‘At the Center of the Storm’ by George Tenet. Harper Collins, 2007

GTenetThis is the book by the man who was in charge of America’s spy network before, during and after the attack on the Twin Towers. Before: so how come the biggest spy network in the world didn’t gather enough information to prevent the attack? After: so how come the biggest spy network in the world didn’t gather enough information to prevent the Iraq invasion from turning into such a disaster? These are Two Big Questions that George Tenet sets out to answer in this book. There are a lot more questions besides, and he is concerned to answer them too. However these are two of the Big Ones because they are hugely important for America and, given his position, hugely important to Tenet personally.          

Tenet’s defence for not predicting the 9/11 attack is that he did predict it. That he and his staff were in fact predicting it, or something like it, for some time before it actually happened. Unfortunately, there was so much information coming through from all CIA sources world-wide about possible attacks that it was impossible to ‘join up the dots’, a figure of speech which he uses a number of times to explain how some apparently obvious leads were not followed up. It is a truism that the benefits of hindsight are enormous and so a reader should not rush to judgement on these failures of prediction. It’s also the case that Americans prior to 9/11 had very little notion that they would suffer an attack like 9/11 (or indeed any attack at all, notwithstanding the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing) and on their mainland. Even for the CIA the enormity of what was going to happen must have been difficult to imagine. In short, Tenet makes good case as to why his CIA did not predict the actual attack and therefore was powerless to prevent it. In doing so, he reveals in detail how the CIA was going about its business when he took over as CIA director in 1997 (not very well) and what he had to do before, and after, 9/11 to reform it (quite a lot). The picture of the organisation that emerges here belies the slick presentation often seen on TV and in films.

          Big Question Number Two: so how come the biggest spy network in the world didn’t gather enough information to prevent the Iraq invasion from turning into a disaster? This is harder to explain away. Invasions need accurate intelligence and planning. The deficiencies in CIA intelligence gathering and analysis at that time (and later) are obvious from Tenet’s description of its failures regarding the 9/11 attack. As regards a plan for the invasion, Tenet quotes the old maxim that ‘no military plan survives its first contact with the enemy’ but also has to admit that ’parts of [the] U.S. plan … unravelled long before that’ (p.397).

          What plan? Well, the one in which American troops would be welcomed with flowers and national jubilation, something akin to the welcome for German forces in Austria in 1938 (at least according to those old newsreels of the event the Germans produced). Tenet makes a show of blaming the gung-ho attitudes of certain personalities in the White House and very few will deny that those same powerful personages were in favour of a full-scale invasion, and the sooner the better. He attempts to distance himself from those views, and aligns himself with those who saw no link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq and who were, therefore, reluctant about the invasion. If this was really the case, he doesn’t seem to have made the case forcefully enough at the Oval Office.  On the contrary, in the weeks before the invasion, his attitude and mind set does not seem much different from that of the  war-enthusiasts. It was at one of these meeting that he came out with the phrase that will dog his legacy as a CIA director: ‘Slam Dunk’.

          Apparently, this is a term from basketball to describe an easy shot, one that cannot fail to score. A ‘sure thing’. The context was a meeting in December 2002 attended by most of the White- House-Iraq-War Dramatis Personae in which President George W. Bush was venting his doubts about how the idea of going to war could be sold to the American Public. The decision to invade had already been made and so ‘some might criticize us [the CIA] for participating what was essentially a marketing meeting’ says Tenet (p. 362). He was asked ‘if we [the CIA] didn’t have better information to add to the debate …If I had simply said, “I’m sure we can do better” I wouldn’t be writing this chapter – or maybe even this book. Instead, I told the president that strengthening the public presentation was a “slam dunk”… a phrase that was later taken completely out of context and has haunted me since it first appeared in Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack’. (p.362) Woodward, says Tenet ‘painted a caricature of me leaping into the air and simulating a slam dunk, not once but twice, with my arms flailing.’

          Tenet admits to using the phrase, but in a low-key way, conversationally. Either way, it was an unfortunate choice of words. The need to convince ‘Joe Public’ of the necessity to go to war involved the extraordinary feat of convincing him (Joe) that Iraq had a stock of Weapons of Mass Destruction which could be unleashed on America at any time. The fact that Tenet can maintain that he believed in their existence (p.362) doesn’t say much the competence for the CIA or its chief. And if it were the case that he had serious doubts about their existence, he didn’t share his doubts. It appears he ‘went along’ with the prevailing opinions and was not strong enough in character to oppose seriously the ‘hawks’ sitting beside him in the Oval Office. This lack of forcefulness on the part of the CIA director is in fact a theme that pervades his book.

          It was not a good day for George Tenet, that day he uttered that stupid phrase. Later, during one of those Congressional ‘hearings’, a Congressman whom Tenet describes as a long-time friend of the intelligence community ‘and of mine personally’ (p.339) had harsh words to say to him, telling him ‘We depended on you, and you let us down.’ Tenet comments ’For me, it was one of the lowest moments of my seven-year tenure, because I knew he was right’. 

          There is a lot of self-justification and attempts ‘to set the record straight’ in George Tenet’s book. There are also a number of important issues barely touched on (waterboarding, anyone?). However, the picture emerges of an essentially decent man, who is not reluctant  to admit his errors and faults (well, some of them at least) and who was a good deal out of his depth as CIA Director and no match for the powerful Oval Office personalities with whom he had to work.

Iraq leaflets

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