Tenet, White House: Two Views of Recent History

Former CIA director George Tenet's new book asserts that no "serious" debate was held before a decision was made to invade Iraq. The White House disagrees. Ellen Laipson, CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center, weighs both sides of the debate.

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LYNN NEARY, Host:

Former CIA Director George Tenet's new book, "At the Center of the Storm," goes on sale tomorrow. But media reports about what is in it have already been challenged by the White House. Tenet writes that the president and Vice President Dick Cheney had decided to invade Iraq long before 9/11, and he says no serious debate took place within the administration about an imminent Iraqi threat.

Speaking on NBC's "Today Show" on Friday, Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, said such conversations did take place, but George Tenet may not have been involved in them.

Joining us now is Ellen Laipson, CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center and former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council under both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELLEN LAIPSON: Thank you, Lynn. I'm glad to be here.

NEARY: So is it realistic that George Tenet might not have been involved in some of the meetings where the Iraqi war was debated?

LAIPSON: Well, we certainly have the impression that George was a trusted advisor of the president, went off to Camp David with him on weekends with a very small number of other advisors including National Security Advisor Rice and Andy Card. And certainly he was present at the formal meetings with the bureaucracy; each gives their input from their distinct institutional perspective. But it may well be that there were some very small political meetings that might have been the president, the vice president, and one or two others late at night, weighing the political decision.

In the end, the decision to go to war is a political decision, and the inputs from the other institutions of our national security system are not necessarily determinative. But it was my impression that George Tenet was certainly in the inner circle of many of the deliberations on Iraq.

NEARY: Well, what does it say about this administration's decision-making process if the CIA director, the then CIA director, was not at the meetings where these very crucial decisions about war finally were made?

LAIPSON: Well, it is true that, you know, the inputs on a decision to go to war should include the warnings of the consequences of the decision, which would have been an Intelligence and a State Department function - that would have been their contribution - but also the deliberations over does Iraq constitute an imminent threat to the United States? And the record seems to indicate that the Bush administration was much less interested in proving the case of imminent threat.

So to some extent, they did bypass the normal process in the deliberations. And I think the history books will be chewing on this one for quite some time on how the decision to go to war was made.

NEARY: Did Tenet need to push harder than he - should he have pushed harder to get his point, to be involved in these meetings, if he felt in any way that he was being excluded at that time?

LAIPSON: It is tricky that the person who represents the intelligence institutions has to protect that institutional role and not get too political or not rely too much on personal relationships. So he could have perhaps, said, look, the professional intel folks really don't see the evidence that you're seeing, et cetera. And in hindsight, both in the case of the secretary of state and in the case of the director of central intelligence, one can try to rewrite history: what would history have looked like if either of those two individuals had said, look, I'm really not on board, I don't think the facts get us in as far as you all believe they've gone.

So we can all write - rewrite the history in hindsight. I don't know whether he personally supported going to war with Iraq. Remember that this is still in the post-9/11 days, and Tenet was deeply, deeply affected by September 11th in part because he had been warning about al-Qaida for a long time and I think felt great personal anguish that intelligence had not been able to do more to prevent that al-Qaida attack.

NEARY: Why is George Tenet writing this book at this time? Is it to set the record straight for history, or is he trying to get back at the administration for trying to make him a scapegoat?

LAIPSON: Well, first, he lived through very interesting times, and he had a seat at the table, and he played an important role, so I do think that it's to give his perspective. I think he was angry immediately after he left government that he was somehow being blamed for Iraq when there were certainly many other people that share responsibility for the decisions, the choices that were made.

But I think perhaps he also wants to protect and defend the institution of intelligence, which I think he really did love being the leader of. So it's - I'm sure it's a combination of a number of motives. It is interesting that he seems to be quite protective towards the president, and in his own, sort of, political belief system, he may feel that it's not fair to criticize the sitting president, that others will not get to write their accounts of these days until after they've left government. But he was one who left earlier.

NEARY: Is this book likely to change the - affect the debate on Iraq at this point in any way?

LAIPSON: Well, I think it's too late. We're all living with the consequences and just trying to manage some very bad options in Iraq. It may contribute to our understanding of the interaction between intelligence and policy, which I think is an ongoing issue for us to get right.

NEARY: Ellen Laipson is the CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center and former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council from 1997 to 2002. Thanks so much, Ellen.

LAIPSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: You're listening to NPR News.

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