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A compromising of independence

In his memoir, former CIA director George Tenet writes, "I gave the impression that I was becoming a partisan player." (CHRIS HONDROS/GETTY IMAGES)

WASHINGTON -- The biggest revelation in former CIA director George Tenet's memoir seems to be showing just how far officials like Tenet, who work for the president but are presumed to have independent expertise, will go to please their bosses.

Tenet now says he regrets calling a New York Times reporter to lend the authority of the CIA to the president's case for war. But his willingness to sacrifice his credibility for the sake of his boss could reflect on other officials who answer to the president but are seemingly above politics -- such as General David Petraeus, the current US commander in Iraq.

The general gave a long press conference in Washington on Thursday, at the exact hour the Senate was debating whether to support a phased withdrawal of troops. In it, he asserted that sectarian violence is declining but that Al Qaeda remains a major force in Iraq.

"I think it is probably public enemy number one," Petraeus said of Al Qaeda. "It is the enemy whose actions sparked the enormous increase in sectarian violence that did so much damage to Iraq in 2006, the bombing of the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra. . . . And it is the organization that continues to try to reignite not just sectarian violence but ethnic violence as well."

This deeply troubling picture conforms to the Bush administration's insistence that Iraq is not in a civil war, but the main front in an international war against terrorism. The stakes couldn't be higher: Petraeus's comments gave senators a reason to support the war as a means of defending the United States against its prime enemy Al Qaeda, rather than engaging in a nation-building exercise.

But there are some reasons to question the general's assertions. For one, Bush himself has suggested that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is isolated in the mountains along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan and has only limited ability to communicate with underlings. If so, it's hard to believe that the Al Qaeda boss could be running things in Iraq.

The likely answer is he's not, but that some Islamist fighters who endorse his vendetta against the United States have gone to Iraq from other countries and are fomenting violence on their own. If so, this "Al Qaeda" really isn't the same international organization that is capable of planning massive attacks against the United States. It's a splinter group acting largely on its own.

At his press conference, Petraeus pegged the number of Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq in the "dozens." If so, does he really mean to suggest that the thousands of Iraqis killed in hundreds of recent attacks are victims of Al Qaeda, rather than civil war? Apparently he does, in the sense that he seems to believe that the people he calls "Al Qaeda" tricked Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'a into believing the other was responsible for mass killings that were sparked by outsiders.

There is, of course, another explanation for the violence between Sunni and Shi'a militias -- that they are fighting for control of the country -- but Petraeus seems fixated on "public enemy number one."

So, too, is the president. But Petraeus, as a military man, speaks with an authority that transcends politics: His comments are taken by most listeners to be independent of White House spin. Nonetheless, at many points over the last six years the administration has used such seemingly independent assessments to lend an aura of expertise to its war plans.

From the original Iraq/Afghanistan commander Tommy Franks to General Richard Myers, the former Joint Chiefs chairman who routinely seconded former d efense s ecretary Donald Rumsfeld's optimistic assertions, generals have provided cover for policies that weren't necessarily theirs.

And later reports have shown that while they were standing by their civilian bosses, others in the military had deep reservations about those policies, but kept quiet.

So too did many in the CIA, who were privately shocked by Tenet's endorsement of Bush's case for war. "In retrospect I shouldn't have talked to the New York Times reporter. . . . By making public comments in the middle of a contentious political debate, I gave the impression that I was becoming a partisan player," Tenet concedes in the new memoir.

Tenet's genuine desire to serve the president, combined with concern for his own career -- and then with the need to justify his earlier actions -- conspired to draw him deeper into a policy he never really meant to endorse. Petraeus might learn something from Tenet's experience.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

(Correction: The National Perspective column on the Nation Page on May 1 said that General David Petraeus , commander of US forces in Iraq, recently pegged the number of Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq in the "dozens." Petraeus actually said when asked how many foreign fighters are in Iraq: "I wouldn't hazard a guess. What I will say is that there are certainly dozens of foreign fighters who do come into the country on a monthly basis -- again, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the state of the network.")