Although its ratings were unlikely to threaten any of the “Survivor” shows, Thursday's speech at Georgetown University by CIA Director George Tenet (search) shows a survivor very much at the top of his game.
The embarrassing failures to find any trace of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (search) have led to predictable calls for the director’s resignation: but the Georgetown speech was the strongest possible statement that this DCI has no intention of being anyone’s whipping boy -- much less someone who will quietly fade away. Tenet has been known for years as a classic Washington inside-the-Beltway "player:" Thursday's aggressive performance shows that he is as good at public advocacy as bureaucratic infighting -- and anyone taking him on does so at some risk.
Tenet was also forceful in addressing the familiar argument by agency critics that the CIA is weak in HUMINT -- the polite term of art for “spies.” Noting that the clandestine services have been gradually re-built during his tenure, Tenet stated that CIA agents had been responsible for developing key intelligence about nuclear proliferation program in Iraq and Libya -- as well in the war on terror. While their work and those of agency analysts was necessarily imperfect, no one could responsibly accuse them of “cooking the books” to please their political masters.
Those sentiments drew nods and grunts of approval from the ranks of top CIA officials who had journeyed to Georgetown to cheer on the boss. Shown on live television, this unusual public "outing" also represented a strong if sotto voce statement by the agency's top brass that they too fully understand that they are under attack and that wagons need to be circled. As with Tenet, the agency’s elites were signaling that they know where the bodies are buried, that they have their own agendas -- and that they are fully capable of fighting back against those who intend to make them the scapegoats for intelligence failings real or imagined. They may well be right: not one of them in a position of leadership on Sept. 10, 2001 has since been disciplined for the greatest intelligence failure since Pearl Harbor.
Left unacknowledged by Tenet or anyone else are some inconvenient facts: both 9/11 and the missing Iraqi WMD have revealed institutional weaknesses at the CIA even more serious than the cardinal intelligence sin of caving in to supposed political pressure. Ever since its founding in 1947, the CIA has been a series of stovepipes, built around information hoarding (need-to-know) rather than the kind of information sharing/inter-operability that is now the rule over at DOD. In fact, teamwork has never been a strong suit at Langley -- and it never was at the Pentagon either until Congress demanded changes back in 1986 with JCS reform and an end to service-specific information monopolies.
From what we saw today, Bush, the Congress and all those fast-blooming commissions will have their work cut out for them. Tenet and his agency minions remind one of what used to be said about the high water marks of Navy intransigence: "Arrogant in defeat, surly in victory, and difficult at all points in between." Unpleasant as it will be to confront them, the task is vital: because uncorrected intelligence failures guarantee that history has been given the best possible chance to repeat itself.
Col. Kenneth Allard (U.S. Army, ret.)is well-known to television audiences as a military analyst. His current book, Business As War, deals with corporate leadership in the post-9/11 environment.