Anatomy of a failure

Here in the Oval Office, on this Saturday morning, an intelligence failure is about to erupt.

You are sitting at your desk, surrounded by your vice president, your CIA director and most of your national security team on Dec. 21, 2002. You are listening to the CIA’s deputy director, John McLaughlin, run through a presentation, complete with charts, that is being billed as the best public case your administration can make that Saddam Hussein possesses and is prepared to use weapons of mass destruction.

You are underwhelmed and unimpressed. You say this won’t convince “Joe Public.” You suggest maybe some lawyers who argue cases in front of juries ought to be brought in to make the case more convincing. But then your top man at the CIA speaks up. George Tenet promises that his agency can make the case powerfully. He says it is “a slam dunk.”

So what happens next? Do you just sit there and say nothing? Does your CIA director just sit there and offer no elaboration?

Of course not. In a world where leaders use their own intelligence to make decisions that are based on carefully documented and analyzed intelligence, you would be smart enough to follow your CIA director’s flip “slam duck” assertion by demanding specifics. You’d say something like: “Just what additional information do you have that you can add to make this case convincing? Because so far I’ve heard nothing that sounds like a slam dunk.”

Also, in a world where intelligence chiefs make assertions based upon both their own intelligence and that which their agency has amassed, the CIA’s director would be smart enough to detail just what would be done differently to make the case convincing.

But neither President Bush nor Tenet displayed the intelligence that led them to say any such thing. At least not according to all known versions of that now-famous meeting. Not the version Bush and/or his acolytes dished to Bob Woodward for his best-selling book, “Plan of Attack.” And not the version Tenet just dished, most defensively, in his own new book that he hopes will make him a profit in his own time.

To take Tenet at his word, his book (“At the Center of the Storm,” which I just bought and read so you won’t have to) may not have been written primarily to get rich but to get even. Tenet makes no secret that he believes the Bush sources who leaked the “slam dunk” anecdote to Woodward have used it to make him appear the scapegoat for the intelligence failures that are responsible for all that has gone wrong in Iraq. Tenet is sharply critical of Vice President Dick Cheney and the neo-cons who mounted the campaign within to invade Iraq before and certainly after the attacks of 9/11.

And he is sharply critical of Condoleezza Rice’s performance as national security adviser for failing to give the president countervailing intelligence and analysis that cautioned against a quick invasion of Iraq.

Tenet also writes of having warned Rice in July 2001 about Osama bin Laden’s determination to attack the United States — and says he assumes she told the president. Timeout: If Tenet, who boasts that he saw Bush daily, felt a preventive attack on bin Laden was urgent, he should have made his case forcefully to the president.

But mainly, Tenet is consumed by the way his “slam dunk” braggadocio has been fashioned into permanent scapegoat horns by his enemies within. “If I had simply said, ‘I’m sure we can do better,’ I wouldn’t be writing this chapter — or maybe even this book,” Tenet wrote in a chapter he titled “Slam Dunk.” It was, he wrote, “a phrase that was later taken completely out of context and has haunted me ever since it first appeared in Bob Woodward’s book …”

No doubt it has also haunted thousands of Americans who became designated next-of-kin due to the war that was justified by a failure of intelligence. In his book’s most honest and revealing admission, Tenet wrote in the “Slam Dunk” chapter: “… in a position such as mine, you owe the president exactness in language. I didn’t give him that …” Nor did the president demand it. For that failure of intelligence, history will see to it that Tenet and Bush are forever slammed and dunked.


(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)


  1. Steve Horn

    Is it a failure of intelligence or the manipulation of intelligence for poltical gain? A failure of intelligence I could accept, mistakes happen, and if they do typically those who made them take action to attempt to correct the. Look at any research project, you make assumptions, you do the research, the results may support your assumptions or refute them, if they are proven incorrect you adjust and re-start your research.
    Unless, of course, you’re willing to manipulate your data to support an invalid assumption, which is what seems to have happened in this case. The problem is, in political as well as scholarly circles, once you manipulate data you’re stuck trying to stand by it, even though the evidence may prove you wrong, lest your reputation be soiled.
    The reputation of those involved in the manipulation of data leading to the Iraq war are not just soiled, their covered in their own fecal material, forever tainted by the lies they told and the lives they sacrificed in the vain attempt to force a lie to become the truth.
    Flush ’em – flush ’em all.



  2. Razor

    Well said Steve. You are absolutely correct that misinformation was manipulated to bolster a reason to attack a nation illegally. The blood on those who started the killing that continues today will never wash. I hope thier conscience will give them a slow and agonizing death for the evil deeds they did. It is amazing that these evil doers can still face anyone after four years of horror and mayhem of thier doing.

  3. Bill Jonke

    even a scintilla of respect for w if he admitted his mistake, took responsibility and corrected the problem, but he was hell bent on sticking to his story and digging himself, and all of us as Americans, deeper and deeper into the “Dark Ages.”

    This is the age of a new “Domino Theory,” and its effect is certainly as far reaching as the last one, this one being set up by American malice, namely George W. Bush And Dick Cheney.

    Part of wisdom is admitting your mistakes and trying to rectify them.

    What does that tell you about our idiot in chief?

    I wish Bush would put away his Dominoes. He doesn’t even know how to play the game correctly.

    Bill Jonke

  4. Wayne K Dolik

    We live in an increasing secret society. This was one of president Kennedy’s greatest concerns shortly before he was killed. The more I study this issue; I am lead to believe that our Intelligence Communities, in Great Britton, the United States, and Israel are utterly and completely berserk.

    The present situation in the United States is a complete discourse of lies, deliberate deception and total propaganda by the Corporate Media. The policy of politicians has overtaken our Media and our Intelligence Services. This needs to change. Let the sunshine in.

    The oil people in the Whitehouse need to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We went to war for the oil, and for no other reason. Mission Accomplished was code for we have cornered the Worlds oil supply.

  5. Steve Horn

    if we were going to invade a nation to oust a leader who was really a symbol of evil to his people, we’d have taken Mugabe out of power in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe does not, however, have a significant oil resource to exploit.

    I recall a few years back how we were going to be greeted as liberators AND how the reconstrucion of post-war Iraq was going to be fully funded by the sale of oil.

    How the times have changed.



  6. gene

    I shouldn’t waste my time even commenting about Iraq because Bush is nothing but a f**king lier and scammer. He and others are in this for their own reasons and to hell with the american public.

    They, yes They started this shit about terroist by destroying the now famous trade center complex on a very specific date (9ll)…equals brain washing.

    The bastard is starting to come apart at the edges. The truth will come out and Bush will be eventually and totally disgraced.

  7. Roadapple00

    I agree Razor, but just go to any hospital anywhere in the US and watch. The good do the suffering, and the evil dies quickly. Someone with cancer can linger for years, an evil doer will have a quick painless death.

    Maybe God just wants us rid of the evil doers, and the good to stay so we can still learn from them and their mistakes.


  8. Cashel Boylo

    “Here in the Oval Office, on this Saturday morning, an intelligence failure is about to erupt.”
    Cannot happen. Not ever.
    Once in a while, under urgent circumstances and great stress, one intelligence operator might get one item wrong.
    That is why every nation on earth employs thousands, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of operators, overt and covert, on the spot and safely far away, plus wiretaps, surveillance videos, satellites, computers, informers, traitors, info analysts, statistical analysts, devil’s advocates.
    When all the info is laid out and sorted through from a thousand different viewpoints, it is impossible for any intel agency to get it all wrong.
    Simple example: the FIRST statistical analyst to look at Tenet’s Big Lie about WMD would say: “Can’t happen. Not enough raw material. Logistics impossible. Not enough brain power. Not enough experience. No experiments…”
    A THOUSAND stats analysts would concur.
    Then a THOUSAND info analysts would look and also concur.
    Then the professional DEVIL’S ADVOCATES would advance their arguments — and it would be obvious, even to mental defectives like Tenet and Rice that the whole deal is a crock of crap.
    Tenet’s book, like Woodward’s “All the President’s Men” is a cover-up of a cover-up, and for the same reasons — MONEY and POWER.

    Cashel Boylo