of the Nazi regime.

  10. jake Says:

    Neocons flaming each other over the selling of the Iraq invasion. I’ll be dumping a tanker of fuel on that fire.

  11. The Bunnies Says:

    Jake, are you implying that “Bush lied” about WDM’s in Iraq?

    Please either view this video and then justify your implication or risk seeming painfully uninformed to the readers of this blog:


  12. sergey Says:

    Under severe psychologic stress emotionaly not very stable people can unconsciously distort past events and fabricate another reality, less traumatic to their wounded honor and self-esteem. But hardly this can be expected from a man on such important position, which requires absolute intellectual honesty and personal integrity.

  13. armchair pessimist Says:

    People in this line of work need to be made of stronger stuff than poor Tenet. I don’t know what qualifications are for director of the CIA and suchlike, but they should include biting off the head of a live rat or something.

  14. Torq Says:

    I’m not speaking for Jake here, but I personally don’t think, or don’t know really, that President flat out Bush lied about WMD’s.

    I do however think that he ignored the evidence which was contrary to his administrations goals of regime change.

    From CNN – April 23, 2007.
    “Tyler Drumheller, the former highest-ranking CIA officer in Europe, told “60 Minutes” that the administration “chose to ignore” good intelligence, the network said in a posting on its Web site.

    Drumheller said that, before the U.S.-led attack on Iraq in 2003, the White House “ignored crucial information” from Iraq’s foreign minister, Naji Sabri, that indicated Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

    Drumheller said that, when then-CIA Director George Tenet told President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other high-ranking officials that Sabri was providing information, his comments were met with excitement that proved short-lived.

    “[The source] told us that there were no active weapons of mass destruction programs,” Drumheller is quoted as saying. “The [White House] group that was dealing with preparation for the Iraq war came back and said they were no longer interested. And we said ‘Well, what about the intel?’ And they said ‘Well, this isn’t about intel anymore. This is about regime change.’ ”

    The march toward war was so compelling that the MSM didn’t even bother to check facts.
    The only organization that did bother to call Army and CIA officials to verify the sources were the reporters with the Knight Ridder/McClatchy bureau in D.C.
    They found that those very sources that the White House used were spurious, inconsistent at best.

    Who knows if Bush lied, God maybe? But the facts are lining up to an acute proclivity towards something more than carelessness on the part of the Bush Administration.
    The White House intentionally excluded critical information pertaining the to a lack of WMD’s in Iraq and this same information filtered downward to Congress and the press.

    So, I don’t think that lying is the correct term here. What we’re dealing with is an intentional exclusion of contrary facts.

    Is that technically lying?

  15. mark Says:

    neo: the video was very interesting: Tenet did not strike me as a mendacious, crafty fellow–just the opposite–and his passion sprung from keeping it in for so long.

  16. Sissy Willis Says:

    Terrific post, and I had the same feeling you express so well. As I was saying to Tuck the other day, noting how in the “60 Minutes” interview Tenet kept putting his hand on his chin, then raising it up to his brow, repeating the nervous tic over and over, “This man is mentally ill.”

  17. Anon Y. Mous Says:

    Sissy, I’m curious about something. Could you tell me what it is like to have the power to diagnose mental illness via a nervous tic noticed in a brief television interview? I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through life believing, absurdly, that I had such an ability, so I’m very curious to know what it must be like to believe this.

    Also, I wonder: if Tenet had been cheerleading for the administration, rather than criticizing it, but still performed the tic, would you have still concluded that he is mentally ill?

  18. The Unknown Blogger Says:

    thesmokinggun.com”Asleep at the switch…”

    Wasn’t it the CIA that prepared the Presidential Daily Breifing, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US”?

    Checking your links, people seem to be trying to discredit the entire book (which none of us have read) based on:

    1. Mis-representing the title of someone.
    2. Not getting a date right on a discussion with Perle, but not the content of the discussion. Perle was quoted by CNN saying essentially the same thing on Sept 16, just four days later.
    3. Not doing something about bin laden sooner (“clinton’s fault”
    4. The Niger thing again, in which McCarthy states: “Indeed, the best intelligence assessment from both U.S. and British agencies, after comprehensive investigations in both countries, indicates that Saddam almost certainly did try to acquire uranium from Niger.”

    (Can someone please point me to those assessments?)

    5. Tenet alleges something (he coudl recalll no meeting “in which the Bush administration seriously considered whether it was prudent to go to war with Iraq, as opposed to how we should go about war with Iraq”) which McCarthy finds “ludicrously far-fetched” but offers no evidence to the contrary.

    On the other hand, Gonzales just said “I don’t recall” 55 times about stuff that happened much more recently and Bush said he was proud of him.

  19. stumbley Says:

    My favorite (not) part of the 60 Minutes “interview” was Scott Pelley asserting—not questioning, mind you—that “But you knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction…”

    As if he had any clue about what the intelligence really was!

  20. Sissy Willis Says:

    Anon Y. Mous:

    I’m not a psychiatrist, but I play one on the internet. 🙂

    In reply to your query as to what it’s like: It’s a hoot!

    On a slightly more serious note, the man came across as extremely agitated and defensive in both word and gesture. Plus, I am not afraid to rely on my “gut” feelings to try to interpret environmental clues. It’s a survival thing.

  21. The Unknown Blogger Says:

    My favorite (not) part of the 60 Minutes “interview” was Scott Pelley asserting—not questioning, mind you—that “But you knew that there were no weapons of mass destruction…”

    As if he had any clue about what the intelligence really was!

    Can’t find that part in this article about the interview. Tenet says he really believed there were WMD.

    “”Well, as you know, hindsight is perfect. The public face on this what we wrote on weapons of mass destruction and for professionals, who pride themselves on being right, this is a very painful experience for us,” Tenet acknowledges. “

  22. stumbley Says:


    Yes, Tenet continues to assert (as do most intelligence analysts) that his (and their) belief was that Saddam possessed WMD. My complaint about the “interview” was that Pelley continued to assert that everybody knew prior to the invasion of Iraq that no WMD existed…which is patently false—and ridiculously poor “journalism”.

    But it’s par for the course for “journalists” today to carry their own biases and preconceptions into an “interview”.

    Just so everybody’s clear—I think Tenet is an incompetent idiot…but so is Scott Pelley.

  23. sergey Says:

    melaniephillips.comIn case somebody overlooked this, WMD stuff is not as simple as believed. Recently there was an article in Spectator that one intelligence officer actually found Saddam’s bunkers, but was not in position to enter here:

    Content of these bunkers is probably now in Syria, smuggled here with help of Russian spetznaz.

  24. The Unknown Blogger Says:

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Re McCarthy’s assertion about Niger and Yellocake, the most definitive assessment I can come up with states this:

    “Conclusion 3: Postwar findings do not support the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) assessment that Iraq was “vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake” from Africa. Postwar findings support the assessment in the NIE of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) that claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are “highly dubious.”

    The ISG found no evidence that indicated Iraq sought uranium from Africa. The ISG did recover evidence that Iraq explicitly turned down an offer to purchase uranium from the Democratic Republic of the Congo…”

    from Postwar Findings on Iraq’s WMD Programs…etc Sept 8 2006

  25. The Bunnies Says:

    There was evidence Sadaam had WMD’s. There was evidence he did not.

    To have been wrong about the former means we’re in the mess we’re in today. To have been wrong about the latter would have been far, far, worse.

    Besides, if Sadaam had WMD’s, I have a feeling that the debate today would be the same, only the left wouldn’t be saying “Bush lied” as much (although some on the far left would have alleged that we planted any weapons we found).

    I can hear it now: We did our job and got Sadaam’s WMD’s, but now our troops are caught in a civil war and we need to get out and what we’re doing now has nothing to do with the war on terror, etc., etc., etc.,

  26. The Unknown Blogger Says:

    “There was evidence Sadaam had WMD’s. There was evidence he did not.”

    That will often be the case, and the key is to analyze the data correctly, without pre-judging it.

    Spend a little time with a href= http://intelligence.senate.gov/phaseiiaccuracy.pdf >this document, (“Postwar Findings about Iraq’s WMD Programs and Links to Terrorism and How they Compare with Prewar Assessments”) and read all the instances of “evidence was overstated” or “based not on intelligence but layers of analysis from a single source,” “even more alarmist” “less nuanced,” etc.

  27. Christopher Says:

    Honestly, other than a desperate desire to ass-cover (or a pathological need to stay in the spotlight – ah, the wonders of armchair psychiatry!), does anyone really line their shelves with these ponderous tomes that political apparatchiks turn out? Does anyone nostalgic for the days of Reagan pick up Don Regan’s memoirs for a trip down memory lane? Does anybody use John Erlichman’s book for light bedtime reading? History will make her judgement on Bush, Clinton and Tenet in her own good time, and none of this weeping and breast-beating on the MSM will make much difference to our great-grandchildren (presuming sharia law has not been implemented and all history books tossed in the bonfire).

    Which also means, Jake, your BDS wet dream notwithstanding, you’ll see neither impeachment nor war crimes trials. We’ll have another election in 2008 (but shh! you never know when the theocrat Pretzeldent BusHitler might institute martial law!), another mediocrity in the WH and screeches from one or another side of the partisan aisle.

    I will say, though, watching this blubbering fool Tenet reminds me that JFK had three good ideas in his life:

    1. Put a man on the moon.
    2. Sleep with Marilyn Monroe.
    3. Break the CIA and scatter it to the wind.

    Pity he didn’t do no. 3 first. And why GWB gave a medal to this lumbering nitwitted jackanape escapes me. Tenet should have been out the door on 9/12 and started the morning of 9/13 asking “you want fries with that?”

  28. The Bunnies Says:

    I readily concede that Bush (and obviously Clinton) analyzed the intelligence through the prism of the assumption that Sadaam probably had WMD’s.

    To me, however, the strongest evidence that Sadaam had them was his own behavior. His cat-and-mouse games in the 1990’s were not the bahavior of one who had disarmed.

    We made a judgement call, but there were only two ways to know for sure that Sadaam did not have WMD’s–either Sadaam’s full cooperation (like Ukraine and South Africa, or Libya after we invaded Iraq), or invasion. Had we not invaded, we would still not know.

    Sadaam used WMD’s before and broke the agreement of the cease fire by interfering with inspections. That alone was cause enough to revoke the cease fire.

  29. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Question: If I get the security code wrong, and this is a pretty tough one, the comment I wrote goes away.
    Is that supposed to happen?
    Why can’t I just try the next code?

  30. Ymarsakar Says:

    # Richard Aubrey Says:
    May 1st, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    Question: If I get the security code wrong, and this is a pretty tough one, the comment I wrote goes away.
    Is that supposed to happen?
    Why can’t I just try the next code?

    You try the backbutton switch when it says security code is wrong?

    If you are talking about a comment you wrote that disappeared without an error message, than that’s her spam filter working to block a word.

  31. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Ymar. That’s interesting.

    Oh, well, I’ll try to dredge up last night’s flaming inspiration:

    The west allowed the sanctions to degenerate into a game of hide and seek. It was Saddaam against the inspectors and, if he won one, wasn’t he clever. The UN requirement, originally anyway, was that the entire thing be easy, with everything the inspectors wanted supplied them with no quibbles.
    Saddaam’s actions were of somebody who had something to hide. Or who wanted to hint that he had something to hide. Sure fooled us.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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