The spectacle of George Tenet desperately — and far too tardily — trying to salvage his reputation raises important questions about political responsibility in the American system of government. Tenet, immortalized to his eternal embarrassment for having assured George W. Bush that it would be a "slam dunk" case to prove that Saddam Hussein was acquiring "weapons of mass destruction," now maintains, in a newly published book, that it was all a big misunderstanding.
But what he "really meant" is now far beyond the point. If his oft-quoted words were wrongly interpreted, he had plenty of time to correct the record when the White House first began using them to justify the invasion of Iraq. At that time Tenet's correction would have carried weight.
As head of the CIA, and thus the nation's chief intelligence officer, Tenet was in a better position than anyone else in the American government to know the state of Saddam Hussein's arsenal. It was not only his job, but his duty, to ensure that the critical decisions over war and peace were being made on correct — rather than on politically motivated and distorted — judgments.
Yet he did not object when the intelligence reports of the organization he directed were manipulated to justify a war launched on false premises. Indeed, he sat literally at Colin Powell's right hand at the United Nations when the then-secretary of state staked his own reputation — and that of the nation he represented — on what Tenet knew, even at the time, was a distortion of the truth. Instead, Tenet kept his silence. For, this he was rewarded by Bush, who pinned the Presidential Medal of Freedom on his chest as he eased him out the door. The award might properly be called the Presidential Medal of Silence.
Now, four years later, after the death of some 3,000 American servicemen and women and at least 100,000 Iraqis, the devastation of a once-prosperous nation, the radicalization of millions of Muslims against the United States, the weakening of our traditional alliances, the swelling of the recruitment pool for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, the erosion of our own civil liberties, and a growing threat to our safety at home, Tenet lamely tells us that the quote was taken out of context.
And whom does he blame? Not the self-declared Decider who rewarded him with a medal, but Vice President Dick Cheney. To be sure, Cheney has been a relentless promoter of the war who directed efforts within the administration of justify it. But it is hardly an act of courage to blame the most suspect, and even disliked, public figure in America — rather than Cheney's ostensible boss, whom Tenet extols as a leader "absolutely in charge, determined and directed."
The sad thing about Tenet is not so much that he was a genial enabler, telling his superiors what they wanted to hear and providing cover for an operation they were intent on pursuing. Rather, it's that he exemplifies the rule that those in high places will endure virtually any humiliation before surrendering a position of power.
Occasionally lower-level officials may resign as a matter of personal conscience (and there were a number of these during this war). But in only two cases over the past century has a secretary of state resigned in protest over a presidential decision deemed harmful. The first was William Jennings Bryan in 1915, because he feared that Woodrow Wilson was leading the nation into war by his belligerent policy toward Germany's use of submarines against British shipping during World War I.
The second was Cyrus Vance, who opposed Jimmy Carter's quixotic and ill-fated effort in 1980 to send a helicopter team to Tehran to rescue diplomats held hostage in the U.S. Embassy by student radicals. When Carter, with disastrous results, ignored his counsel, Vance resigned as a matter of principle.
Why did only Bryan and Vance leave the government rather than implement policies they believed to be wrong? Are American officials more craven than those of other democracies? Probably not. But the American system leaves them nowhere else to go if they cannot bear to leave the suburbs of powers — except to become lawyers or lobbyists.
In a parliamentary system, high officials often have an elected seat in the legislature. If they leave the government, they still have a bully pulpit, maintain a public role, and may even try to supplant the leader they once served. In America, the choices are stark: Return to the Podunk from which you came, join a think tank or find an office on K Street.
No wonder that they linger in their appointed posts, swallow their pride, and behave like good soldiers. Nearly everyone wants to be invited back to play another day. Troublemakers are unwelcome. That is the American way. George Tenet is no more cowardly than most. Even bumped from the team, he still prefers a cold seat on the bench to exile in the bleachers.
By Ronald Steel
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