New CIA Documentary Puts Spymasters Under the Klieg Lights

CIA
Former President George W. Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to former CIA Director George Tenet on December 14, 2004. Kevin Lamarque KL/Reuters

George Tenet, the former CIA director, has been understandably reluctant about giving interviews since he resigned from the spy agency 11 years ago. After all, he was the nation’s top intelligence officer during three of the nation’s most troubling espionage failures: the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia; the September 11, 2001, attacks; and George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, which the CIA enabled with its false finding that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.

So naturally, when he sat down for his first on-the-record interview in more than eight years, Tenet tore into the failure of others to act on his warnings, from 1999 through the late summer of 2001, that Al-Qaeda was determined to strike targets in the United States. He could “barely contain himself when talking about the unheeded warnings he says he gave the White House,” says Chris Whipple, executive producer and writer of The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs, a surprisingly riveting documentary premiering November 28 on Showtime.  

Likewise, Tenet’s former deputy Cofer Black is still livid about those White House meetings more than 14 years ago. “You know what pisses me off? When people call this an intelligence failure,” he says on the show, nearly jumping out of his seat. “I mean, how is it that you could warn senior people so many times and nothing actually happened?” It was like “The Twilight Zone,” he says.

Tenet and company are full of excuses, however, when it comes to the CIA’s own failures to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Years after the debacle, two FBI agents who had been stationed in the CIA’s Osama bin Laden tracking unit came forward to say that the CIA knew two of the future hijackers were in the United States but—for reasons that remain unclear—forbade them from alerting their headquarters, which is responsible for preventing domestic attacks. Under questioning by Whipple, Tenet blames “policies” that “were out of date.” Former Bush White House counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke has suggested that the CIA didn’t want the FBI barging into an operation to try to recruit one or both of the Al-Qaeda operatives as double agents.

This is old ground, of course, as is Tenet’s rationalization for going along with Bush’s case for invading Iraq because, as he put it to Whipple, further resistance was futile. “The decision to go to war, the orders to send troops, had already been decided,” he says.

But Whipple’s questioning of Tenet makes for compelling television, not so much for what’s on the screen as what we know happened after the original sin of invading Iraq on false premises: the rise of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). As Robert Gates, another former CIA director as well as a defense secretary, puts it, “an intelligence failure such as that that took place in 2003 changes history.”

Does Tenet reserve any blame for himself for 9/11 and the Iraq invasion? “Well, look,” he tells Whipple, “there—I still look at the ceiling at night about a lot of things. And I’ll keep them to myself forever. But we’re all human beings."

Yes, he feels the pain. As well he should—and for so much more that put the CIA in the crosshairs of the public, Congress and the courts for the past decade or more. Much of it is all too familiar. Spymasters—the title seems ironic, in retrospect—has the obligatory rehashing of CIA renditions, secret prisons and harsh interrogations. The deaths of two prisoners in the CIA’s hands is “regrettable,” Tenet says. “Shit happens,” says Jose Rodriguez, the head of CIA clandestine operations under Tenet’s successor, Porter Goss. “And we were at war. The fog of war.”

One thing that Rodriguez, who spent virtually his entire career in Latin America before 9/11, says on the show rings absolutely true. “At the beginning of 2002 when we started to take prisoners, we just did not know what we were doing. We are not jailers and just didn’t have those skills. And abuses were made.” He adds that “we have ’fessed up to those.”

Not really. He and most other top CIA officials continue to defend waterboarding and other harsh measures, saying they were carefully monitored and effective. As for the Senate Intelligence Committee’s dismissal of the CIA’s proffered examples of 20 cases where harsh measures worked, “it’s dead wrong on every count,” Tenet says. “Period, end of paragraph.”

Rodriguez also heaps contempt on those who think drone strikes are somehow morally superior to the kidnapping and “torture” of “some folks,” as President Barack Obama put it. “This administration prefers killing prisoners rather than holding them captive,” Rodriguez says, “and the reason is, I think, it’s hard to capture [them]...and many would consider it dirty business.” John Brennan, the current CIA director, says that when he was working under Tenet he expressed his “discomfort” that the harsh interrogations “would come back to haunt the CIA.” Tenet says he has no memory of that.

You can’t get to the bottom of everything in a single program. But Whipple and his team, which includes veteran CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky, deserve credit for getting Tenet and the other living former CIA directors on camera. With previous hearings and other investigations a hazy memory, it’s about as close as we’re ever going to get to a televised “truth and reconciliation commission” on the spy agency’s key role in the most profound intelligence disaster since Vietnam. While many have been blamed over the past decade, few officials have publicly apologized, much less been held responsible for their roles in creating today’s unending, bloody chaos. All seem to enjoy robust Washington social lives, book and consulting deals, and lucrative appointments to the boards of government contractors.  

The show’s two hours move quickly. Too bad it isn’t a miniseries. There’s so much left out: the CIA’s failure to grasp the Arab Spring or predict Russian interventions in Crimea and Syria, not to mention its botched kidnappings of a suspected Al-Qaeda operative in Italy and a Lebanese-German citizen in Macedonia. The messy episode in which Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein accused the CIA of “spying” on her staffers also gets a pass. Meanwhile, another intelligence scandal has erupted, this one inside the U.S. Central Command’s intelligence wing, where analysts say their reports have been skewed to provide a rosy view of U.S. progress against ISIS.

Sounds familiar. There must be a big intelligence success in there somewhere, but, as they say, those must remain classified.

The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs, a joint Showtime and CBS News production, premieres November 28 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime across all platforms. Executive producers are Jules and Gédéon Naudet, Chris Whipple, Susan Zirinsky and David Hume Kennerly.