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

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