Before we jump headfirst into this latest edition of the People's Weekly Brief, I wanted to take a moment to compliment the philosophy students of Andover High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. The PWB mailbag was stuffed full this past week with intelligent, thoughtful e-mail from members of a philosophy class at Andover who, as part of their class assignment, were a) forced b) cajoled c) encouraged or d) a combination thereof, to write a response to the recent PWB column focused on Security vs. Civil Liberties.
It was an honor to be a part of their syllabus, although some of the misguided students had the gall to disagree with my rantings. This I put down to inexperience, youth and possibly higher intellect on their part.
It sounds trite but it was heartening to see the energy and concern of the students as they argued one side or the other, citing the works of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, among others — although what that little kid with the imaginary tiger has to do with this is anyone’s guess.
As a programming note, should any institute of higher education be interested, I am available for speaking engagements. I also do a crazy assortment of balloon animals and a credible mime thing when the crowd gets restless.
Let’s start the show. This was one of those weeks when the potential topic bucket was filled to the brim and sloshing over the sides. I’ll let you in on a secret: Normally I choose the weekly topic based on whatever happens to be really bugging me at that moment. Philosophers refer to this as the “Socratic Method.” I am not making that up.
Apparently, Socrates had a short fuse and often started his lectures with a string of expletives and some fairly bombastic ranting. The Andover Hills kids will back me up on this.
First out of the bucket is the brouhaha over George Tenet’s just-released book, "At the Center of the Storm." You’ll recall that Tenet was the director of the CIA from 1997 to 2004. In fact, he was the second-longest-serving director at the agency behind Allen Dulles, who sat at the top of the intel food chain from 1953 to 1961.
Tenet was the deputy director from 1995 until his appointment to director in July 1997. My point being that Tenet came in under the Clinton administration and, in a rare move, was asked to stick around by the Bush administration.
How rare? No other Clinton staffers at that level were held over. Just George. In a previous life, Tenet had also served as the Democratic staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee.
So the Clinton team leaves town in early 2001, and Tenet stays put. I mention this for background as we move toward the storm that Tenet’s book is whipping up inside the Beltway.
In meteorological terms, the gas expended by staffers, politicians and deep thinkers existing within the confines of the Beltway is rising up through the atmosphere. As the hot air rises, it meets moisture, the result of Tenet standing on a really tall stack of dollars from his book deal and peeing down on the establishment.
This creates what scientists call “self-righteous bluster.” The bluster clouds then expand nationally, causing all innocent civilians to get soaked with 40 days of constant media coverage. You can look it up on Wikipedia.
In laymen’s terms, Tenet genuinely feels that he and the CIA were sacrificed in 2004 when it became clear that Iraq was not all goodness and light. There is an acceptance of responsibility for certain things in the book, while he also points out the obvious fact that neither he nor the CIA designed, set or directed the Iraq policy as it took shape from late 2001 to the start of the war.
The CIA responds to tasking requirements, gathers intelligence and, when asked, provides context for that intel product. The agency does not set policy.
There are several non-surprises here. It is no surprise that the CIA would be blamed for what are identified (after the fact) as intelligence lapses, holes and misjudgments. Tenet accepts the blame for various lapses, including the incorrect judgments of the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that was delivered to Congress. Let’s not blow more gas plowing that old field.
Suffice it to say that CIA personnel fully expect that, rightly or wrongly, they’ll be blamed anytime there’s a problem. So being thrown under the bus, on an intellectual level, shouldn’t and didn’t surprise Tenet. But it still hurts a great deal as the wheels roll over your butt and you hear the surviving riders on the bus shouting “good luck.”
A little-known fact is that every member of Congress, and very special senior members of any administration, are provided with a wallet-sized card upon admission to their job that identifies the three-step process for laying blame in times of national crisis.
Step One: Call for a press conference.
Step Two: Express shock at the shocking failure of the CIA to provide faultless intelligence.
Step Three: Call for a special committee to be formed, hopefully chaired, by you.
It works every time. Or at least, it used to work. Back in the day, CIA directors and others ousted from the agency as a result of the three-step process would fall on their swords and wander off into the sunset.
One of the reasons that the bluster clouds are rolling so heavily over Washington right now is that Tenet, after falling on his sword, wandered off into the sunset, where he then sat and stewed for three years over the perception that his actions contributed mightily to what we’ve now got in Iraq. Which, as mentioned earlier, ain’t all that great.
Members of the administration have been holding their breath since learning some time ago that Tenet had signed a book deal. The good news is that it’s hard for any administration to blow smoke up the public’s backside when holding their breath. But I digress. The point being that there was a general consensus that Tenet may use his book to tell his side of the story. That’s what he’s done.
He points out that his was not the only voice at the table and that the other voices weren’t engaged in a robust enough dialogue over, among other things, the case for war and for how to manage the reconstruction and political process that would be required. Again, that will not come as any surprise to readers of the book. It is what laymen refer to as “self-evident.”
As soon as excerpts of the book were made available, some folks started popping up like so many self-righteous prairie dogs, shouting the same refrain: “Hey, George, if you disagreed with the direction of the pre-war effort and the use of intelligence, why didn’t you quit?” Hmm.
Well, maybe on Planet Happy, a sunny, peaceful spinning rock in the Naïve Galaxy, every official, appointed or elected, resigns when he feels shocked that the government isn’t doing what he feels is the right thing. But down here on Planet Earth, you don’t see that sort of behavior all that often.
There were not that many people present in the meeting where the term "slam dunk" was used. Nor were there large numbers of people present in any of the key decision-making meetings during the buildup to the war.
I have no idea what was said by Tenet or any other participant during those meetings and, thus, have no idea what could have been done differently. If any readers of the PWB were present or have superpowers and know what actually happened, send me an e-mail.
Here’s a thought. Is it a stretch to believe that Tenet, having come from the Clinton administration, may not have had the loudest nor the most influential voice at the table?
Readers of the PWB know that I hate conspiracy theories. But is it reasonable to assume that an element of the administration was focused on, and enchanted by, the notion that democracy could be achieved in the Middle East and Iraq was a fitting starting point?
Yes, Mike, that’s not unreasonable.
It is also not unreasonable to suppose that members of that element had a great deal of influence at the table and, given their backgrounds and political upbringing, probably didn’t see Tenet as one of the gang.
The point being, there was a lot of sword polishing going on back then. And there was a general belief that the intelligence we had was good. Not great, not complete, but certainly not flawed in a major way. Secretary of State Rice, who takes a few body shots from Tenet in the book, recently commented that “… we thought the intelligence was strong.”
We’ve all got lots of hindsight now when it comes to the Iraq situation. But back then, in late 2001 and throughout 2002, the general belief was that we knew what we were doing and our actions, or planned actions, were just. If you were one of those special people back then who absolutely knew that our intelligence was flawed and marching into Iraq was absolutely the wrong thing to do… well, then, congratulations on being so freakin’ special.
The Tenet dogpile as a result of the book is, like other items mentioned above, not surprising.
First, the publishing company isn’t going to pay for a book unless it’s going to deliver some attention-grabbing assertions and revelations.
Second, Tenet served the administration honorably for many years and left feeling, rightly or wrongly, that he had been kicked to the curb, so we’ve got emotion at play.
Third, the individuals cited by Tenet in the book as being equal shareholders in Iraq Blame, LLC, aren’t exactly shrinking violets and are not likely to take a hit without striking back.
Is there an upside to the storm caused by "At the Center of the Storm"? Well, I’d argue that any dialogue that provides further insight into the inner workings of the Iraq buildup can’t be all bad.
If you can cut through the spin from all parties involved, perhaps there are lessons that future administrations can use in times of crisis. Or, failing that, they can pull out their wallets and refer to the three-step handy reference card for laying blame.
That’s just my opinion. Let me know yours, send your comments and thoughts to email@example.com.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.