The last thing I want to do is defend George Tenet. The slick, self-serving, and stunningly unrepentant Tenet should at best have been fired on September 12, 2001; at worst, he should be in jail. Instead, he has a Presidential Medal of Freedom, a best-selling book, and an excuse for everything. Nonetheless, when the former CIA director suggests, as he has in numerous interviews over the last week, that he is a fall guy for the twin disasters of 9/11 and the Iraq War, he’s right. He’s a fall guy for the failings of two administrations—for the timidity of a scandal-ridden Clinton and for the far worse incompetence and perfidy of Bush & Co. He’s also the perfect scapegoat for the longstanding and endemic problems of the Central Intelligence Agency, and the political system it serves.
The CIA’s role in 9/11—the less discussed of the two intelligence disasters, but in many ways the more telling—began 20 years before the attacks. In the early 1980s, under Director William Casey, the agency took the lead in recruiting and equipping a guerrilla army to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan; it was during these years that Al Qaeda was born. Casey had dreams of not only pushing the Soviets out, but following them over the border and bringing open fighting to their own territory, in the Central Asian republics. The Soviets quit Afghanistan before things got to that point, and the CIA promptly exited as well, leaving behind thousands of revved up mujahedeen—some of whom, with support from the CIA’s partner, the Pakistani Intelligence Service, were instrumental in forming the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the CIA was seemingly unable to adjust to a changing world after the Soviet Union collapsed—an event which, incidentally, Langley failed to either anticipate or predict.
After the first World Trade Center attack of 1993, it was clear that the intelligence community had to adjust to world where the primary threat came from freelance terrorists, not a monolithic communist nation-state. Its Soviet specialists were useless in this world, and the agency had relatively few experts, and even fewer linguists, qualified to deal with the Middle East and Central Asia. The consequences became clear after 9/11: As the 2002 Joint Inquiry by the Senate and House Intelligence Committees documented, the CIA was simply unable to penetrate Al Qaeda. James Bamford, in his book A Pretext for War, has pointed out that John Walker Lindh, along with at least seven other young Americans, was able to walk right into Al Qaeda camps, join their training operations, and learn enough about their plans that he could later tell investigators that there were originally meant to be 5—not 4—flights on 9/11, with the fifth aimed at the White House, but the pilot for that flight was unable to get a visa. Another American volunteer sat down with Bin Laden himself for an interview, as did Mother Jones contributor Peter Bergen.
The CIA’s inability to crack Al Qaeda meant the U.S. intelligence community had to rely on second- and third-hand informants (who often had their own concealed agendas) and on foreign intelligence services like the corrupt Pakistani ISI. Even this imperfect network brought ample warnings from friendly intelligence services in the months leading up to 9/11—from the Jordanians, the Italians, the British, the Germans, and the Egyptians. Former Senator Bob Graham, who headed the Congressional Joint Inquiry, reports in his book Intelligence Matters that there were no fewer than 12 instances “in which we had learned of terrorist plans to use airplanes as weapons.” The Joint Inquiry found that, beginning in 1998 and continuing through the summer of 2001, the intelligence community “received a modest, but relatively steady stream of intelligence reporting that indicated the possibility of terrorist attacks within the United States.” The National Security Agency, with its extraordinary surveillance network, reported “at least 33 communications indicating a possible, imminent terrorist attack in 2001.” The intelligence community knew enough to advise senior government officials, in June and July of 2001, that the attacks were expected, among other things, to “have dramatic consequences on governments or cause major casualties” and that “attack preparations have been made. Attack will occur with little or no warning.”
How is it possible that the CIA could be so spectacularly incompetent in obtaining vital intelligence, or act upon the intelligence it did have? The agency was, after all, created in 1947 to ensure the nation would not fall victim to a second Pearl Harbor. But as historian and political analyst Chalmers Johnson has noted, from the beginning the agency’s leadership “saw intelligence analysis as a convenient cover for subversive operations abroad.” In his view, “intelligence collecting and analysis would quickly become camouflage for a private secret army at the personal command of the president devoted to dirty tricks, covert overthrows of foreign governments and planting disinformation—as well as efforts to counter similar operations by the Soviet Union.” In 1960s Washington, former CIA officials spoke glowingly of how they’d pulled off the overthrow of Mohammaed Mossadegh, the elected nationalist premier of Iran, replacing him with the Shah. They eagerly participated in the destabilization of governments in Afghanistan, Chile, Congo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Greece, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and Vietnam (a partial list), and did their very best to kill Castro. During the same Cold War period, the agency was far less successful in gathering intelligence, losing numerous agents behind the Iron Curtain and proving unable to detect Soviet spies within its own top ranks.
Yet the CIA was often not forced to account for its failings. Its activities are secret; its budget and personnel list are off the books. Congressional oversight is limited, and classified. Tenet, like other CIA directors before and after him, answered only to the president. Why should it have been so surprising to find out that his answer was always yes? Tenet may have told Clinton to bomb Al Qaeda bases, only to be turned down because of the Lewinsky scandal. He may even have been, in terrorism czar Richard Clarke’s words, “running around with his hair on fire” trying to warn Condi and Cheney and Bush about terrorist threats in 2001, when they were already getting busy planning the invasion of Iraq. But he didn’t stake his pension on it.
As inadequate as the CIA’s intelligence was, before both 9/11 and the Iraq War, it was often still more than Bush and his colleagues wanted to hear. So the pieces that didn’t fit their agenda were discarded, or replaced by others. Some dedicated agents and analysts may well have objected to such practices—in the past week, a group of retired officers has attacked Tenet, charging that “by your silence you helped build the case for war.” But in the end, the CIA director, like all members of the executive branch, serves at the pleasure of the president. And if the president’s pleasure is to exploit 2,973 deaths in America to advance his agenda in the Middle East, then it is the director’s job to support that agenda—as Tenet did so well.
The fruits of this closed system are obvious: a 16-acre hole in Lower Manhattan, and tens of thousands dead in Iraq.