Missed Warnings and Solid Convictions
Director of Central Intelligence from July 1997 to July 2004, George Tenet was the second longest-serving official in that post after Allen Dulles. He was also one of the few CIA chiefs to serve under two US presidents of opposing political parties.
Tenet never made his mark as a brilliant intelligence officer, certainly not in the arcane art of counterintelligence. Famous for getting along with his masters, his gifts lay rather in intelligence management. Less conspicuous were certain convictions to which he held at times.
Tenet was President Bill Clinton‘s second choice for the job. His first, Anthony Lake, dropped out over questions about his friendship with the Egyptian UN Secretary General Boutrous Boutrous Ghali. At the time, many Washington insiders suspected Ghali of links, running through his connections with the Russian KGB and its successor the SVR, to the notorious Aldrich Ames, the Russian spy who was caught in Feb. 2004, after climbing CIA ranks only to betray to the Soviet Union the name of every American agent working in the country.
In 1997, Washington and the agency were still reeling from the betrayal when Clinton went looking for a new DCI able to put the agency back on an even keel and a working routine. He was also required to be in tune with his administration’s foreign policy.
Clinton’s ambition then was to follow through on the Oslo interim Accords signed by Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993 – up to a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace. He believed that this achievement would open Muslim hearts to the United States for many years.
Tenet met these requirements.
The new broom quickly swept the Ames detritus out of sight and restored the CIA to smooth operation. He endeared himself to the Clinton White House by making his extensive ties with intelligence agencies across the Arab world available for cultivating Washington’s ties with moderate Muslim leaders. He was confident that a useful partnership would evolve from these ties for combating the early al Qaeda threat, a strategy which went down well with the president, national security adviser Sandy Berger and secretary of state Madeleine Albright
This strategy proved later to have been an optical illusion.
Sweeping Aldrich Ames and his works out of sight, instead of delving into their ramifications, obscured the overlap between al Qaeda and Ames’ traitorous network. It was therefore not discovered in time by US intelligence.
The evil seed planted inside the US then
This network actively helped Osama bin Laden‘s sleeper cells establish themselves in America. Ames would hire undercover operatives – purportedly for the CIA to plant inside al Qaeda as double agents. They invariably ended up betraying the American agency to the jihadists.
The Egyptian officer Ali A. Mohammed was one of Ames’ hirelings. Recruited in 1980 as a putative American intelligence penetration agent, Mohammed clandestinely fed information to al Qaeda; it was used in bin Laden’s first attempt to blow up New York’s Twin Towers in 1993 and in the treacherous trap al Qaeda planted for US troops in Mogadishu.
It is no wonder that George Tenet is still haunted six years after al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington
Interviewed about his just published book At the Center of the Storm, he said: “They” are still there and planning to strike malls and business centers. Tenet knows better than anyone that the CIA has never been able to penetrate the Islamist networks, although he has never explained why – either in his book or in interviews.
He must realize the damage he committed by brushing off the information passed to Washington by friends in allied intelligence agencies between 1998 and 2000, warning that al Qaeda proposed using hijacked airliners to hit the New York Trade Center and other targets in the USA.
At the time, Tenet lined up with the rest of the Clinton staff, who refused to take the warning seriously and dismissed it as an attempt to torpedo their attempts to reach an understanding with the Muslim world.
Tenet has been widely criticized for too closely toeing the ruling line. He was certainly attuned to the Clinton White House. But otherwise, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts say this judgment is simplistic.
As Central Intelligence Director, he had his own philosophy. As a matter of principle, he was opposed to US military action against Arab or Muslim nations, including the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The decision was not his, but the president’s; his task was confined to providing the data to underpin military action, which he did. His unequivocal reply to President Bush’s question regarding Iraq’s nuclear, chemical biological and missile programs, “Don’t worry; it’s a slam dunk case.!” has become famous.
Was he simply telling the boss what he wanted to hear?
It turns out that he was genuinely convinced that his verdict was true. Tenet is on record as stating just as equivocally in a lecture at Georgetown University on Feb. 5, 2006, that Saddam Hussein had under development long-range missiles of ranges beyond 1,000 km, unmanned aerial vehicles for delivering chemical and biological weapons and a nuclear program which, had the Iraqi dictator been left in power, would have attained weapons-grade uranium by 2007- i.e. now.
This was an unusually frank public utterance for any American intelligence chief.
Then why was no evidence produced to support his conviction? Tenet will have realized how the years of political and personal wrangling muddied the question until it was too late to judge the issue of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction on its objective merits.
Tenet stood by his resistance to attacking Syria
Tenet’s conviction did not prevent him strongly opposing the bombardment of the convoys of tanker-trucks which, DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported exclusively at the time, began moving Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction across the border into Syria’s Al Jezeera desert on Jan. 10, 2003. There they were buried deep.
The former CIA chief had three compelling reasons for his objection, as we now reveal:
1. It would have sparked an immediate outbreak of hostilities.
2. Hitting the moving trucks in Syria’s al Jezeera desert would have made more operational sense that bombing them in Iraq, but Tenet stood by his objection to expanding the war to Syria.
3. The presence of Russian personnel in the convoys, who had been helping organize them. If they were harmed, Tenet foresaw a major diplomatic crisis with Moscow and possible Russian reprisals in other parts of the world.
On April 6, 2003, the CIA director, with the approval of his superiors, ordered the Russian ambassador to Baghdad’s convoy to be bombed as it headed into Syria. The agency had received information that the diplomat was carrying top secret documents and objects related to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to safety in Syria.
By then it was too late to stop. The attack wounded or killed some members of the embassy entourage, but the convoy made it to the other side.
Tenet continued to stick to his guns against attacking Syria – and not just to keep the war from spilling out of Iraq. He maintained that after 9/11, the CIA’s working ties with Syrian intelligence on al Qaeda were too valuable to jeopardize, even after the Iraq War was in progress.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror experts affirm that those relations have always been overrated. The CIA chief and members of the Bush administration insisted in the past that Syrian intelligence cooperation averted al Qaeda attacks and saved many American lives. However, it is a fact that Syrian president Basher Assad got away with tossing the agency a few lowly al Qaeda operatives and mere crumbs of information. He thus bought on the cheap enough immunity to stave off extreme US pressure that would have stopped him allowing the Iraqi Baath and al Qaeda to pump fighters, weapons, explosives and cash into Iraq, so creating the infrastructure of the subsequent anti-US insurgency and terrorist campaign in Iraq.
Just as he refused to heed warnings reaching him in 1998-2000 of al Qaeda’s impending attack inside America, so too Tenet was blind to the intelligence available from late 2002 that Saddam Hussein and his sons were preparing to trap the US forces invading Iraq in a long and vicious guerrilla-terrorist war.