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Bush, blame, and 'marketing' the Iraq war

President Bush puts the Presidential Medal of Freedom on former CIA director George Tenet in December 2004. President Bush puts the Presidential Medal of Freedom on former CIA director George Tenet in December 2004. (Doug Mills/The New York Times/File 2004)

At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, By George Tenet with Bill Harlow, HarperCollins, 549 pp., $30

Former director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, as his book's title suggests, was at the center of the "storm" in the run-up to Iraq. But Tenet, echoing what several books about the Iraq war have suggested, says "there was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat." Instead, he says, the Bush administration "seized on the emotional impact of 9/11 and created a psychological connection between the failure to act decisively against al-Qa'ida and the danger posed by Iraq's [weapons of mass destruction] programs." Fear prevailed.

And what about Tenet's role? Much has been made of Tenet's December 2002 use of the term "slam dunk" to describe the case for war in Iraq. Tenet believes he has since been scapegoated by the Bush administration for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and the grim situation in Iraq. But in making the case for his defense, Tenet actually comes off worse than when he started.

Tenet says "slam dunk" originated that December at "essentially a marketing meeting" in which President Bush and his advisers didn't examine the underlying (and later proven unreliable) intelligence on WMDs but instead discussed how to sell this intelligence to the public. Thus, Tenet's use of the phrase "slam dunk" spoke to the likelihood of the public's buying the administration's case. "The president suggested that maybe we could add punch to the presentation [of intelligence]," writes Tenet , who was acting as eager salesman of a faulty product rather than as watchdog over the quality control of WMD intelligence.

Tenet's book is filled with mea culpas for "the mistakes, the goofs, the gaffes" that occurred under his watch. "I would like to turn back the clock and erase them," he admits. But while Tenet loudly bemoans the "blame game" that has become central to Washington's political culture , especially regarding the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war, he plays it quite well himself.

Regarding the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, in which Tenet and his analysts estimated Iraq's military capabilities, even he describes parts of it "a jumbled mess," especially regarding aluminum tubes that were used (and later discredited) as evidence of Iraq's nuclear capacities. These tubes would also be included in Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 5, 2003, presentation before the United Nations . Tenet points the finger at Congress for demanding hasty work on the NIE: "Had we started . . . sooner, I am confident we would have done a better job highlighting what we did and didn't know about Saddam's WMD programs."

Tenet helped Powell prepare for his UN presentation to market the war. Powell (and Tenet) relied on a single intelligence source, code-named "Curve Ball," to make the case that Iraq had mobile biological weapons capability. Curve Ball would later prove unreliable. Tenet faults the Defense Intelligence Agency for failing to point this out to him. As he explains, "Senior DIA officials sat through" a long meeting "without ever mentioning that possibly bogus information was being cited." He also blames a subordinate in Europe, Tyler Drumheller , for failing to inform him of Curve Ball's credibility problems: "No such report was disseminated," an indignant Tenet explains, "nor was the issue ever brought to my attention."

"We should have said, in effect," he concludes, "that the intelligence was not sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Saddam had WMD." Readers may deem this progress, but if pencils conveniently come with erasers, wars decidedly do not. Many may be left wondering whether Tenet's series of after-the-fact mea culpas is too little, too late.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Quincy.