The Wrong Man at Langley

George Tenet isn't up to it; neither is U.S. intelligence - fumblings of the Central Intelligence Agency

Bill Gertz - The National Review - October 28, 2002

Several months ago I asked the CIA's chief spokesman, Bill Harlow, whether CIA director George Tenet had ever offered to resign after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After all, the attacks represented a fundamental failure of strategic intelligence. Harlow's response was an indignant "no." In Tenet's view, 9/11 was not an intelligence failure. Tenet told the Senate in February 2002 that not only was there no failure, he was actually proud of the CIA's record: "It is a record of discipline, strategy, focus, and action. We are proud of that record. We have been at war with al-Qaeda for over five years."

Precisely what that war really meant, however, was disclosed by Eleanor Hill, the staff director of a joint House-Senate inquiry looking into the intelligence failures of 9/11. She revealed in congressional testimony that the war declared by Tenet was not being waged with a massive devotion of CIA resources. Tenet didn't even inform the FBI that he-in a 1998 memo to CIA managers after the al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania-had declared war on Osama bin Laden.

"We are at war," Tenet stated in that memo. "I want no resources or people spared in this effort." But what kind of war was this? A phony war, if you count the actual number of CIA analysts devoted full-time to studying bin Laden's terrorist network: three, with two others added in the months before 9/11. (A CIA spokesman later contended that these numbers were wrong, that there were actually nine analysts devoted to bin Laden-still hardly a warlike effort.)

On September 11, 2001, Tenet was having breakfast at the Hay-Adams Hotel near the White House with his mentor, former Oklahoma Democratic senator David Boren. One of Tenet's security guards brought him the news: "A plane has gone into the World Trade Center, Mr. Director." Tenet said: "Was it an attack? It sounds like an attack." Tenet jumped in his limousine to dash over to CIA headquarters. Before leaving, Tenet told Boren: "This is bin Laden. His fingerprints are all over it." This comment showed a) that Tenet was aware of the danger of an attack on the U.S. by bin Laden but also b) that the CIA viewed itself as helpless to predict-and thus to help prevent- such an attack.

Which is completely unacceptable, because it is precisely to avoid such disasters that we have an intelligence establishment. Tenet himself is an important part of the problem. He backed into the position of CIA director in 1997 after President Clinton's first choice, Anthony Lake, was forced to withdraw. His first intelligence experience was as staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1988 to 1993, a job he lost when the Senate went Republican. He quickly found refuge as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for intelligence programs on the White House National Security Council staff, a key policymaking position for intelligence issues. In 1995, Tenet became deputy director of Central Intelligence, the No. 2 official in the community.

As deputy director, Tenet was involved in covering up the security violations of then-director John Deutch. In December 1996, Deutch left the agency; in early 1997, CIA security investigators discovered highly classified documents on Deutch's Macintosh computers. Deutch, it turned out, had a habit of typing his notes into an unsecured laptop computer after secret briefings in the Pentagon. He would then e-mail copies of the notes to himself at home, using his America Online account, and retrieve them on a home computer. Some of the most important secrets were compromised by the practice, which exposed such secrets to interception by foreign spies. "We know that foreign intelligence services routinely monitor the Internet for just such material," a senior Pentagon official said. "And AOL is a major target."

The CIA undertook an investigation of Deutch-but later reprimanded six current and former officials for mishandling the probe: "The principal shortcoming in the Deutch matter was that normal Agency procedures for handling and reporting a serious security incident were not followed. Among other things, a crimes report should have been submitted sooner to the Department of Justice." And the reason for this delayed notification was pure politics: Had they told DoJ sooner, a special prosecutor would have had to be appointed to deal with the case. The delay staved off such an inquiry. Tenet managed to escape punishment even though-as the official in charge of overseeing the security probe-he should have been held accountable. Tenet was, however, faulted by the CIA inspector general for "not involving himself more forcefully in the Deutch matter in order to ensure a proper resolution of it."

In late April 1997, a group of case officers in the CIA's Directorate of Operations took the unprecedented step of criticizing Tenet just as he was going through the Senate confirmation process for the post of CIA director. According to their letter-which I have obtained, and which has been verified as authentic by the CIA-Tenet stopped a counterterrorism operation because a U.S. ambassador had developed cold feet. "As a result," the letter continued, "serious counterterrorism-related information is being denied to us. If [Iranian] operatives kill someone in Europe, he [Tenet] will be partly to blame."

In the years since, Tenet has shown little ability to get better intelligence product out of the CIA. The agency's structural failure has been highlighted by the addition of special multidisciplinary centers: The bureaucrats are changing the agency's structure in the hope that a new organizational chart will actually solve the problems, but there is in fact little substantive improvement. Among these centers is the Counterterrorism Center; despite its public claims to have thwarted numerous bombings, its successes have in reality been extremely limited. When the first hijacked U.S. airliner slammed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, the CIA's Counterterrorism Center was completely in the dark about the attack.

Other problems have burgeoned. One CIA analyst told me that he was harassed by CIA managers "for writing analyses that did not jibe with Clinton foreign policy." Another senior intelligence official says: "The agency under Tenet is the most politically attuned CIA in my memory. Who can argue with success? Tenet, a lifelong Democrat, and a partisan one on the Hill, survived the Republican administration and has prospered. Bundles of money are being flung at the agency to hire more people across the board. Tenet has evidently persuaded people on the Hill, and in the White House, that the agency already works miracles, and could work even more if it had a massive increase in operations and analytical staff."

About the operations side of the CIA, this same official said: "What the agency seems to be doing is sending all the new officers out to do classical embassy reporting. [to] build careers. And yet we will have no new assets; we will not have penetrated the hard targets; and we will not know more about anything central to our national interest. But the political people-most of them anyway-will not understand this, or want to understand it."

Angelo Codevilla, a Boston University professor who specializes in intelligence, says the motto for the CIA under Tenet is, "We may not always be right, but we are never wrong." Never being wrong has become Tenet's-and the CIA's-raison d'etre. And the politics has paid off: Huge amounts of taxpayer money continue to be spent secretly by an agency with a record of tactical and strategic failures, 9/11 chief among them.

But if the U.S. is to win the war against Islamist extremism, all of this must change. An urgent program of intelligence reform is needed. Its centerpiece should be a new clandestine service combining the best elements of the CIA's Directorate of Operations and of the Defense Intelligence Agency's Defense Humint (human intelligence) Service. The new service needs to be better trained, more diverse, and less hamstrung by legal and bureaucratic restrictions. We also need a domestic intelligence-gathering capability-outside of the FBI-that will be able to prevent foreign terrorists from operating with impunity within our borders.

We can do far more to prevent massacres like 9/11. But the first step in doing so is taking intelligence work seriously-and that is not yet happening.