Tenet gets his innings

Turn on any television news program last week and odds were you'd find either Spider-Man or George Tenet. Sometimes both.

Spidey has a new movie out. Tenet, the former director of central intelligence, has a new book out. In the bizarre bazaar that is the great American publicity machine, actors shilling for the third movie about a cartoon superhero competed for the public's attention with a lumpy apparatchik selling his "it's not my fault" account of the run-up to the Iraq War.

Tenet now becomes the third of the infamous Medal of Freedom winners, along with retired Gen. Tommy Franks and Paul Bremer, to cash in on his public service, such as it was.

Since stepping down as CIA director in July 2004, Tenet has maintained a scrupulous silence about his role in the decision to invade Iraq. He was saving the good stuff for his book, for which HarperCollins Publishers paid Tenet a reported $4 million advance.

With the war dragging on in its fifth year, and with the feckless bungling that led up to the war now so thoroughly dissected, Tenet's story is tiresome. He tries very hard to lay the blame on other participants: Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former National Security Adviser and now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Anyone, everyone.

Tenet is haunted by two words that first appeared in journalist Bob Woodward's "Plan of Attack," a book about the administration's decision to go war. Woodward's book says Tenet told President George W. Bush, at a meeting on Dec. 21, 2002, that making the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk."

Tenet's "Slam Dunk" chapter claims Woodward's sources got it all wrong, that he and the CIA never were totally sold on Saddam's possession of WMDs. In using the term "slam dunk," Tenet says, he was merely saying the agency could strengthen the case for WMDs. He admits now that the CIA blew it "for 100 different reasons that go to the heart of what we call our 'tradecraft.'" He also admits that he should have done a better, more precise, job of briefing the president about the holes in what the CIA knew about Saddam's Iraq.

What radiates between the lines is that in his seven years running the CIA under both President Bill Clinton and Bush, Tenet had a habit of tailoring his information to what the presidents wanted to hear. And though he laments the weaknesses of the agency's field operations, he doesn't acknowledge his own role, in 10 years as assistant director and then as director of CIA, in failing to help reform the agency.

Tenet's book is valuable as an account of bureaucratic infighting and human frailty. It also is valuable as a cautionary tale of what happens when weak leaders surround themselves with sycophants and ideologues. In that, however inadvertently, Tenet puts his finger on how the United States got itself mired in Iraq.

The next president, whoever he or she may be, should read it as a primer on what leadership is not.

Reprinted from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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