The man who's been blamed for the faulty intelligence on Iraq's alleged WMD program and for failing to prevent 9-11 is now speaking out. Former CIA Director George Tenet has come out swinging against the Bush Administration for the way they used intelligence in the run-up to the war in Iraq in his new book, "At the Center of the Storm." But he's also taking some heat for breaking his silence a little too late, and not standing his ground before the war started. On Monday's Hardball, George Tenet answered for his actions and discussed the current state of our national security.
You can read a transcript of the interview below.
MATTHEWS: Former CIA Director George Tenet is the author of, “At the Center of the Storm.”
How’s the book doing, George?
TENET: I think okay.
MATTHEWS: Okay. Let me ask you some questions. You know about the inside better than anybody we’ve ever had sitting in that chair. When we get Dick Cheney in that chair, we’ll know even more, perhaps.
Could, in your mind’s eye, when you repeat 9/11 in hour head over and over again, could it have worked? Could our intelligence, our CIA, our FBI, our first responders—everyone else, had they had a little bit more of a break, could we have stopped it?
TENET: I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, Chris. Now, you look back at this and you look back at what we were doing around the world at the time, in the spring and summer, the concern that we raised, obviously there were some people—we made mistakes at the back end—FBI made mistakes, CIA made mistakes, but here’s, I think, the larger systemic point. The country never thought about this as something that was going to happen here, and as a consequence, did we have a system of domestic protection in place? If you go back to the millennium period, we told the president five to fifteen attacks—that fellow tried to cross the border from Canada coming into the United States—visa policies, border policies, security policies, infrastructure policies.
So at the end of the day, we were playing relentless defense—offense, we were playing relentless offense overseas in that spring and summer, and what we never had is a back end with a defense that matches the offense. It’s a big systemic point.
MATTHEWS: Do you—but you probably—but I’ve been listening to your interviews, George, and I’ve been hearing you talk about how there was a lot of noise, a lot of noise going up to July, a real sense that something spectacular was coming.
TENET: It was more than noise, Chris. There was hard data about plots overseas: the embassy in Rome, the embassy in Paris.
MATTHEWS: How about the Hamburg crowd, the ones who were up there, Mohammed Atta—had you—did you have a tail on him? Did you have a sense of where he was going?
TENET: We did not, at the time.
MATTHEWS: But remember the day of—the reason I’m asking you, because I get the feeling that it wasn’t impossible that we could have caught this gang before it struck on 9/11 -- the day of, you were having breakfast at the St. Regent’s, right down near the White House. I think I was right on that corner, going to a funeral that morning—because I remember the craziness of the crowd that morning, when all this hit.
You had Moussaoui on your brain. You were speaking with David Boren, your former boss, the Senate Intelligence chief, and you said, God, it must have been that guy that was trying to get the airplane training, to fly the big planes. What was your mind thinking then, because something was—you were close to something.
TENET: The immediate—the immediate thing I thought about is, I remembered the 1995 Manila air conspiracy, where they were going to hijack ten planes and explode them over the Pacific. And I remembered that one of those plotlines included flying an airplane into CIA headquarters. And I thought about Moussaoui and I knew it was al Qaeda immediately.
MATTHEWS: Yes, you did. You didn’t think the first plane hit was an accident.
TENET: No, there was no accident, in my mind. So—
MATTHEWS: So your brain was wired for these kind—had you gotten a dream the night before, or if something had—what would have had to stick in your brain for you to put together: My god, why would a guy want to fly a 747, and he didn’t want to learn how to take off or land?
Why don’t we get that guy and get it out of him?
Maybe if we put that together with the news we got from Arizona, or somewhere else, could you have put it all together?
TENET: You can go back, and you go, Arizona, you go to the Phoenix memo, you watch-list 19 -- you watch-list these guys 19 days before the event. Not a great effort is made to go find them. You put all of these things together, and we sat around and thought about it, was there a silver bullet, was there something that could’ve been done domestically to get on top of these guys? I thought about Moussaoui—he was in our custody, he was under arrest. That was a good thing.
We didn’t get FISA on him, we didn’t get into his luggage. You think about all these things, and at the end of the day, Chris, I don’t know that there was a silver bullet. I do know that, what we were doing and what we were warning—we had a keen sense of something big and spectacular’s going to happen, we just didn’t know when and how.
MATTHEWS: Okay, let’s talk about now, because the average person right now, going into the next election—this is a political show, HARDBALL—wants to know how they should vote, in terms of getting hit again. I was talking to someone this morning who said, States like Ohio
I know you’re not in politics, but—if states like Ohio went one way because of fear of the so-called soccer mom that we’re going to get hit again, and so they might vote a little more right wing than they would normally.
You said, in one of the interviews recently that, in your gut—I think it’s in the book—that in your gut, you know al Qaeda’s out there. Give me a picture of what’s out there, right now, facing us.
TENET: Well, Tim—
TENET: I’m sorry—Chris—wrong guy!
MATTHEWS: Tim was yesterday.
TENET: If you think about this from my perspective, this is still the crown jewel target for this group. We’ve done very well against them. We’ve hurt them quite badly. We’ve hurt their leadership quite badly. Between 19 -- it took eight years between the World Trade Center and 9/11. They have an enormous sense of patience, they are a sophisticated intelligence organization.
MATTHEWS: Where are they? Are they in Hamburg, Germany? Are they in Afghanistan? Are they—where are they? Are they in Pakistan?
TENET: In the mid-1990s—where are they. This organization, in the mid-1990s, we told the President of the United States, This is an organization that operates in 68 countries. They’re in Southeast Asia, they’re in North Africa, they’re in Central Asia. They’re probably in the north—the leadership is probably, on the basis of what I’ve read, in the northwest frontier of Pakistan. They’re in Europe.
Here’s the point—
MATTHEWS: How did they—you guys had them under NSA security—under NSA surveillance right now. They can’t get on a radiophone, they can’t get on a cellphone.
TENET: This is a—Chris, this is a very agile intelligence organization. We worked very, very hard at them to put bits and pieces together that help us try to understand what they’re going to do next.
My operational presumption has to be, I don’t know this to be true.
They come in with the first wave, on 9/11, right? They are smart guys, they understand the country is going to react, is there a second wave here?
There is nothing I ever heard, particularly as the summer of ‘04 came about and we had an election coming on, and Madrid occurred. And then we had reporting that there was a group inside the United States, a non-Arab group.
Then we had reporting that said there were people who were going to infiltrate in through Mexico. There is nothing I ever learned that relieved my anxiety that these are people who are here and maybe patiently waiting.
The point of this whole matter is, is as you well, the politics of this and how should people vote. You know, we know...
MATTHEWS: No, no. I’m wondering how they are going to vote based on fear and what they should be afraid of.
TENET: Well, everybody needs to de-politicize it. I mean, this is not—this is a generational challenge that will face Republicans and Democrats over the next 25 years. We are going to have to make decisions as a country about what—we should be having a conversation right now: What do we need to be doing to deter the prospects of another attack?
You cannot build a perfect mousetrap. How vigilant should we be?
Have we lost our sense of urgency? Should we continue to think about our infrastructure in different ways? The game here is about constant vigilance...
MATTHEWS: Where do you lean, towards more law enforcement, less civil liberties, more torture, more checking of people at airports? I mean, where would you go if you were president?
TENET: What the country needs to do, what the political leadership of the country needs to do is figure out where on that continuum we want to reside.
MATTHEWS: How far are you willing to go?
TENET: Make those—no, it is not an intelligence...
MATTHEWS: No, I want your advice. No, I want to ask you a question. You know more than we know. Do we have to be tougher in letting people through airports? Do we have to be tougher with immigration?
TENET: You have to get more agile. You must be tough. You have to be agile. You have to risk—you cannot protect the entire country.
It is not possible to protect everything.
MATTHEWS: OK. You believe, I have heard your interviews, that they would go for iconic targets, big things like the World Trade Center.
They don’t—because I have always wondered, we have got missionaries all around the world from America, you know? Christian missionaries all around the world. We have got business people all around the world. We have tourists in every capital of the world right now.
They could pick off 20 Americans on any capital on any day they wanted to. Why don’t they do that?
TENET: In foreign countries, Chris, they do go after softer—if you look at the attacks...
MATTHEWS: Well, why aren’t they—I thought after 9/11 they would be going around the world grabbing Americans and killing them. Why aren’t they doing that?
TENET: Well, they have killed a lot of people and sometimes—you know, in 2003, in the Riyadh bombings, 10 Americans died. They are killing Muslims. They are killing Americans. They are killing foreigners. They did it in Bali. They killed Australians.
You need to think—they think about the rest of the world somewhat differently than they think about us. This target, multiple spectacular attacks, we want to hurt the United States commensurate with its standing as a superpower, which is why my big worry is their fixation with the development, acquisition of a nuclear capability, chemical and biological weapons.
They understand, you have got thousands of nuclear weapons in your arsenal, one makes those irrelevant from their perspective. And how they would be viewed by people they are trying to recruit, get money from, because they look at this—you know, they look at this in broad historic terms.
You know? I’m convinced they look at this and say, you know, the Roman Empire once fell. Well, we are going to make this American empire fall and we are going to do it in a way that demonstrates that fundamentally they are weak and can’t stop us.
So we have got to be vigilant. We have got to be tough.
MATTHEWS: Where do you think they are going to get it, from an old Russian engineer who needs money?
TENET: I don’t know the answer to that question.
MATTHEWS: I want to ask—you do know...
MATTHEWS: Are they more likely to buy it than build it?
TENET: They are trying to buy it. So we need to make a Manhattan-like effort, where is the fissile materials? Where are the scientists? We have got to go talk to countries and say, where is your fissile material? Have you accounted for it?
MATTHEWS: Have we done a good job with Ukraine and the other Soviet republics, at making sure that their nuclear capabilities have been locked up, or not?
TENET: We’ve done well on the weapons side. I think that that’s not in question. Nunn-Lugar and all those things we did, those are very positive things.
Now what we need to do is make the same kind of effort on the fissile material that’s running around the world, make sure countries can account for their inventories. Look, we had a non-governmental organization, a Pakistani non-governmental organization—people who used to work on the Pakistani nuclear program—meet with bin Laden, share crude weapons designs. The head of that organization looked at bin Laden and said, 'You know, the hard part about this is getting the fissile material.' And bin Laden looked at him and said, 'What if I already have it?'
We know, in 2003, that they thought they might be able to buy Russian weapons to use against the Saudis. Saudis went crazy, we went nuts—everybody got in this.
MATTHEWS: So right now, over at Langley, your successors are worrying about what you’re talking about, right now.
TENET: I absolutely believe that they are. And it’s not just about the intelligence. You’ve got to bring our labs, our scientists, our engineers, our policies—all have to be synchronized. Look, we have to guard against the conventional attacks.
We now have an enormous amount of data in our possession about how these guys think, train, operate. The interesting thing about these guys is, history matters. Even after 9/11, we found out about plot lines to use airliners again against the East and West Coast of the United States, in Europe and Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
MATTHEWS: We’ll be right back with former CIA Director George Tenet to talk about the lead-up to war in Iraq. That’s where I’m most curious, this morning and this afternoon, anyway, and the relationship between the CIA and the Bush administration.
You’re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. We’re back with former CIA Director George Tenet. His book is called “At the Center of the Storm.”
George, I watched “Meet the Press” yesterday, and I learned some things. First of all, it seems like, if you put it all together, the reasons we were given for the war in Iraq—the connection with 9/11, which the vice president liked to make all the time, the nuclear threat form Iraq—weren’t there in the end. In fact, you believed, even beforehand, we didn’t have a case to make that there was a connection to 9/11.
TENET: Chris, we could never make a linkage to 9/11, but let’s be clear, we believed that he had weapons of mass destruction, and we said so. And we believed it across two administrations, not just this administration.
MATTHEWS: Did you believe he had nuclear weapons?
TENET: No, Chris. We believed and said that is’s going to take him five to seven years to have weapons—
MATTHEWS: The vice president said, fairly soon.
TENET: Well, I should have corrected him. I have said that, but...
MATTHEWS: The president said, mushroom clouds. The impression left with the American people, as came clear on “MEET THE PRESS” yesterday, was 71 percent of the American people believe that we faced this threat. We faced the threat of a connection—of a 9/11 connection.
Now all I can ask you, if those reason ended up not—what was the reason for the war?
TENET: Well, Chris, there—you know...
MATTHEWS: The president didn’t have any evidence to believe they were a nuclear threat. And the 9/11 connection was never made. Most Americans were for this war for two reasons. One, payback, it was even in our country music, remember how you felt. And the fear of the nuclear weapon, that they actually had a delivery system, this balsa wood plane they were going to use to bring over here and attack us with.
And all of that wasn’t true. OK. So why did we go to war? What was the motive here?
TENET: Well, Chris, there were many. You would have to talk to everybody...
MATTHEWS: OK. Let’s start with...
TENET: So let’s start...
MATTHEWS: Let’s start with these people you mention in the book.
Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, these guys were for this war because they had signed that Project for the New American Century document in the ‘90s.
TENET: Chris, let’s put this in different buckets, OK? There are some people who believe this was unfinished business. There were some people who believed we needed to change the face of the Middle East.
There are people who were concerned about the fact that Saddam Hussein might surprise us.
We said that he had weapons of mass destruction. Every—but we also were concerned that what we didn’t know might accelerate timelines for him acquiring things. So people were fearful.
We remember back in the 1990s when we thought the biological weapons file was closed? His son-in-law told us it wasn’t. We remember back to the 1990s when we said it was going to take him eight years to develop a nuclear weapon? He was six months away.
So history mattered to some people on the weapons side. There were issues—there were concerns for terrorism. In the end there were many, many reasons. Countries go to war because of their geo-strategic interests and how they view the world.
MATTHEWS: I covered (INAUDIBLE), let me tell you what I watched in real time. The polling was very close on this war. People said, we would support the war if we thought there would be very few casualties.
Well, it was 3,000 guys, many more seriously and permanently wounded.
So they didn’t—we didn’t anticipate the terrible damage this war would do to our own troops. But they bought the war because—not because of all of this ideological, we are going to move the Rubik’s Cube around the Middle East. We are going to make the road to Jerusalem through Damascus and all of that stuff—or through Baghdad.
They bought it because of a fear of nuclear weapons and because of sense that somehow Iraq was involved with 9/11. There weren’t involved with 9/11. How come the American people were lead to believe that? Why did you let it happen?
TENET: Well, it is not what—Chris, when the vice president wanted to give a speech before the war about Iraq and al Qaeda, I walked in and told the president he can’t give that speech.
When the secretary of state was going to talk to the U.N., we looked at the input provided. We didn’t use that data. When Doug Feith presented his analysis to the Congress about Iraq and al Qaeda, I testified that he mischaracterized that data.
So we—look, this is a contact sport. There were three legitimate areas of concern. There were contacts. There was training. There was safe haven in northeastern Iraq. We never believed this was more than two organizations trying to take advantage of—notwithstanding the concerns and we could find no complicity.
Now on the nuclear question, people say, you guys just watch, this will happen. We took the Niger uranium piece out, not in one speech, in two speeches.
MATTHEWS: But not in the State of the Union.
TENET: It got into the State of the Union speech. OK?
MATTHEWS: But the bottom line, George, is that despite your efforts, to the extent that you made the effort, the message got to the American people that there was a 9/11 connection, 71 percent of people believed there was. That the Iraqis were involved in attacking us on 9/11. And the nuclear—I have talked to some really smart people who are not political.
And they supported this war because of the nuclear piece, not this WMD phraseology, nuclear, because that threatens us. And these weren’t true. The war was fought on bogus grounds.
TENET: Chris, our intelligence was wrong. I have to—we have to take that responsibility. On the nuclear question, what our National Intelligence Estimate said, five to seven years. If a terrorist group provided them fissile material, he could have it within a year.
MATTHEWS: A couple of questions. We know that there are certain ideologues in this administration in great positions. Paul Wolfowitz argued with me for three-and-a-half hours one day at lunch about this war.
We know Doug Feith was a hawk. We know Perle, of course, was a hawk because he went to you and said, let’s go to Iraq, right afterwards.
Scooter Libby had a lot of influence, he was for the war. We know a lot of people ideologically around this town who weren’t in government before this war.
What moved the president? Why did President George W. Bush—who said when he came into office, I want humility in foreign policy, what led him to take the American Army into Arabia and place it there where it is right now?
TENET: The president has—you know, you will have to ultimately talk to...
MATTHEWS: But you are close to the president.
TENET: Well, I think he was moved about what we said about WMD. I think he—now, whether he went farther on these other issues, he didn’t want to be surprised again...
MATTHEWS: Did he take—was he getting surprised—was he getting channels of intel from people at the Defense Department like Feith.
Were they feeding him stuff behind your back that led him more into this war than you would have done then?
TENET: Chris, the only...
MATTHEWS: Were they...
TENET: Chris, the instant...
MATTHEWS: ... stove-piping?
TENET: Chris, I was the Director of Central Intelligence. I saw the President of the United States every day. I believed that what I was telling him represented the view of the American intelligence...
MATTHEWS: Was it all that he was getting?
TENET: Well, I can’t say that. I don’t know. You know, people say to me, well, didn’t you know people were running around you? Well, I didn’t see it.
MATTHEWS: They had that special unit at the Defense Department, I mean, which was working against you.
TENET: Well, Chris, I know that the president understood what we were saying. I know that he understood where we were exactly on these issues. I can’t speak for him.
MATTHEWS: Do you know when he decided to go to war? I don’t know.
I can never—I read every book, I can’t find it.
TENET: My personal view, Chris, is after the military mobilization was ordered in December of ‘03, my personal view was...
TENET: ‘02. My personal view was is that we were going to war.
Now did the president tell me that? No. But my instinct was...
MATTHEWS: Why did everybody—why did—I’m sitting on the outside looking at this administration. I thought we were headed towards war starting in December of 2001 when I would hear from people about meetings at Camp David where Wolfowitz was yelling at the president, we have got to go to Iraq right off the bat. And you know about that. Right off the bat they were pushing for war.
TENET: Well, that made no sense to anybody at the time. I can only...
MATTHEWS: Well, he ended up winning the argument, though. You—the others lost.
TENET: I can’t tell you that...
MATTHEWS: OK. Did Colin Powell have any influence in this administration?
TENET: Well, of course, he did.
MATTHEWS: So what did he accomplish?
TENET: Well, I mean, I think the secretary did a great job.
MATTHEWS: Did he?
TENET: He did a great job around the world.
MATTHEWS: But he was against the war.
TENET: Well, Chris, you know, at the end of the day, the secretary and I served. And we did our best.
MATTHEWS: OK. Do you wish you had resigned?
TENET: No. No. You know, I have heard people talk about this.
MATTHEWS: It is up to you, I’m just asking.
TENET: No, no, no. And I will tell everybody why. Intelligence and policy on Iraq is a contact sport. We had a war with al Qaeda that consumed me. We had clandestine—we had British and American intelligence officers working to disarm Libya. It worked.
We had an effort under way to take down the A.Q. Khan network, it worked. We were rebuilding...
MATTHEWS: In Pakistan, yes.
TENET: Yes. We were rebuilding the American intelligence community. It was important. We were looking for WMD on the ground in Iraq. It was important. We were working on so many issues.
My days were filled with tough issues. My view was you stay in your job. You do your job. And you do the best you can.
MATTHEWS: Last question. You stay on the job. You have access to all of the intelligence we gather every day at the CIA. You also have people with historic backgrounds who understand the Middle East, understand the culture, no about the Sunni and the Shia long before I did.
MATTHEWS: They know the history of what happens to Western governments like the Brits or the French that go into Arabia and what happens to them. They get gobbled up in occupation. They end up having to resort to torture and fighting resistance with counterinsurgency.
All the hell we have going through for the last four years you guys knew was coming, right?
TENET: Chris, what we didn’t know was how we would implement what happened after the conflict, after the invasion phase. We didn’t know that. It’s interesting—
MATTHEWS: It could have been handled better.
TENET: To be certain, it could have been handled better, and there are a number of lessons—you cannot walk into a big country in the Middle East and command an entire country to do what you believe (INAUDIBLE).
MATTHEWS: Whose brilliant idea it was to de-Ba’athicize (ph), to tell the entire government of Iraq, We want you gone, we want the army gone, we’re going to disassemble you, go away, don’t come back, we’re going to rebuild this country from the ground up? Whose idea was that?
TENET: I don’t know whose idea it was, Chris. I do know this—I do know this: the de-Ba’athification and disbanding of the army was never something principals sat around and made a decision on. I know that.
MATTHEWS: Well, who decided it? Doug Feith, at the Defense Department? Who made these calls?
TENET: Chris, you know—
MATTHEWS: You’ve got to tell me, because nobody will tell me.
TENET: I don’t—you know, I can’t tell you how that—you know, it’s ironic. I sit here, I can’t tell you how that decision was made.
Here’s what I need to tell you: when we understood what was going on on the ground, was the intelligence clear? Did we ring the ball? Did we say, You have an insurgency? Did we say we needed a program of Sunni outreach? Did we say, We need to figure out a way to get this army back together as fast as we can? The answer is, yes. And the moral of the story is, is when the data gets bad, you have to make more agile decisions than we made.
MATTHEWS: Okay, who got into the president’s company and, despite all the knowledge of history—it must have been available to him about how difficult an occupation would be, how there would be—even the president said, Nobody likes to be occupied—and put in his idea this idea that—this dreamy idea that we, the American people, with our vast military—although it’s not always useful on the ground—we could go into a Third World country and create a democracy where there has been none before, can create this spirit of sacrifice on behalf of democracy, that can bring peace among the warring factions in the interests of democracy, because we’ve got more guns than they do? Who told him that that would be true?
TENET: Chris, if you—I don’t know—
MATTHEWS: Was it Wolfowitz?
TENET: -- who was (INAUDIBLE) --
MATTHEWS: But you’re with him!
TENET: Chris, I don’t know who told him this would be true, but here’s the lesson you have to—
MATTHEWS: Somebody did.
TENET: Let’s just talk about this part of the war—
MATTHEWS: Am I right, that somebody told him this?
TENET: I don’t know if somebody—
MATTHEWS: Well, why—he says it in all his speeches.
TENET: Chris, let me just—let me just make a very important point to you. What have we learned? If democracy is only equated with elections, and we scream, We’re going to have elections, it’s never going to work. You’re never going to re-make the world in your image in the absence of a vibrant civil society, institutions, educational systems, the preparation and the ground work. Simply having votes is not going to work in this part of the world.
You have to prepare people with a foundation that makes a difference. And here’s—at the end of the day, these countries are all different. They have a different cultural history, they have different religions. They’re going to do this in their own ways. Is it important—if you tie it back to the terrorist phenomenon—
MATTHEWS: Did you ever give this lecture to the president, when it mattered?
TENET: No, I don’t lecture—I don’t—
MATTHEWS: No, because I think we could’ve all benefited from that.
TENET: Well, Chris, you know, I’ve written a book where I’ve reflected -- (INAUDIBLE) --
MATTHEWS: I know—here’s your book, and I hope people read it. I hope people buy this book, because there’s so much of this in there, “At the Center of the Storm.”
But, this information would have been very valuable in a sit-down with the president—a couple cigars, talk about the world and what happens when you invade an Arab country. It would have been helpful.
TENET: Chris, I think that, if you look at what we said before we understood what it was going to do, and you looked at our analysis, we said a lot of these things all over town.
MATTHEWS: I don’t hear it from the president. I hear the same delusional talk that we heard from the neo-conservatives, before we went in the war, from the president now. That’s what worries me. We haven’t learned our lesson.
TENET: We’re in a tough place, and we’ve got to come together as a country and get to a better place.
MATTHEWS: George—best of luck.
MATTHEWS: Thank you for coming on HARDBALL.
TENET: Thanks. Appreciate it.
MATTHEWS: Thank you, George Tenet.
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