WASHINGTON -- All through late last winter and spring, as the situation on the ground in Iraq continued to deteriorate, calls went up for someone's resignation over the mistakes made in Iraq. Someone must be "held responsible," critics in Congress and the press repeated -- someone "must pay." The implication was that such a voluntary act might resolve some of the problems.
Now we have a resignation. Some will hold CIA Director George Tenet responsible, and surely he is paying a price. The only problem is that he is the wrong person; the real guilt lies elsewhere, and the real Iraq planners, far from defeated, are using his wake to proceed full-steam ahead with their discredited plans.
Even a cursory look at the charming and sometimes bombastic Tenet, son of a Greek restaurateur in New York and head of the CIA for a long seven years, will reveal the man's strengths and weaknesses.
On the one hand, he dramatically raised the sagging morale of the CIA, oversaw special studies of Osama bin Laden early on, begged the White House in the summer before 9/11 to realize that an unusual terrorist attack was coming, and warned that the story of the uranium-seeking mission by Baghdad in Niger was bogus. He was in great part responsible for Libya coming clean on its nuclear weapons and for breaking the "nuclear weapons bazaar" in Pakistani officialdom.
On the other hand, Tenet apparently believed so strongly that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he told the president, in now-famous words, that the case was a "slam dunk." He apparently briefed Secretary of State Colin Powell for his U.N. address on "mobile chemical vans," which turned out to be nonexistent, and he and his colleagues did not foresee and analyze correctly the political and ethnic chaos of a post-invasion Iraq. He did not clearly see that, contrary to Iraq, where there were no nuclear weapons, North Korea and Iran were making steady progress toward developing them. These and other serious shortcomings are expected to be detailed in three critical reports to appear in the next two months.
But when you look fairly at the record, George Tenet was far more right than wrong. Moreover, he was up against the fanatic intelligence ideologues around the vice president and defense secretary (the "neocons"), who were tilting everything that went to the president toward an invasion of Iraq.
These men, filled with dreams of an "American Empire" and a Likud Party Israeli expansionism into the Middle East, distorted the intelligence sent to the president until it fit their grandiose intentions. (Remember the irrepressible Iraqi exile "leader," Ahmad Chalabi, now being investigated for giving American security secrets to Iran? They were going to set him up as president of Iraq, with themselves as his shadow "cabinet" in Washington.)
Then you have a president who proudly says he does not read newspapers and chooses to have the "unfiltered" news of only his advisers -- and you can see how the current problem of "intelligence" developed.
Meanwhile, Washington political society, many of whose most serious members despise the neocons, has been rife with talk that "their day is over." Don't believe it! In fact, they are proceeding, despite proof of their mistakes and their infamy in Iraq.
For instance, this week the Pentagon announced U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan (weren't they "volunteers"?) will be expected to serve longer. (Message: The neocons' war is hardly wearing down.) The Pentagon has officially proposed to withdraw Army divisions from Germany and place them nearer the Middle East. (This is a long-time intention of the group.) Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, one of the most fanatical of them, just stated in a Council on Foreign Relations speech that the U.S. must prepare institutions for "future wars." (Which, translated, means attacking Syria and Iran.)
George Tenet was, however, guilty of one big error. He had unprecedented access to the president -- he saw him almost every day -- and he didn't, so far as anyone involved can tell, ever remonstrate with him about Iraq or warn him of the consequences of such a war. His friends and colleagues say that it became increasingly difficult for him to protect the CIA's integrity and to give the White House and the Pentagon, who by then controlled most of the intelligence budget and had built its own intelligence units, the information that they clearly demanded.
As Paul R. Pillar of the National Intelligence Council wrote this week in The New York Times: "The big lesson of the 1990s isn't that the intelligence agencies had no idea of the threat we faced. It is that even their repeated warnings were not sufficient to change national priorities."
In the end, the real story of the resignation of George Tenet is a failure of objective analysts against subjective ideologues, of seekers of fact against self-styled holders of truth, of the eternally skeptical against the forever theological.
Sinner, scapegoat or political sacrifice? What the Tenet resignation really marks is the unwillingness to date of the moderates in this administration to stand up against the radicals and to clarify the situation for the American people. And that has far less to do with failures of national intelligence than with failures of personal integrity and courage.
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