By Susan Katz Keating
Former CIA chief George Tenet has broken his eight-year post-Agency interview blackout in order to speak about events that took place under his watch. Tenet, who resigned 11 years ago for “personal reasons,” ran the spy outfit from 1996-2004. He recently spoke on the record for a Showtime documentary, The Spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs, which premiered November 28. The documentary features an unprecedented lineup: all 12 living DCIA’s, from George H.W. Bush through current head John Brennan. All are intriguing in their own right; but the one who interests me most is Tenet.
Much went wrong during his tenure. In 1998, two U.S. embassies in Africa were bombed; in 1999, the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was bombed; in 2000, the USS Cole was attacked while underway.
In 2001, those and other burgeoning assaults culminated in the watershed of contemporary times, with direct attacks on the American homeland.
These are noteworthy within the framework of Tenet’s newly found voice not that they took place, but because Tenet claims to have sounded the alarm. When speaking to the documentarians, Tenet says he repeatedly gave warnings that went unheeded.
The warnings only could have stemmed from that most basic of spy tools, human intelligence, or HUMINT.
How does this related to America’s 18th DCIA?
In 2007, Tenet published his memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, written with Bill Harlow.
Among other things, the memoir presented Tenet’s version of a slam-dunk case against all the no-goods who recklessly rushed us into war in Iraq.
When war first was declared, the decision to invade Iraq seemed clear cut. Although many factors played into waging war, the main one cited was that Iraqi leader Sadam Hussein had amassed a lethal stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. Later, debate raged over whether the WMD’s in fact existed. The once clear rationale grew murky.
In his 2007 memoir, Tenet divulged his retrospective view that the case for war was at best porous.
Why? We had insufficient intelligence.
True, we had electronic surveillance; but we lacked the all-important human intelligence-gathering — the HUMINT — networks.
How did Tenet know this? Because the former spy chief — who held powerful intelligence posts for 21 years — helped oversee the gutting of programs that would have put spies on the ground in Iraq.
In 1985, when Tenet joined the staff on the powerful Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the United States deployed a multitude of clandestine agents in the ongoing Cold War against communism. Tenet saw how the brave covert warriors risked and sometimes sacrificed their lives while keeping the Soviet Bloc at bay. He also saw how their work paid off.
In the late 1980s, the Cold War presented a seemingly lesser threat. The intelligence overseers — Tenet included — adopted what can only be described as severe myopia, reading a reduced Soviet threat to mean that we needed fewer covert operations overall.
Even while the CIA was in crisis — it had become obvious that a dangerous Soviet-controlled mole was at work within the agency — the clandestine services took major budget and personnel hits. Key spy networks fell into disuse, and recruitment efforts dropped significantly. The United States still had agents in the USSR and elsewhere, but on a far smaller scale than needed.
In 1994, with Tenet holding a top position on President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council, the intelligence community was shaken by the discovery that the deeply burrowed CIA mole was a high-ranking counterintelligence agent, Aldrich Ames. The traitor was arrested before he had the chance to defect, but the episode showed that we could not even monitor our own people.
The Ames affair should have jolted America’s spookmeisters into revamping our HUMINT capabilities. Instead, the intel managers did nothing. The programs continued to founder, and did so through 1997 — when Tenet took over the CIA — and through Sept. 11, 2001.
By then, of course, it was too late to tap into a covert Middle Eastern spy network. These types of secret cadres take years — decades — to develop. Tenet knew this, and he also knew that the lack of HUMINT capability was an entrenched problem with previously demonstrated consequences.
All the more startling, then, were Tenet’s admissions — revealed as far back as 2004, in a speech at Georgetown University — that only a few human sources supplied the information that helped propel us to war.
The meager sourcing and information shortfalls should have provided the brightest of red flags waving in our analysts’ faces. Instead, we as a nation dispatched our warriors to battle.
It’s too soon to know what we really should have done and when; but the time is long overdue for at least one critical figure — George Tenet — not to point fingers of accusation, but to confess his very significant role in current events.
Susan Katz Keating is an investigative journalist specializing in national security. Her work has appeared in Soldier of Fortune, Time, People, and other publications. She is author of Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America (Random House).