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Tenet Answers Criticism from Retired CIA Officers

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Tenet Answers Criticism from Retired CIA Officers

Politics

Tenet Answers Criticism from Retired CIA Officers

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

During the seven years he ran the CIA, George Tenet did not shy away from controversy. His reputation was that of a plain talking, cigar chomping big personality who presided over two enormous intelligence failures - 9/11 and pre-war Iraq, but who retained the respect of his staff through it all. True to form, Tenet is creating a stir with his new book. Among those now speaking out to criticize it and him are a number of former CIA officers.

George Tenet spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in our New York bureau today.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: George Tenet arrived at our studios midmorning still wearing TV makeup from his first interview today. He's on a media blitz promoting his book on seemingly every big news outlet in the country, and a few that aren't. He's managing to wedge in a Greek TV interview or two - a nod to his family roots. Adding to the media frenzy surrounding the release of his new book, aptly titled "At the Center of the Storm," are the complaints of some former intelligence officers, among them Michael Scheuer.

He was the first head of the CIA's bin Laden unit. Scheuer believes his old boss should take a lot more responsibility than he has for what's gone wrong in Iraq. In The Washington Post this past weekend, Scheuer wrote that Tenet, quote, "lacked the moral courage to resign and speak out publicly to try to stop our country from sliding into what he knew would be an abyss."

Mr. GEORGE TENET (Former Head, Central Intelligence Agency): Well, I didn't know it was going to be an abyss.

KELLY: George Tenet.

Mr. TENET: There was never any doubt in my mind that we would win militarily. I didn't know how we would implement the post-war - I didn't have any prescient knowledge about how this is all going to play out. As to his resignation piece, well, you know, when you're a professional and you believe in your government and you believe in your service. I've got a war against al-Qaida I believe deeply in. The way I looked at my job was this I believed that I had an obligation to stay and do the best I could.

KELLY: Tenet has also come under fire from a group of half a dozen other retired CIA officials. They've written Tenet an open letter calling on him to dedicate a portion of his book royalties to American soldiers in Iraq and their families. The former officials write: By your silence, you helped build the case for war.

Tenet says, not true. He adds, none of the ex-CIA letter writers actually worked for him, that these are people not speaking from first-hand knowledge of events.

Mr. TENET: People who were not within a hundred miles of me, never sat in on meetings, don't know how I think about my country and my responsibility. They can say whatever they want to say. They're making all kinds of assertions. Look, they have a right to their opinion.

KELLY: Is it painful to hear this coming from former CIA officers?

Mr. TENET: You know, I've heard from a lot of other CIA officers - hundreds of others in these two weeks. They said: Boss, keep your head up. We trusted your leadership, but history will make that judgment.

KELLY: As to his and the CIA's overall performance on Iraq, Tenet says it's Mixed, that there's no question they blew it in assuming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. But he argues the agency got it mostly right in predicting how things might play out after the invasion. And Tenet denies his analysts bowed to political pressure.

Mr. TENET: We told the truth, as we believed it. So if someone says, well, you just told them what they wanted to hear. If we had told them what they wanted to hear, we would have simply said you're right. There's authority, direction, control and complicity between Iraq and al-Qaeda. You can have that one.

If we have told them what they wanted to hear, we could have not said things are really going badly. We could have not pointed out the post-war problems. So the thing that really troubles me is that I hear folks get up and say you just told him what they wanted to hear. It's not our culture. It's not the way I did my job. The record is mixed but there's no doubt that, you know, on issues that some policy makers would have loved us to have been much closer to them, we held our ground.

KELLY: George Tenet speaking at our New York bureau earlier today.

BLOCK: That report is from NPR's Mary Louise Kelly who joins us from New York. And, Mary Louise, there have been a few factual inaccuracies in George Tenet's book that have come to light. What did he have to say about those?

KELLY: Right. These are a couple of problems with dates and titles. There's a Pentagon briefer who he identifies as a Naval reservist. She wasn't, and she says that she was misquoted to boot. Also significantly, there's a very dramatic opening anecdote in the book, it involves a chance meeting between Tenet and Richard Perle, the former Pentagon adviser, the day after the 9/11 attacks. Perle has since come forward and said: Couldn't have happened, I was in France the day after the 9/11 attacks.

We've raised this with Tenet. He says he does regret the errors, that he may have been off by a detail or two. But that he remembers well the substance of the conversations and he says, look, I did a lot of research for this book, a lot of interviews. This is my attempt to be as honest as possible about events as he sees them.

BLOCK: You asked George Tenet whether these criticisms that have been leveled against him are painful. Does he seem surprised by them?

KELLY: He doesn't particularly. He seems to be taking it in stride. I would say that's probably helped along by the fact that the official reaction from the White House has actually been pretty mild to this. I think they've decided not to fan the flames.

The other point I would make is from the reporting I've done these past few days, the CIA officers speaking out against Tenet, I think, are - as he said, they're probably in the minority. He is still amazingly, you know, after everything that happened, remarkably respected at the agency. I think his word will still carry a lot of weight among former and current intelligence officials there.

BLOCK: Okay, Mary Louise, thanks very much.

KELLY: You're welcome, Melissa.

BLOCK: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in New York. You can read a profile of George Tenet and follow an interactive timeline of his years as CIA director at npr.org.

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