“We Don’t Torture People”
George Tenet, Blowhard
A medal for him, a noose for the rest of us from them both
The George Tenet interview on “60 Minutes” on April 30 was embarrassing — not because Scott Pelley, the correspondent, did a bad job. Pelley pressed and probed solidly enough. But Tenet dodged, huffed, hid behind incredible showmanship and petty clichés, his index finger lecturing Pelley and the audience about “honor” and integrity every time his version of events was challenged. No wonder he got along with Bush. He’s cut of the same cloth: a blowhard bully who talks big and did small. The way he talks sounds like programming on Lifetime or Oxygen, the cable networks for women: “"People don’t understand us, you know, they think we’re a bunch of faceless bureaucrats with no feelings, no families, no sense of what it’s like to be passionate about running these bastards down. There was nobody else in this government that felt what we felt before or after 9/11. Of course, after 9/11, everybody had that feeling. Nobody felt like we felt on that day. This was personal.” Maybe not Lifetime. More like “CSI Miami.” And that was the set-up to an interview that lasted close to half an hour and went downhill from there.
What the interview proved was very much what Tenet implicitly denied through it, what he attempts to explicitly deny through his new memoir: he was not the man for the job. He was overwhelmed. His personal feelings clouded his judgment. He had the sort of personality that lets turf battles cloud his vision (and turf battles very much did cloud the vision of his CIA as he refused to turn information about 9/11 hijackers over to the FBI). And his eagerness to please his superior, be it Clinton or Bush, nailed him to a role of puppy subservience that did nothing to improve his wanting objectivity. The interview again:
Pelley: “Two of the 19 hijackers, in your files, in Langley, Virginia, a year and a half before 9/11 … they don't get on a watch list. They don't get on a no-fly list. You know these are bad guys.”
Tenet: “Scott, they don't. And honest people doing honest work, for whatever you know, all of these people who are doing the best that they can, and understand this in great granularity, understand all of this and feel this pain, we all know this. I can't dress this up for you.”
Pelley: “What happened?”
Tenet: “People were inundated with data and operations. And they missed it. We're not trying to intentionally withhold—human beings made mistakes.”
So that’s it. An intelligence “community” funded to the tune of $40 billion a year, a CIA allegedly focused on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda for years before 9/11, according to Tenet, and “human beings made mistakes.” And were excused for it, Tenet chief among them: he stayed on after the attacks. The 9/11 Commission pointed what few fingers it did point at the overly bureaucratic nature of the CIA (and the FBI). Tenet’s reply? “All these commissions, and all these reports never got underneath the feeling of my people. You know, to see us written about as if we're idiots. Or if we didn't understand this threat. As if we didn't understand what happened on that day. To impugn our integrity, our operational savvy. You know, the American people need to know that's just not so.”
Actually, it is so, because it has nothing to do with integrity and feelings, neither of which did anything to keep 3,000 people from getting massacred on 9/11. It had to do with what basic reporting, by newspapers and the commission, have pointed to again and again: the CIA and the FBI failed not because they didn’t have the means, the intelligence, the laws to connect the dots. They failed because they didn’t have the honor and integrity to look beyond their turfs. Here’s Tenet at his most embarrassing: “We're the ones that stand up and tell you the truth about when we're wrong. It's a great thing about this government. The only people that ever stand up and tell the truth are who? Intelligence officers. Because our culture is, never break faith with the truth. We'll tell you, you don't have to drag it out of us. You didn't have to serve me a subpoena to tell me I didn't watch list Hazmi and Midhar. We knew right away; and we told everybody. Truth matters to us.”
Right. Slam dunk.
And what does Tenet, truth-teller, tell Pelley next? “We don’t torture people.” At that point in the interview Pelley was literally incredulous (“Come on, George”). George put on his Robert-deNiro-in-Taxi-Driver Act (“Now, listen to me. Now, listen to me. I want you to listen to me,” his index finger playing like a howitzer at Pelley) only to defend what he calls “enhanced interrogation.”
He later claimed that his use of the words “slam dunk” had nothing to do with the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:
“What did you mean by slam dunk?" Pelley asks.
"I guess I meant that we could do better," Tenet says.
"Do better?" Pelley asks.
"We can put a better case together for a public case, that’s what I meant. That’s what this was about," Tenet explains. Tenet says the president wasn’t happy with the presentation. So he was telling Mr. Bush that improving the presentation would be a slam dunk. But Tenet says the leak to Woodward made the remark look like the decisive moment in the decision to go to war.
By then Tenet looks like just another member of the Bush junta — a burly-mouthed liar out to protect what’s left of his shredded legacy. The embarrassment of failures around his tenure is more than enough to ensure that history won’t be fooled as much as he managed to fool his contemporaries.