NEW YORK — Besides giving him a chance to pay back Bush administration officials he believes left him to twist in the wind, former CIA Director George Tenet’s new book reveals sobering details of how the United States went to war with Iraq based on faulty intelligence and political opportunism.
The book, “At the Center of the Storm,” which is being published Monday, offers the first account by a top member of Bush’s team of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and how the president made his decision to go to war with Iraq. It made headlines on Friday for Tenet’s contention that the administration never conducted any “serious debate” before the war about whether Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States.
The book also paints frightening portraits of other ambitious plans by al-Qaida or its affiliates to match or even surpass the carnage of 9/11.
Among those operations, which have never been revealed before , were plans by al-Qaida to assassinate Vice President Al Gore in 1998 and its repeated attempts in the weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, to procure weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, from former leaders of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.
But most of Tenet’s book is devoted to rehabilitating his reputation, which he charges was trashed by Bush officials seeking to shield the president from the fallout of the march to war in Iraq.
Before the war, he writes, the CIA repeatedly warned the Bush team that Iraq could collapse into chaos after a U.S. invasion, but the warnings were dismissed or discounted.
‘Iraq has to pay a price’
The administration’s push for war is foretold from the first pages of the book, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News ahead of publication.
Tenet opens with a scene that was to turn out prescient. As he entered the West Wing at 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 12, 2001, he writes, he encountered Richard Perle, chairman of the president’s Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee.
“Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility,” Tenet quotes Perle as saying.
As Tenet tells it, the CIA spent great amounts of energy and time trying — futilely, as it would turn out — to rein in the determination of Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and others to use the Sept. 11 attacks to justify removing Saddam from power, which they had failed to do during the Persian Gulf War of 1991.
As early as Bush’s first meeting at Camp David with his top advisers on the weekend after the attacks, Wolfowitz “was fixated on the question of including Saddam in any U.S. responses,” Tenet writes.
Thereafter, the National Security Council staff held regular meetings on Iraq in which discussion proceeded on the assumption that Saddam would be ousted. The confidence in that outcome was so high that sometimes, debate centered on details like whose portrait would be put on the country’s new currency, Tenet says.
“I didn’t pay enough attention to the gathering storm,” Tenet writes, blaming himself for not having done enough to stem the tide of sentiment to take out Saddam whatever the justification.
Bush overshadowed by ideologues
Bush is depicted as having been steamrollered by more ideological members of his administration. At one NSC meeting, Bush’s questions and body language led Tenet to conclude that “the President seemed less inclined to go war than many of his senior aides!”
Tenet reserves his harshest words for Cheney, who comes across as Machiavellian, ideological and surrounded by a coterie of overly self-confident advisers. But Tenet offers unflattering assessments of numerous other top Bush aides, as well.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, is painted as insecure and almost naive in some sections. At times, she strikes Tenet as incompetent; at others, she appears duplicitous. Overall, she is depicted as never being quite up to the task.
Rice’s deputy at the time, Stephen Hadley, is portrayed as a mirror of his boss, but with an extra gloss of arrogance.
Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense for policy, comes in for a scorching review. To Tenet, no one else in the administration was so captive to the core beliefs of Wolfowitz and other neoconservative thinkers as Feith, to such an extent that he refused to brook any alternative interpretation of events.
And in characterizations certain to rankle some quarters of the administration, particularly the Defense Department, Tenet casts former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s rival, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, as sharing Tenet’s principled doubts about the strategy for war.
Agency warned of anarchy and instability
As a consequence, Tenet contends, the administration rushed headlong into a war that he and his aides at the CIA had warned could lead to disaster.
In September 2002, the CIA contributed a section to a briefing book for policy-makers. It included a CIA paper outlining plans for dealing with the “negative consequences” of invading Iraq.
The paper laid out a series of worst-case scenarios:
- Anarchy and the territorial breakup of Iraq.
- Region-threatening instability in key Arab states.
- A surge of global terrorism against U.S. interests fueled by militant Islamism.
- Disruption of major oil supplies and severe strains on the Atlantic alliance.
Later, in January 2003, two months before the war, the CIA produced another paper with detailed warnings that, in hindsight, were eerily accurate.
It forecast violent conflict among domestic groups and formation of an alliance of former members of Saddam’s regime who would be able to fight a deadly guerrilla war. It predicted that Islamist extremists would gain traction among the population. And it warned that anti-U.S. sentiment would fuel militants’ popularity and deadliness.
What went wrong with the intelligence
Tenet devotes a long passage to explaining the most famous CIA document cited in the buildup to the war, the National Intelligence Estimate of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be largely inaccurate.
From the beginning, Tenet writes, his chief non-proliferation analyst, Bob Walpole, was less than enthusiastic about the task at hand. According to Tenet, Walpole said: “I just don’t believe in this war. Some wars are justifiable. This one is not.”
In the final analysis, Saddam’s deceptions bamboozled the entire intelligence community, Tenet concludes. “We got it wrong because the truth was so implausible,” he writes.
In his interrogation, Saddam disclosed that he had two audiences, the United Nations and Iran, Tenet writes. Saddam hoped to deter Iranian aggression by fooling it into believing that he had weapons of mass destruction.
Specifically, Tenet notes that aluminum tubes that the CIA initially concluded were centrifuges for uranium enrichment later turned out to be nothing more than artillery tubes.
Moreover, a key section of analysts’ judgments was too assertive, conveying an air of certainty that did not exist in the rest of the paper, he writes.
To compound the error, an unclassified version of the CIA estimate was merged with a previously commissioned white paper on Iraq’s weapons programs.
“Out went the ‘we assesses’ and what was released would leave bolder assertions like ‘Saddam has,’ ” Tenet writes. “The classified NIE already had too few cautionary ‘we judge’s’ in the Key Judgments section. Now with a few strokes of the keyboard, the unclassified paper — the only one most Americans would ever see — came out sounding too assertive.”
Tenet concludes that the agency should have explicitly warned policy-makers that there was little direct evidence that Saddam had any weapons stockpiled.
Breaking the Saddam-bin Laden chain
Tenet also chronicles his battles to keep administration officials from linking Saddam and bin Laden, even though pressure to do so was often great.
Tenet writes that on Aug. 15, 2002, Tina Shelton, whom he misidentifies as a naval reservist on Feith’s team, visited the CIA to brief analysts and Tenet on the alleged connection.
Shelton “started out by saying there should be ‘no more debate. It’s an open and shut case. No further analysis is required.’ What I was thinking was ‘this is complete crap. I want to end this right now,’ ” Tenet writes.
Shelton, who is retired last year after a career with the Defense Intelligence Agency, disputed Tenet’s account. She said she was never a naval reservist and did not say what she is quoted as having said.
Tenet also writes extensively about the famous 16 Words, the passage in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address alleging that Iraq had sought to acquire uranium from Africa.
It has been previously reported that Tenet intervened to remove the uranium reference from a speech Bush gave in Cincinnati in October 2002. In the book, Tenet reveals that afterward, the CIA sent Hadley an extensive analysis of why the agency believed the report was false, but Hadley never passed the information on to Andrew Card, then the White House chief of staff.
After the passage appeared in the State of the Union address, Tenet went to Card with the chronology of events. Card’s response, according to Tenet: “I haven’t been told the truth.”
Blocking the ‘slam dunk’
But Tenet reserves his greatest anger for the infamous “slam dunk” story, originally published in Bob Woodward’s book “Bush at War.”
In Woodward’s version of the story, Tenet told Bush that there was a “slam dunk case” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Tenet is described as jumping out of his chair and making a motion as if he were dunking a basketball.
Tenet writes that he may have used those words at the meeting, which took place in December 2002, but that he was speaking about the larger case against Saddam, not about weapons of mass destruction. In any event, he insists, there were no accompanying gymnastics.
Tenet’s main objection is that his alleged comment has been accepted as a key element in persuading Bush that Saddam did have such weapons. In fact, he points out, administration figures for months had already made it clear that they had no doubt about their case.
In essence, he contends, Bush’s aides seized on the episode described in Woodward’s book to “shift the blame for Iraq away from them and onto the CIA in general and me in particular.”
“Credit Woodward’s source with a fine sense of the ridiculous, at least a fine sense of making me look ridiculous, but don’t credit him or her with a deep sense of obligation to the truth,” he writes bitterly.
Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News. Alex Johnson is a reporter for MSNBC.com.