Last Friday I attended a reception at the CIA headquarters in Virginia. Monday CIA Director George Tenet retired. While there is absolutely no connection between my visit and his resignation, in this three-part series I explore the implications of the CIA’s management turmoil and turnover.
We do appear to be seeing creeping (slow) regime change in Washington. First, Iraq commander General Ricardo Sanchez was moved out of Iraq, with no replacement assignment to call his own. Now Tenet is gone. Who’s next? My prediction: Vice President Chaney will retire. Remember, you heard it here first.
The Tenet era was an unusual one. Tenet served longer than all but one of his predecessors. He warned of the threat from Al Qaeda before the reality of terrorism was recognized and respected. In early 2001 Tenet was a voice in the wilderness when he constantly warned that America faced imminent attack.
Perhaps I should state at the outset where I stand in all of this. I strongly support the concept and role of the CIA. We need a first class, first-rate intelligence service. We need to protect Americans, and all other peace loving people in the world, from terrorism and totalitarianism. The CIA is not perfect. Mistakes will be made. The agency is only as good as the public officials who control its operations.
I do not support human rights violations. I do not support torture or abuse by the CIA or any other American agency. I believe torture is useless as an intelligence gathering tool. I believe that intelligence can be gathered consistent with, and not in violation of, the United States Constitution. I favor searching congressional oversight of the intelligence community.
I believe the USA Patriot Act and all of the repressive procedures we have implemented since 2001 will gradually be repealed and replaced because they are contrary to our national security. I want America’s doors to be wide open, not slammed shut. Our national strength is our openness. Since 2001 we have weakened American by isolating this great nation from the rest of the world.
Unfortunately for Tenet he is probably going to be remembered for his unfortunate claim that finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be a "slam dunk." It is not likely that the "Chalaby challenge," issued by CIA bete-noire Ahmed Chalaby, will undermine Tenet’s reputation. A few days ago, Chalaby challenged Tenet to a face off before a congressional committee. Chalaby endures in Iraq; Tenet is gone.
Tenet was not an Agency man. The closest he has come to danger is probably rush hour traffic on the Washington beltway. Still, he was a survivor. Now he’s gone. President Bush is both a gainer and loser. Bush gains because Tenet is gone as a lightening rod for the Iraq intelligence failures. Bush loses because he trusted and liked Tenet, and Bush doesn’t like to see his team shaken up.
Tenet’s tenure was all the more remarkable because he was a Clinton Administration holdover. I thought Bush did the right thing when he retained Tenet. The chief of intelligence gathering should not be a politician.
Tenet’s most interesting actions came in the Middle East. The CIA traditionally has had a chilly relationship with the Israeli Mossad. When President Clinton desperately wanted to pardon pro-Israel traitor Jonathan Pollard, Tenet went to Clinton and said the CIA building would empty out if Pollard was released. Clinton backed down. During the Tenet years the CIA also worked to help Palestinians crate their own security service. Indeed, it will be interesting to see if pro-Israel elements in Washington now attempt a takeover of the CIA.
Tenet’s place in history is still very much in doubt. The CIA acted masterfully when it coordinated the overthrow of the Taliban. A handful of special operations forces managed to remove Al Qaeda’s sanctuary.
But allegations of CIA torture in Afghanistan and Iraq (see part II tomorrow) still need to be investigated. It is likely we will see the appointment of a "Church Committee" (named after former Senator Frank Church who investigated the CIA in the 1970’s, where I was a fly on the wall). If torture is proven, Tenet will take the blame.
Will Tenet’s retirement affect current CIA operations? Not at all. Still, it is interesting that one year after the fall of Baghdad, the dominoes are falling in Washington, not the Middle East.