National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Tenet Spills Some Secrets

WASHINGTON — Former CIA director George Tenet, one-time keeper of some of the nation’s biggest secrets, has spilled some of the goods in his $4 million memoirs.

So now he tells us!

His retrospective on the prelude to the Iraq war — now in its fifth year — appears to corroborate earlier indications that toppling the Saddam regime was high on President Bush’s agenda from the start of his administration.

Tenet has been somewhat of a convenient scapegoat for the Iraqi debacle, even though Bush conferred on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian award when they parted company in 2004.

He was originally an appointee of the Clinton administration and had served as CIA chief since 1997. As a carryover to the new administration, Tenet was eager to ingratiate himself with the new president during a period of probation, when he apparently lived up to his reputation for telling the president what he wanted to hear.

Tenet’s book "At the Center of the Storm" takes shots at Vice President Dick Cheney and some hawkish Pentagon advisers but goes easy on Bush, described as "well-intentioned."

But Tenet said there was never a "serious debate" concerning an Iraqi threat before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.

Furthermore, Tenet said "there was precious little (discussion), that I’m aware of, about the big picture of what would come, while some policy makers were eager to say we would be greeted as liberators. What they failed to mention was that the intelligence community told them that such a greeting would last only for a limited period."

In a rebuttal to Tenet, White House counselor Dan Bartlett claimed that Bush had "weighed all the various proposals (and) weighed all the various consequences before he did make a decision."

While acknowledging some mistakes of his own, Tenet tries to defend the role of the spy agency in the prewar gathering of intelligence.

He said several months before the invasion, the CIA had warned Bush of the possibility of "anarchy and the territorial breakup" of the country.

In a worst case scenario, he said CIA analysts also predicted "a surge of global terrorists against U.S. interests fueled by deepening Islamic antipathy toward the United States. . . major oil disruptions and severe strains in the Atlantic Alliance."

Tenet also said Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy defense secretary, and Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense, had urged Bush to make Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction his chief rationale for going to war.

He writes of the relentless inquiries from I. Lewis Libby, Cheney’s former chief of staff, seeking proof from the agency about links between Saddam Hussein and the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Tenet said he was alarmed and surprised when Cheney declared that there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein "now has weapons of mass destruction."

The vice president repeated this falsehood on the Sunday talk shows in the run-up to the war, even proclaiming on NBC-TV that "we know where they are."

Tenet bears out what retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, has called "the Oval Office Cabal" in plotting to take the nation to war with Iraq.

Another player was former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld whose callous dismissal from the Cabinet the day after last November’s Republican electoral defeat may lead him to write his own "tell all" version of the pre-war story.

To his regret, Powell — though not a member of the cabal — did his "good soldier" bit when he went before the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, and charged in a stunning speech that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Tenet — who sat behind Powell during the U.N. speech — said: "It was the last place I wanted to be."

"The secretary of state was hung out to dry in front of the world and our nation," Tenet wrote in his book.

But let’s face it, the nation would have been better served if some of the high-powered truth sayers like Tenet and Powell had blown the whistle on the administration at an earlier stage of the game.

Both men could have been profiles in courage and saved lives, reminding us once again of the sad words: "It might have been."

                c.2007 Hearst Newspapers

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