As director of the CIA, George Tenet has kept America's most important secrets. And until now, his lips were sealed.
Tenet's CIA has been blamed for failing to stop 9/11, praised for the fall of the Taliban, and vilified for predicting that Iraq held chemical and biological weapons.
Now, three years after leaving the CIA, Tenet has written a book, aptly named, "At the Center of the Storm." This month, correspondent Scott Pelley sat down with Tenet. 60 Minutes wanted to know how he got "weapons of mass destruction" wrong. Are we using torture in the war on terror? And who was it at the White House who finally put the knife in his back?
60 Minutes found him passionate, combative, apologetic, defiant, and fiercely loyal to the people of the CIA and their fight against terrorism.
"People don't understand us, you know, they think we're a bunch of faceless bureaucrats with no feelings, no families, no sense of what it's like to be passionate about running these bastards down. There was nobody else in this government that felt what we felt before or after 9/11. Of course, after 9/11, everybody had that feeling. Nobody felt like we felt on that day. This was personal," Tenet tells Pelley.
His story erupts after a silence of three years. 60 Minutes spoke with Tenet at Georgetown University.
In a sense, his career began and ended there. He's a professor now, but he first came as a student from Queens, New York. After college, he worked on Capitol Hill and in the Clinton White House, rising to lead the CIA at the age of 44. Tenet served seven years, all that time hunting Osama bin Laden.
"I still lie awake at night thinking about everything that could have been, that wasn't done to stop 9/11. To the 9/11 families, I said, you deserve better from your entire government. All of us," Tenet says.
If he lies awake, men like Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, two of the 9/11 hijackers, are among the reasons. Before 9/11, Tenet's CIA headquarters knew that they were al Qaeda and in America. But the information was filed, not passed to the FBI.
"Two of the 19 hijackers, in your files, in Langley, Virginia, a year and a half before 9/11 … they don't get on a watch list. They don't get on a no-fly list. You know these are bad guys," Pelley remarks.
"Scott, they don't. And honest people doing honest work, for whatever you know, all of these people who are doing the best that they can, and understand this in great granularity, understand all of this and feel this pain, we all know this. I can't dress this up for you," Tenet replies.
"People were inundated with data and operations. And they missed it," Tenet acknowledges. "We're not trying to intentionally withhold—human beings made mistakes."
But the 9/11 Commission accused Tenet's CIA of being bureaucratic and failing to recognize al Qaeda for the threat that it was.
"All these commissions, and all these reports never got underneath the feeling of my people. You know, to see us written about as if we're idiots. Or if we didn't understand this threat. As if we didn't understand what happened on that day. To impugn our integrity, our operational savvy. You know, the American people need to know that's just not so," Tenet says. "We're the ones that stand up and tell you the truth about when we're wrong. It's a great thing about this government. The only people that ever stand up and tell the truth are who? Intelligence officers. Because our culture is, never break faith with the truth. We'll tell you, you don't have to drag it out of us. You didn't have to serve me a subpoena to tell me I didn't watch list Hazmi and Midhar. We knew right away; and we told everybody. Truth matters to us."