George Tenet’s frantic effort to shed the perception that he was responsible for the intelligence failures associated with WMD and Osama bin Laden has uncovered the soft political underbelly of U.S. intelligence. Congressional demands for an active oversight role in American intelligence produced George Tenet.
Post-Watergate administrations acquiesced — albeit in some instances hesitantly — to the removal of the political insularity that had been the hallmark of the CIA since its creation after World War II. The job of Director was incrementally reduced to primarily a conduit for congressional oversight and intelligence coordination. One of the results by the time Tenet was appointed DCI/DCIA was that the post became more of an interpreter of White House policies and priorities rather than the individual who ran American intelligence.
That was good for George Tenet, who had no management experience outside of his relatively brief tenure as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Unfortunately, he also had had no experience either on the operational or analytical side of intelligence. He had been a career Hill staffer ever since getting his degree in international affairs and becoming a legislative assistant to the late Sen. John Heinz.
Everyone liked this jovial and intellectually astute young man with important sponsors from both parties. He was just what the doctor ordered when Clinton first named him Dep. Director, then Director of the CIA — a non-controversial Washington congressional bureaucrat.
He was reportedly well liked in the Agency for his political connections and generous and protective attitude toward the Agency’s diverse personnel. Most importantly, he didn’t interfere with the work of the professionals.
Perhaps tops on his list of accomplishments, from the intelligence careerist’s standpoint, was that he obtained congressional and presidential support for broadening the CIA’s human intelligence operations as well as much new internal hiring. All these were good reasons for the new Bush Administration to have him stay on. Having a CIA director who knew how to press the right congressional buttons was seen to be a major plus.
Back at Langley there was a general sigh of relief that they wouldn’t have to go through another change of Director with the incoming administration. They had had five in the preceding ten years (1990-2000). Furthermore, the revitalized operations directorate could count on Tenet as their point man for selling to the new Republican leadership the need for even greater human intelligence operations.
Neither Congress nor the White House has fully appreciated that the operations phase of intelligence is always at war all around the world. Covert operations do not depend on large military conflict to signal their wars. These clandestine battles can be dangerous and sometimes deadly. Lives and careers lost without any public notice are ignored or taken for granted by the political bodies that authorize their missions. Meanwhile, the case officers and analysts work dutifully without political bias for each new presidential incumbent.
Among the best of these American intelligence officers and agents not a word is ever spoken or written publicly. Since the 1970’s, however, politicians and pretenders, such as Tenet and other directors, as well as a limited number of operations officers and analysts have been allowed to cash in on their service, and thereby the service of the many others.
This reflects an entire breakdown of the basic ethical structure of the intelligence business — a breakdown that Tenet and others have been all too willing to exploit for their own political and monetary satisfaction. While apparently legal to do, this disregard for the basic principle of the service of which they were a part is a dishonor to all who have served — the many who have never allowed themselves to be tempted by the chance, as Tenet said, “…to tell my side.”
The truth is that if the Bush Administration — or any administration, for that matter — wants to blame the director of the intelligence service for giving incorrect information to them that caused their actions, that is their political decision. The director, by the nature of his job, is supposed to take the fall. That’s why they call it secret intelligence, George. But I guess they never taught you that on the Senate Intelligence Committee!
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