George Tenet: At The Center Of The Storm

Former CIA Director Breaks His Silence

The truth of the CIA and al Qaeda starts before 9/11. Two years before the attacks, the CIA had officers on the ground in Afghanistan laying plans to overthrow the Taliban and take out bin Laden. But Tenet says neither Clinton nor President Bush would give him the go ahead. Then, by the summer of 2001, Tenet says he was so alarmed by intelligence that an attack was coming, he asked for an immediate meeting to brief then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice.

"Essentially, the briefing says, there are gonna be multiple spectacular attacks against the United States. We believe these attacks are imminent. Mass casualties are a likelihood," Tenet remembers.

"You're telling Condoleezza Rice in that meeting in the White House in July that we should take offensive action, in Afghanistan, now. Before 9/11," Pelley remarks.

"We need to consider immediate action inside Afghanistan now. We need to move to the offensive," Tenet says.

In his book, Tenet says that even though he told Rice an attack on Americans was imminent, she took his request to launch pre-emptive action in Afghanistan and delegated it to third-tier officials.

"You're meeting with the president every morning. Why aren't you telling the president, 'Mr. President, this is terrifying. We have to do this now. Forget about the bureaucracy. I need this authority this afternoon,'?" Pelley asks.

"Right. Because the United States government doesn't work that way. The president is not the action officer. You bring the action to the national security advisor and people who set the table for the president to decide on policies they're gonna implement," Tenet says.

"You thought you had some time," Pelley remarks.

"Well, you didn't know. Yeah, you thought you might have time," Tenet says. "You can second guess me until the cows come home. That's the way I did my job."

On Sept. 11, Tenet was at breakfast near the White House when the first plane hit. He thought instantly of his old nemesis.

"I knew immediately this was bin Laden. I excused myself from breakfast. I jumped in the car," he remembers.

"What do you mean you knew immediately? I mean, most people in the country thought there had been a terrible accident," Pelley asks.

"Listen, when you've been following this as long as I've been following this, when you've been thinking about multiple spectacular attacks. There was no doubt what had happened in my mind immediately," Tenet explains.

At the CIA headquarters, as the towers burned and the Pentagon was hit, Tenet got the aircraft passenger manifest; Hazmi and Mihdhar were listed.

"After all these years of planning and plotting and wanting to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, you must have thought, 'The SOB got me first,'" Pelley remarks.

"Um, yeah. But I had another thought. 'I'm gonna run you and all your bastards down. And here we come. Because the rules are about to change. Here we come; our turn now. Unleashed, authorities, money, direction, leadership; here we come, pal.' That's what I thought," Tenet says.

Immediately, Tenet got the authority he had been asking for in Afghanistan. And for the first time, the CIA led an American war. Tenet calls it the agency's finest hour, except, perhaps, for just one thing.

"Was Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora?" Pelley asks.

"We believe that he was," Tenet says.

"And, the question is, 'How did he get away?' If this plan of yours is so great … and Afghanistan went so well…. How does Osama bin Laden get away, when we've got him cornered at Tora Bora?" Pelley asks.

"Well, have you ever seen the geography in Tora Bora?" Tenet asks.

"I have," Pelley replies.

"You don't have anybody cornered in Tora Bora," Tenet says.

Tenet says our forces were too light to stop bin Laden's escape. "We played with what we had. 'Cause you didn't have a big force presence on the ground. We caught a lot of people, we didn't catch the one we wanted," he says.

But they did catch others, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who planned 9/11. He was captured in Pakistan.

"When Khalid Sheikh Mohammed ended up in the hands of CIA interrogators, what did he say?" Pelley says.

"I'll talk to you guys when you take me to New York and I can see my lawyer," Tenet replies.

  • Daniel Schorn

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