Former CIA Director George Tenet Talks with Bill O'Reilly

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," May 2, 2007, that has been edited for clarity.

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BILL O'REILLY, HOST: From 1997 to 2004, George Tenet was right in the middle of the two biggest stories in contemporary America, 9/11 and the Iraq War. Unfortunately, we are a divided country right now. And what happened on 9/11, and what's occurring in Iraq have become subjects of propaganda, deceit, and ideological hatred. In short, it's very hard to get the truth.

It is my job to try to get you a clear picture of what is actually happening in the war on terror to separate fact from fiction. Obviously, it's not an easy job. But with George Tenet whose new book is "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA", I went in with a very specific game plan. And here's how it played out:


O'REILLY: So Mr. Tenet, you ready for a little coerced interrogation here?


O'REILLY I hope it doesn't descend into torture.

TENET: Let's hope not.

O'REILLY: Yes, it may.

TENET: You know, we don't torture.

O'REILLY: We're going to get to that. I'm going to get to that, because I don't know what torture is to you guys and that's what I want to find out. But I want our audience to ask the questions to you that they're asking me. And that's what I want to do. I'm not looking to bash you and make you look like an idiot. I'm not looking to do that. I'm not looking to take phone calls from Boise, Idaho. OK?

These are questions that go to me.

TENET: Sure.

O'REILLY: All right? Because where I live — and your brother lives in the same area — we've got scores of families still devastated from 9/11. And we got little kids walking around, they don't know where mom and dad is. All right?

Now from reading your book, neither President Clinton nor President Bush would give the order to the CIA to kill Usama bin Laden. Is that true and why would they not give the order?

TENET: Well, Bill, killing is something that we all — everybody talks about this concept today as if it's the only way to do business. You know, we live — the Central Intelligence Agency and covert authorities that are provided to us by the president of the United States have always been handled very judiciously and very delicately, over the course of time and history.

O'REILLY: Here's what I'm talking about. President Ford allowed the CIA to assassinate. He signed an executive order. OK? So presidents can do that.

I don't know whether you saw it, but Bill Clinton was grilled by Chris Wallace on this network. Why didn't you do more to get him? Why didn't you do more to get him? And the president said that he tried to kill him.


FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I worked hard to try to kill him. I authorized the signing for the CIA to kill him. We contracted with people to kill him. I got closer to killing him than anybody's gotten since.


O'REILLY: In your book, you said Attorney General Janet Reno told you trying to kill Bin Laden was illegal.

TENET: Bill, how we interpreted the authorities we were provided — throughout that time period — we understood that if he was killed in the context of a capture operation, that was OK. Nobody ever said you can simply go out and kill him. That never happened. Now...

O'REILLY: Was Clinton being disingenuous?

TENET:, well, his interpretation — here's the point I'm trying to make. If I could have killed him, I said to the 9/11 Commission, if I thought I had the data, if I thought I had enough access, I would have said look, let's change these authorities.

O'REILLY: The hard truth is you didn't get him in time. And I have to go back to your part in the book where Janet Reno, the attorney general, told you killing Bin Laden was illegal in her opinion. That's true, right?

TENET: Bill, it's true. Bill, can I say something to you?

O'REILLY: Absolutely.

TENET: We live in a country where the laws matter. We live in a country — look before 9/11, the political and legal framework we lived in...

O'REILLY: I got it.

TENET: OK. So from my perspective as director, you just need to understand something. From my perspective as director, tell me what the legal framework is, tell me what the policy framework is , I'm going to do my level best.

After 9/11, everybody's rules changed. And you know, authorities start falling— now five years later, five years later everybody — well nothing's happened in five years, right? People — what does Bin Laden think? What does he think?

O'REILLY: Right now in American history, there's a propaganda war about Usama bin Laden and Iraq. The left, the Bush lied crew. All right? Bush is one line and you and the Bush administration and the Clinton administration to some extent, pushes another line.

And I'm trying to cut through the fog here, Mr. Tenet. It's not easy. I've got a president of the United States telling Chris Wallace in the most emphatic fashion that he tried to kill him. I tried to kill him. I got your book saying, no, they wanted to capture him. And if he got killed, OK. What's the truth?

TENET: The truth is almost all the authorities that we were provided, are, as I described them, OK. I understand the word "kill." The word "kill" is what everybody wants to talk about.

O'REILLY: I don't think President Clinton or nor President Bush ordered you guys to kill him. That's what I'm getting from almost everybody I talked to.

You had a meeting with Condoleezza Rice in July of 2001, two months before 9/11. [CBS News'] Scott Pelley asked you, OK, you say you told Condoleezza Rice the danger was imminent, we're going to get hit.


SCOTT PELLEY, "60 MINUTES" CORRESPONDENT: Why aren't you telling the president, Mr. President, this is terrifying, we have to do this now. Forget about the bureaucracy, we got to — I need this authority this afternoon?

TENET: Because the United States government doesn't work that way.


O'REILLY: I thought that was weak.

TENET: Well, Bill, it's the way I did — you know, that particular briefing that I marched down the hall — I'm sure Condi went down the hall and talked to him about it.

O'REILLY: But you should have done it.

TENET: And I started talking about imminent threat in May.

O'REILLY: But you should have talked...

TENET: I know the president understood my concerns. I knew the entire government understood about my concerns. I knew everybody understood how concerned I was.

O'REILLY: I would have been in there banging that table.

TENET: Yes, you know, I banged every table in town. I was the guy who had his hair on fire that summer. I had my hair on fire for good cause.

O'REILLY: But then it's President Bush's fault if you were banging the table.

TENET: It's not — the table.

O'REILLY: And he didn't — well, nothing was elevated.

TENET: Listen, listen.

O'REILLY: Nothing was elevated.

TENET: Listen. See this is, you know, policy across two administrations, policy law enforcement. Bill, listen...

O'REILLY: I know there was no coordination.

TENET: Listen, Bill. Well, we worked our hearts out. The country was unprotected. We didn't have a system of internal protection. Our visas, our borders, everything was out of — you could walk in any time you wanted to.

Look, Bill, you know, I say in the book, those families deserve more than they got from all of us.

O'REILLY: You were right. You were right.

TENET: But...

O'REILLY: You should have screamed it loud. You should have called me. I would have screamed it.

TENET: No, well, maybe we should have talked about this publicly. But, Bill, you know, of course, the president — you know, the president's the one who asked "Well could they come here?" We wrote...

O'REILLY: It's not that about that. You said they're coming here and they're going kill a lot of people.

TENET: We — no, we didn't say — we didn't know they were coming here, Bill. We didn't understand it. We said.

O'REILLY: A threat is imminent?

TENET: Imminent, multiple, spectacular attacks.

O'REILLY: Come on...

TENET: They want to destroy the United States. Well, Bill, if I knew they were coming here, and I knew how it was going to happen, I would have stopped them.

O'REILLY: You didn't know it was going to happen, but you knew it was coming.

Now let's move it ahead to 9/11, and then Tora Bora, we go in. I didn't know this. And this is fascinating. The CIA led the overthrow of the Taliban. You're in charge of the military campaign. I didn't know that.

TENET: Well, not in charge of it. We worked very closely with...

O'REILLY: You were strategizing it.

TENET: We laid down the strategy...

O'REILLY: Right.

TENET: We were locked at the hip with our special operators.

O'REILLY: And you were successful?

TENET: And we were successful.

O'REILLY: Except for Tora Bora, all right, which is where Bin Laden escaped.

Now the Bush lied crew is oh, they let him go, they're incompetent idiots. All right, you say you just — it was impossible to get him.

TENET: Look, everybody's all over this. And here's how it happened. We thought he was out there. We played with what we had on the ground. We were relying on tribal assets in fairness to my guys on the ground. You know, we now know in looking back to all this history, they wanted more people to show up.

O'REILLY: Could Gen. Tommy Franks have gotten you more people? .

TENET: Well, Tommy felt at the time in discussion with our guys, he felt it's going to take too long. Look, we didn't go to Afghanistan with a big footprint.

O'REILLY: No, if you had more time.

TENET: It may have taken weeks and we didn't — and Tommy didn't think we had the time. A decision was made. We played with what we had. If you look at this terrain, Bill.

O'REILLY: I know. It's inhospitable.

TENET: It's almost - so here we are in an operational environment, that's what happens. Do all of us wish we got him? Absolutely. The reality we were dealing with, the number of people we could get there quickly. I don't know when he left. We know he left. And that's what happened.



O'REILLY: Continuing now with former CIA Director George Tenet, the author of the brand new book "At the Center of the Storm."


O'REILLY: Now I'm sitting there and I'm watching Colin Powell in front the U.N. And who's behind him? You.

TENET: Right.

O'REILLY: And he's laying out with tape recordings and satellite photos and everything. And I'm believing it.


SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stock pool of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agent.


O'REILLY: I'm telling my audience I believe Powell.

TENET: Right.

O'REILLY: Because I know Powell. I know a little bit about you. And I'm saying there's no way that these guys are so insane to go in front of the world and lie. They're just not going to do it. All right?

TENET: Well, lie is not what we did, Bill.


TENET: Lie as bad word, Bill.

O'REILLY: Just keep in mind the Bush lied crowd. How big it is in America. How big it is overseas. How that's taken on a life of its own. Keep that in mind because that's hurting us today.

OK, so Powell is doing all of this stuff. And he's saying that they have these deadly weapons. And we're afraid that they're going to hand them off to terrorists — Al Qaeda and everybody else —and this guy better open up the inspectors. He better let them in, or we're going to move him out.

Now if you had found the WMDs, we'd be heroes today, I believe, in the world's eyes. And that was a turning point in America.

TENET: We believed he [Saddam Hussein] had weapons of mass destruction.

O'REILLY: You believed it why? Specifically, you?

TENET: I believed it going back to my time in the Clinton administration when we were concerned about Iraq. I believed on the basis of ten years of following it, data that we'd seen, his deception, his denial, his thwarting of the U.N. I believed it in my core that he had them.

Here's a guy that basically, you know, here's a guy that basically was going to have his country destroyed because he didn't — he wasn't honest about it.

O'REILLY: All right, so you as director of the Agency...

TENET: Listen, Bill, I believed it.

O'REILLY: ..over years. You believed it with every fiber of your body.

TENET: I believed it.

O'REILLY: And you told the president. And you sat there behind Powell.


O'REILLY: OK. Mistake, everybody makes them. The Bush lied crowd basically is putting out there that there was no reason to go into Iraq, other than Bush's venality for whatever reason they ascribe some.

In your book, you say that a top Al Qaeda lieutenant Zarqawi, who was killed in Iraq subsequently, was given safe harbor in Iraq, and then ran operations in the northern part of that country for Al Islam.

TENET: Well, so let's deconflict all this and put it all in its proper context. I didn't mean to interrupt you.

O'REILLY: Yes, go ahead.

TENET: Let's put it in context.

O'REILLY: Zarqawi first.

TENET: There are three pieces that caused us concern: Contacts, training, safe haven. We've seen contacts for a long time. There was an issue of training. The one issue that concerned us was this fellow that we captured, Ibin Sheikh al Libby, who was an Al Qaeda senior operational trainer told us that they may have acquired some chemical training from the Iraqis. We believed that. And then we have Zarqawi. So the three pieces.

O'REILLY: Well, did Zarqawi go from the battlefield in Afghanistan to Baghdad?

TENET: Well, I — he shows up in Baghdad in May of 2002.

O'REILLY: He shows up.

TENET: Where he comes from, I don't know. He shows up. So we document 3 areas of concern. Here's where we could not take you. Here's where the problem emerges.

We cannot take you to Iraqi complicity, authority direction or control for any terrorist act that Al Qaeda has committed. We make those distinctions clear.

The problem area that I document in the book is we had concern about areas — there was enough to be concerned about —and the concern is some people try to take it farther than it deserved and tried to create command linkages where they didn't exist.


TENET: So I parsed it for you. And there were these areas of concern. And we separated away from authority direction and control that we don't think existed.

O'REILLY: OK, but if you believe The New York Times, there was absolutely no link at all between Saddam and Al Qaeda.

TENET: Link. Here's what you can't prove, Bill, in our business. And link says there's some connection here, now...

O'REILLY: Well, Zarqawi's there. You don't just go there.

TENET: So you and I, right, we're street smart guys. My operational presumption at the time was he shows up in Baghdad.

O'REILLY: You just don't show up in Baghdad.

TENET: Right. And they thought they had a good environment. But when you say link, when you say control, when you say command. You say these linkages.

O'REILLY: All right.

TENET: So keep the story straight, Bill. Here are our concerns...

O'REILLY: Right.

TENET: ...don't take the story farther. Don't make it more than it needs to be. And there's where the tension came in. But you can't ignore the front end. I think the chapter here says to you look, there were some areas of legitimate concern.



O'REILLY: In our final segment tonight with former CIA director George Tenet, we take a look at the mess in Iraq.

I still believe it was a noble effort to try to bring the Iraqis freedom. I still believe the U.S. military has performed magnificently.

But like you, I just don't understand why things were not better planned out. George Tenet explains some of this in his book, "At the Center of the Storm," but not enough. So I called him on it:


O'REILLY: We go in, all right, everybody in the country is behind it, except the kooks.

TENET: I don't know about kooks, Bill.

O'REILLY: Believe me, at that point, it was running 80/85 percent.

TENET: OK, anyway.

O'REILLY: In the polls.

TENET: Go ahead.

O'REILLY: OK. Now we overthrow him. The military campaign goes well. You didn't run the campaign. The Pentagon did. And he's done. And he's out.

But you know what I saw? I saw the night the statue went down, Iraqis looting the armories with nobody stopping that. And I went whoa. What's that all about? And it doesn't seem that there was any kind of plan to secure the country after you got him.

TENET: When you plan a war, you have to transition from war fighting, to conflict termination, to peacekeeping and stabilization. And we needed to have an integrated plan from beginning, middle, to end.

O'REILLY: But you didn't.

TENET: We didn't.

O'REILLY: Who's at fault?

TENET: The government didn't. Well, look, fault, you know.

O'REILLY: Is that your fault?

TENET: Well, listen, let's not get into fault.

O'REILLY: Why not? I mean don't people have a right to know?

TENET: Well, you guys love laying blame. Let's just look at what happened here. Shinseki was probably right. You didn't have enough people on the ground. And then in the way we went about the post war reconstruction period, what did we do? We disbanded the army. We de-Baathified the country. We told the Sunni population essentially..

O'REILLY: But did you tell the president that was good to do that?

TENET: Absolutely not. And Bill, the point I make in the book, well of course we didn't know that that's how this was going to come down before it happened.

O'REILLY: But you saw it, you saw it coming down.

TENET: Yes, Bill. And once it came down, our reporting from Baghdad beginning in July consistently told the story of we have a problem here.

O'REILLY: And nobody in the Pentagon listened?

TENET: Well, you know, it's not just about the Pentagon.

O'REILLY: Well, who else would it be about? They're running the show.

TENET: Yes, they're running the show. And all I can say is I say, Bill, is I say at the end, you know, there's a system here.

O'REILLY: OK, so you're telling me.

TENET: There's a process...

O'REILLY: You're telling me.

TENET: Look, Bill..

O'REILLY: ...that you warned them that there was no cogent plan to stabilize the country?

TENET: Bill, no, Bill. What? No, we told them what intelligence people tell them. We don't comment on policy. But once we got on the ground, we said look, we have an insurgency that's brewing.

O'REILLY: Let's get back to the folks, now. They don't understand why if ...

TENET: Let me explain this.

O'REILLY: .you weren't telling them.

TENET: Let me explain this.

O'REILLY: .there's chaos and nothing happens.

TENET: Well, Bill, all I can tell you is, is all I can tell you is the data's available. People may have different data points. People may look at this differently. But at the end of the day what consistently is reported reflects the reality of what's going on on the ground. Nobody can walk away from that. So we go to Afghanistan, right. We find Karzai. We never had a Karzai. We legitimize from the ground up. From the locality.

O'REILLY: But that was your operation.

TENET: Well, just let's not say mine and theirs. Culturally...

O'REILLY: But it's a CIA operation.

TENET: Right. So you get — but you get to Iraq and essentially the thought process — we're going to go from the top down.

O'REILLY: All right.

TENET: We're not going to let Iraqis.

O'REILLY: I can only extrapolate. Do you like that word, extrapolate? I can only extrapolate.

TENET: It's big word for the Long Island guy.

O'REILLY: Right. And I'm big guy.

TENET: Right.

O'REILLY: That the Pentagon screwed up.

TENET: Listen.

O'REILLY: Because you can't four years later look...

TENET: Bill.

O'REILLY: ...look back on the chaos that we're looking at now.

TENET: Bill, can I say something to you?

O'REILLY: Nothing worked.

TENET: Bill, can I say something to you? This should have been fixed earlier that it was.

O'REILLY: But it wasn't. And now this is one of the biggest disasters in our foreign policy.

TENET: It's a difficult time for all of us at the moment.

O'REILLY: Right. OK.

TENET: It's a difficult equation.

O'REILLY: OK. Now let's get to the president.


O'REILLY: This Iraq thing has changed everything in America, because it's divided the country to the extent that the hatreds are so palpable.

TENET: Right.

O'REILLY: All right, people hate you. They hate me. They hate, you know, across the board. And I'm saying that we're still in great danger. Because our enemies, the jihadists, primarily Iran, a few others, they see the weakness in the country. They see the division that's been caused over Iraq. And they're going to go in and they're going to exploit that division. Do you believe most Americans understand the threat that, just like in the early 90s and mid-90s, is brewing over there? This time it's Iran. Back then it was Al Qaeda.

TENET: Bill, let me come back to this Iranian piece, because I want you to be careful here. I want you to be — we have an Iranian problem. There is a nuclear program that we should be concerned about. And their support of Hezbollah that we should be concerned about.

Let's also make sure we understand that at this moment in time — personal view — you don't want to fight Sunni and Shia Islams simultaneously. Don't think that's very, very smart. And there's another thing we better think about very, very carefully.

There's a foreign jihadists piece of this, to be sure. But this is a domestic problem we're dealing with. Just...

O'REILLY: So you don't believe Iran is as big a problem as some are portraying it.

TENET: Well, of course it is, Bill, but let's handle one thing at a time.

O'REILLY: I don't know if you can.

TENET: Well, Bill, how would you handle it then?

O'REILLY: If Iran is going to subvert the government of Iraq.

TENET: Hold on a minute...

O'REILLY: are you ever going to stabilize it?

TENET: You've got a number of — well, Bill, maybe it's time for us to look at the Syrians in the eye, and look at the Iranians in the eye, and bring that region together, and sit down and have some straight talk about how we're going to get out of this together.

The important thing from my perspective here is, Iraq is a problem you have to make bigger. Because the region is at risk. It's not just about Iraq any more. So there's a lot of danger out there. It's also a time for adroit diplomacy, strategy, big thinking.

O'REILLY: OK now, you are still the CIA director today.

TENET: I'm not.

O'REILLY: You tell Bush this is a hypothetical.

TENET: I'm not. I don't want to be. I've had enough.


O'REILLY: This is a hypothetical. You're still the CIA director today. Do you tell Bush to no more surge, to pull back, to redeploy, to let them fight it out among themselves in Iraq. What do you tell him?

TENET: Look, I don't know what.

O'REILLY: Come on, you must have thought about it. You're up to your neck in it.

TENET: You know, the answer is is I don't know because here's what I would watch very, very carefully. Have American forces become such an issue that Iraqis are no longer capable of making decisions they need to make for themselves?

Look, you've got some responsibility. You need to as quickly as possible transition away from being in the front. We can give them command control, intelligence support, and training. And they have to pick up responsibility.


O'REILLY: All right. I learned a lot from reading Mr. Tenet's book. And we appreciated him coming in. We might use a little bit more of that tomorrow on our show.

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