The day after CIA Director George Tenet took a powder, I was in an elevator with Matt Dowd, the pollster for the George W. Bush re-election campaign. Isn’t Tenet’s exit a blow to the Bush campaign? I asked him. After all, this was a week in which Bush was celebrating the creation of a new interim government in Baghdad and participating in a perfect photo op at the D-Day anniversary ceremonies in Europe. Finally, the White House had what it could present as good news. That is, until Tenet resigned, as did James Pavitt, the head of the CIA’s operations directorate. Hadn’t this bombshell — chaos at the CIA! — overwhelmed the first developments in months the Bush campaign could tout as positive?
Not at all, Dowd replied. But Tenet’s departure was all over the newspapers, I said; it was shoving aside stories about the new government in Baghdad. Maybe in The New York Times and the Washington Post, Dowd said, but did you see the coverage in local papers across the country, the Milwaukee paper, the Cincinnati paper? No, I said. The local papers, Dowd claimed, were giving more ink to the new Iraqi government than the upheaval at the CIA. “On some front pages,” he noted, “it only says, ‘CIA Chief Resigns, see page A7.’ Many people are going to have the sense that there was a problem in Washington, but something was done about it and now it’s finished. That’s good for us.”
Was this cockamamie spin or reasonable interpretation? The Bush camp has tried to make Tenet the fall guy for Bush’s WMD predicament. This is an important goal for the campaign, for if the war in Iraq continues to go wrong, some swing voters might look back at Bush’s prewar justifications and false assertions and be upset that he hornswoggled the nation. So Bush’s partisans have repeatedly pointed to the passage in Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack in which Tenet tells Bush before the war that the evidence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was “slam dunk.” And now that the fellow who supposedly misled Bush has left (or has been pushed out), the Bushies can claim that the issue has been resolved.
But hold the slam dunk. On his way out, Tenet is leaving behind a pile of clues that point to Bush as the main culprit. Tenet started dropping the bread crumbs in July 2003 during the Niger caper. At that time, Bush was under fire for having falsely claimed in his State of the Union address that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Niger. As the Niger story stayed in the headlines, Tenet played the loyal lieutenant. In a way. He released a statement in which he assumed full responsibility for the “mistake.” But he noted that the CIA had earlier opposed using this allegation, and he strongly hinted that White House officials had been behind the decision to keep this unfounded charge in Bush’s address.
In a February 5, 2004, speech, Tenet delivered a more extensive between-the-lines indictment of Bush. The address was primarily a defense against the charge that the CIA had screwed up the prewar intelligence. On that front, Tenet was unpersuasive. (And the Senate intelligence committee is expected to release soon a report blasting the CIA on the WMD intelligence.) But in this speech, Tenet, without fanfare, made several statements that undercut his boss. Referring to the prewar intelligence, he reported, “We said we had no specific information on the types or quantities of [biological] weapons, agent, or stockpiles at Baghdad’s disposal.” Yet in an October 7, 2002, speech, Bush had declared that Iraq possessed “a massive stockpile.” Tenet also noted that prewar intelligence had concluded (probably wrongly, it turns out) that Iraq was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle that might be used to deliver biological or chemical weapons. But before the war Bush had claimed Iraq already had a “growing fleet” of such drones and that they could be used to attack the United States with WMDs. Tenet also said that prior to the war the CIA had concluded that Hussein did not possess nuclear weapons. Bush, however, had said, “We don’t know whether or not [Hussein] has a nuclear weapon” — suggesting that the anti-American dictator might indeed have one.
More importantly, Tenet all too gently challenged the foundation of Bush’s case for war. He asserted that his analysts never concluded that Iraq was an “imminent” threat. Now, it’s apparently true, as Bush’s backers claim, that Bush did not use the I word. But he did say that Iraq posed a “direct” and “urgent” threat to the United States, that it could launch a biological- or chemical-weapons attack within 45 minutes, and that it could hand WMDs to terrorists “on any given day.” His White House maintained there was a “high risk” Iraq would use WMDs “to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its armed forces.” This all sounded rather imminent. But Tenet was essentially saying that Bush had no cause for uttering such dramatic statements.
Tenet produced a rather damning case against Bush, implying — though not stating — that Bush hyped the argument for war. Tenet ought to take the rap for the CIA’s failure to assess accurately Iraq’s WMD programs. But he should not be the scapegoat for the Bush administration’s blatant abuse of faulty intelligence. In a fair and balanced world, Bush would have to answer for compounding the mistakes of the CIA and Tenet’s departure would focus attention on Bush’s misrepresentations.
But politics ain’t fair. And Dowd may be right: Dumping Tenet could help Bush avoid inconvenient WMD questions. But Tenet, the quasi-good soldier, is not making a stink. Even though he placed what amounts to a smoking gun in public view, Tenet did this so quietly that the smoke signals have not been read by the media and the public at large. Tenet is in the cold — a fall guy in waiting — while Bush (so far) has avoided the hot seat.