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Since George Tenet left the helm of the CIA three years ago, he has granted no interviews and only rarely spoken in public. Now he has broken his silence and attacked Vice President Cheney and other Bush administration officials for their conduct in the run-up to war in Iraq.
Tenet says the administration decided to invade without ever seriously debating whether Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat. That and other charges appear in Tenet's new book, "At the Center of the Storm." It's officially scheduled for release on Monday, but copies are already finding their way into reporters' hands, including those of NPR's Mary Louise Kelly.
MARY LOUISE KELLY: George Tenet ran the CIA from 1997 to 2004, a tenure which of course included the two greatest intelligence failures in a generation - the 9/11 attacks and the flawed pre-war assessments on Iraq. Tenet's legacy is now forever linked to two words he uttered in the run-up to Iraq. The scene was the Oval Office, the date, December 21st, 2002.
Tenet and his top deputy, John McLaughlin, had been summoned to lay out for the president the case that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Tenet used the words, "slam dunk." He now says he was referring broadly to the case against Saddam, not to whether the Iraqi leader actually had WMD.
Tenet argues that Vice President Cheney and others have taken the phrase out of context and used it to make him - Tenet - a scapegoat.
Mr. GEORGE TENET (Former CIA Bureau Chief; Author, "At the Center of the Storm"): The hardest part of all this is just been listening to this for almost three years. Listening to the vice president go on "Meet the Press" on the fifth year of 9/11, you know, and say, well, George Tenet said slam dunk, as if he needed me to say slam dunk to go to war with Iraq, as if he needed me to say that.
KELLY: George Tenet speaking there on CBS. In the same interview, he made clear how bitter he is that someone in the Oval Office that December morning chose to leak the episode to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.
MR. TENET: Now how it happened and who orchestrated it and what happened, you know, at the end of the day, the only thing you have is trust and honor in this world. That's all you have. All you have is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor. And when you don't have that anymore, well, you know, there you go. Trust was broken.
KELLY: The White House's response to Tenet has been swift, particularly to what's arguably his most damning charge that the president and his advisers went to war without ever conducting a serious debate about whether Iraq posed an imminent threat.
That charge was first reported by The New York Times today. NPR has since confirmed Tenet does make that accusation in his book. On NBC this morning, White House Counselor Dan Bartlett called Tenet a fine American and a patriot.
Mr. DAN BARTLETT (Counselor to the President): I will say though I do believe and if somebody who has been here in the inside of the White House for this entire term understands acutely that this president weighed all the various proposals, weighed all the various consequences before he did make a decision.
KELLY: Bartlett also suggested that Tenet may not be aware of all the internal meetings and debate that were taking place in the days before the Iraq invasion. Tenet's friends are backing his account of events. John McLaughlin, Tenet's former deputy at the CIA, says Tenet's account of the slam-dunk meeting squares with his own memory. And McLaughlin tells NPR he supports his old boss' decision to come forward now.
Mr. JOHN McLAUGHLIN (George Tenet's Former Top Deputy): I think he's trying to meet an obligation to history. This man was director of Central Intelligence for seven years through the most tumultuous period that American intelligence has ever been through. This is the man people should want to hear from.
KELLY: McLaughlin also defends Tenet's choice to wait to speak up until three years after he left government and to wait until he had a potentially lucrative book to sell. McLaughlin points out that Tenet walked away from an earlier book deal about a year after he left government because Tenet felt he didn't have the distance yet to make sense of all that had happened.
Mr. McLAUGHLIN: I think he waited three years in part because he wanted to get a sense of historical perspective and I would say another big factor is that in that period of time, I can count five or six books that have been written about him or about us in that period, defining our activity, usually in unflattering terms, and I think he got tired as anyone would of having everyone else define him.
KELLY: Tenet will have plenty of opportunities to tell his story in the coming days. He's got book publicity interviews lined up back to back all next week. And Congress wants to get in on the act.
Today Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who chairs the House Government Reform Committee, wrote to Tenet to invite him to come testify on his views about the claims used to justify the war in Iraq.
Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.
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