George Tenet and the Evils of Banality
by Niall Stanage, New York Observer, May 1, 2007
“Truth matters to us,” former C.I.A. director George Tenet insisted to Scott Pelley on Sunday’s 60 Minutes.
It doesn’t seem to have mattered enough to Mr. Tenet, however, for him to fact-check the first page of his newly published book.
Mr. Tenet’s memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, opens on a significant date: Sept. 12, 2001. Walking to the West Wing, Mr. Tenet purportedly encounters neocon mastermind Richard Perle coming the other way.
“Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday,” we are told Mr. Perle asserted. “They bear responsibility.”
Mr. Tenet, in a characteristic formulation, states that though he said nothing, he was inwardly “stunned.”
In the days since Mr. Tenet’s version of the story was made public, Mr. Perle has pointed out that he was not in the country on Sept. 12, much less the White House. On Monday, Mr. Tenet admitted to NBC’s Tom Brokaw that he “may have been off by a couple of days.”
Saturday’s New York Times noted another problematic vignette. In his book, the erstwhile spymaster relates a meeting at which a “naval reservist,” Tina Shelton, allied with controversial former Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith, announced that the linkage between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was “an open-and-shut case.”
Ms. Shelton told The Times that she was never a Navy Reservist, in fact having served as a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst for 22 years, and that she never made the remark Mr. Tenet attributed to her.
Mr. Tenet must be dismayed at how his campaign for rehabilitation is going so far.
Perhaps he could have anticipated attacks from the likes of Maureen Dowd and Christopher Hitchens. More wounding, surely, are the brickbats that have rained down upon him from former comrades.
The founding head of the C.I.A.’s Bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, wrote in The Washington Post that the former director is “a man who never went from cheerleader to leader.”
A letter to Mr. Tenet from several former C.I.A. officers called on him to return his Medal of Freedom.
In Mr. Tenet’s defense, he admits some shortcomings with surprising candor. He writes of being told by Congressman Norm Dicks that “you let us down” by producing a severely flawed National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq in late 2002. “It was one of the lowest moments of my seven-year tenure,” Mr. Tenet recalls, “because I knew he was right.”
But if Mr. Tenet’s detractors have been reluctant to acknowledge such frankness, they have also been slow to seize on other episodes that illustrate precisely the weaknesses they have long ascribed to the former C.I.A. director.
Mr. Tenet is a very poor witness in his own defense, often relating damning details in an avuncular or shoulder-shrugging “what could I do?” style. If Dick Cheney is the Niccolò Machiavelli of the push for war, Mr. Tenet sometimes sounds like its George Costanza.
One of the most persistent charges thrown Mr. Tenet’s way is that he wanted to be liked more than he wanted to tell the truth. Here is Mr. Tenet relating the meeting addressed by Ms. Shelton (the “naval reservist” who wasn’t):
“I listened for a few more minutes, trying to be polite, before saying, ‘That’s very interesting’ …. What I was really thinking was, ‘This is complete crap, and I want this to end right now.’”
What he was really thinking and what came out of his mouth were, conveniently but dangerously, very different things.
Another common accusation is that Mr. Tenet was too deferential towards political figures. In his memoir, this is denied in the abstract, but the specifics tell a different story.
At one point, he laments speaking with a New York Times reporter at Condoleezza Rice’s request, insisting that it “certainly wasn’t my intention” to give “the impression that I was becoming a partisan player.”
But he did it nonetheless.
Even more troubling is a hazily explained episode from late 2002. Mr. Tenet describes Ms. Rice reacting with horror to unexpectedly equivocal assessments of Saddam’s W.M.D. capabilities from a senior C.I.A. officer.
In Mr. Tenet’s account, Ms. Rice noted that the level of confidence the officer was expressing was “a heck of a lot lower than we’re getting from reading the [Presidential Daily Briefings].”
Mr. Tenet admits that “we had in fact been much more assertive in what we were writing for the president on some issues.” But the discrepancy is not explained further, and there is no sense that Mr. Tenet even grasps its importance.
These details have received relatively little attention in the days since the release of Mr. Tenet’s book. Presumably that is because they do not fit especially neatly into anyone’s preferred narrative. They reflect dismally on the administration’s competence, yet they also fail to support many of the claims made by the war’s loudest opponents.
They suggest that the nation was marched into war at least as much as a consequence of sloppiness as skullduggery, that the overall pattern was one of cock-ups as much as conspiracies.
The phrase “the banality of evil” was coined to describe events beside which even the horrors of Iraq pale. Mr. Tenet’s book is testament to the evils of banality. It paints a picture of momentous historical decisions emerging from the same messy dynamics that are at play in every office in the land, with those more junior in rank straining facts to please their bosses, and swallowing misgivings in public even as they carp in private.
It is a depressing picture from which no one emerges with credit—least of all, despite his best efforts, Mr. Tenet himself.