I watched George Tenent’s interview with Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” Sunday. Tenent’s new book gives his version of history leading up to September 11. It’s almost obligatory nowadays; after you have been in the inner circles of an administration, you write a “tell all” book, including private conversations with even the President himself.
I haven’t read the book, but I have followed the media accounts. My attention was drawn to Tenent’s statements that al Qaeda is here and waiting and that they wish nothing more than to be able to see a mushroom cloud above the United States.
Naturally, the media emphasis is not on that. Its attention is on any differences Tenent had with the administration. The media’s premise is that Iraq should not have been considered a real threat to us and that the administration basically misled the country into war. While one may take issue with Tenent on several things, I was intrigued that on some very important issues, Tenent did not follow the media script when answering Russert’s questions.
On the issue of al Qaeda’s relationship with Iraq, for example, Tenent said that the CIA had proof of al Qaeda contact with Saddam’s regime; that the regime had provided safe haven for al Qaeda operatives and that Saddam had provided training assistance for al Qaeda terrorists. He went on to say that the CIA had no proof that the relationship was operational or that they had any ongoing working relationship – that it could have been that each side was just using the other. Maybe my recollection is faulty on this, but that doesn’t seem to be inconsistent with what folks in the administration said. In other words, there was clearly contact and a relationship, but no one knew exactly what it meant.
On the issue of weapons of mass destruction, although Iraq undoubtedly had such weapons in the past, Tenent acknowledges that everybody got it wrong as to whether they would have them at the time of the invasion. On the nuclear issue, he said that the CIA thought that Saddam was five to seven years away from a nuclear capability – unless he was able to obtain fissile material from another source.
A couple of things occur to me here. In the first place, is five to seven years that far away? Since four years have passed since the invasion, that would be only a year from now if we had not invaded. If he had been able to obtain fissile materials, the time could have been much shorter. There are over 40 countries in the world with fissile material sufficient to make a nuclear bomb and much of it is unguarded.
The CIA could have been on the short side or on the long side of the estimate. They have underestimated the capabilities of hostile nations before, such as North Korea’s missile technologies. Also, Tenent acknowledged that before the Gulf War, the CIA had underestimated how far along Saddam was on his nuclear program.
All of this hardly fits with the notion that Saddam posed no threat. As Tenent made the media rounds, he may have helped the administration as much as hurt it, but he was in no danger of having that fact highlighted by his interviewers.