Capital Sources: Deconstructing George Tenet

Former CIA Director George Tenet's new book, "At the Center of the Storm," has reopened the wounds of the war on terror. In the book, on sale today in bookstores, and in a memorable interview on CBS News' "60 Minutes" Sunday night, Tenet argues that there was no real debate inside the administration during the run-up to the Iraq War. He claims he gave then-national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice a heads-up about an imminent terrorist attack in July 2001, telling her that a "big event" was coming. And he has defended the conduct of the CIA against criticisms that the agency was largely to blame for failing to place two of the 9/11 hijackers on its watchlist--even though the two had been in the CIA's sights.

Tenet's salvo drew return fire Monday, as the White House, the State Department and some members of the intelligence community rushed to respond. Philip Zelikow, who evaluated the CIA's handling of the terrorist threat in his capacity as executive director for the 9/11 Commission, also took a critical view of Tenet's version of events. Zelikow, who says he has not yet read "At the Center of the Storm," nonetheless says he "spent many hours interviewing" Tenet about what happened before 9/11--and finds Tenet's new account to be confused on some of the facts. Zelikow, who also served as senior counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Michael Hirsh. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What do you make of Tenet's assertion that he asked for an emergency meeting with Rice, then the national-security adviser, on July 10, 2001, at which he warned her of imminent terrorist attacks--that a "big event" was coming?
Philip Zelikow:
When this allegation first came out, and with it the allegation that the 9/11 Commission hadn't adequately reported on it, a group of former commission officers who had worked on this, at least five of us, went to the National Archives and pulled up all the relevant materials. We carefully summarized what we knew about all this, including lengthy quotations from the classified testimony of George Tenet and others when he told us this originally in January 2004.…On our behalf the National Archives submitted a draft statement [on what happened] to the White House for review and clearance. Then the White House informed us they would not clear it--that Tenet himself had vehemently objected to its release. I think perhaps the White House didn't realize that Tenet was going to go public with his version and didn't wish to be preempted.

So did that July meeting happen, and if so, what was said?
No. 1, Tenet did tell us [the Commission] a story like this. But we believed that he somewhat garbled the facts. The White House logs from that day show that the meeting had already been scheduled. So it was not an emergency meeting. It was on policy subjects, including covert-action programs in Afghanistan using Predators. That was the Al Qaeda-related subject matter and there were several subjects in addition to that. The memo written the following day, July 11, by [then-deputy national-security adviser] Steve Hadley, shows that.… And when Dan Marcus, [9/11 Commission] general counsel, asked Tenet how Rice reacted to his message about [the dangers of] Al Qaeda, Tenet answered, "She got it. She agreed. We were all working on it." … We concluded that Tenet was conflating this meeting with another one and was mistaken.

Tenet has been critical of Rice, for allegedly failing, as national-security adviser, to get control of policy-making and intelligence. What do you make of that complaint?
I wasn't really there then. And to tell the truth, I have some of my own criticisms of the way the decision- making process was run.

But he seems eager to find excuses for the agency's performance in the many breakdowns of intelligence leading up to 9/11 and through the Iraq War.
All I know is I read the Robb-Silberman report [issued by the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, co-chaired by former Sen. Charles Robb, Democrat of Virginia, and retired federal Judge Laurence Silberman, which documented that the CIA was "dead wrong" about Iraq's WMD]. I read it in the full classified version. Enough said.… But I'm not a CIA basher. To be fair to Tenet, he and the CIA were carrying the load of the war on terror in the summer of '01. I understand how sensitive and conflicted and angry they are about all the attention focused on them.

While he admits some responsibility, Tenet also plays down the agency's culpability in failing to communicate what it knew about the presence of two 9/11 hijackers in the United States before the attacks.
The episode revealed weaknesses in the ability of the CIA to provide operational management in complex international cases that involved both domestic and international agencies--even to alert other CIA stations and border security.… It was a major right-hand, left-hand problem.

How would you assess Tenet's tenure overall?
My general assessment is that he was a strong believer in the agency. He could be a good advocate for their work. His heart was in the right place. But there were a number of important policy and management issues surrounding his period that are discussed in our report and the Robb-Silberman report.

Are there any other statements in the book or that Tenet has made in recent days that you take issue with?
I don't want to kick the guy any more.… He's got his millions of dollars. But he's got a lot of other things to live with.