[This essay, which considers At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA by George Tenet with Bill Harlow (HarperCollins, 549 pp., $30.00) appears in the July 19th, 2007 issue of the New York Review of Books.]
How we got into Iraq is the great open question of the decade but George Tenet in his memoir of his seven years running the Central Intelligence Agency takes his sweet time working his way around to it. He hesitates because he has much to explain: the claims made by Tenet’s CIA with “high confidence” that Iraq was dangerously armed all proved false. But mistakes are one thing, excusable even when serious; inexcusable would be charges of collusion in deceiving Congress and the public to make war possible. Tenet’s overriding goal in his carefully written book is to deny “that we somehow cooked the books” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. If he says it once he says it a dozen times. “We told the president what we did on Iraq WMD because we believed it.”
But repetition is not enough. Tenet’s problem is that the intelligence and the war proceeded in lockstep: no intelligence, no war. Since Tenet delivered the (shockingly exaggerated) intelligence, and the President used it to go to war, how is Tenet to convince the world that he wasn’t simply giving the boss what he wanted? Tenet naturally dislikes this question but it is evident that the American public and Congress dislike it just as much. Down that road lie painful truths about the character and motives of the President and the men and women around him. But getting out of Iraq will not be easy, and the necessary first step is to find the civic courage to insist on knowing how we got in. Tenet’s memoir is an excellent place to begin; some of what he tells us and much that he leaves out point unmistakably to the genesis of the war in the White House — the very last thing Tenet wants to address clearly. He sidles up to the question at last on page 301: “One of the great mysteries to me,” he writes, “is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable.”
Hans Blix, director of the United Nations weapons inspection team, did not believe that war was inevitable until the shooting started. In Blix’s view, reported in his memoir Disarming Iraq, the failure of his inspectors to find Saddam Hussein’s WMD meant that a US invasion of Iraq could certainly be put off, perhaps avoided altogether. For Blix it was all about the weapons. Tenet’s version of events makes it clear that WMD, despite all the ballyhoo, were in fact secondary; something else was driving events.
Tenet’s omissions begin on Day Two of the march to war, September 12, 2001, when three British officials came to CIA headquarters “just for the night, to express their condolences and to be with us. We had dinner that night at Langley,….as touching an event as I experienced during my seven years as DCI.” This would have been an excellent place to describe the genesis of the war but Tenet declines. We must fill in the missing pieces ourselves.
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