Tenet won’t take the fall

Remember the scene in The Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade tells Bridgid O’Shaugnessy, “I won’t play the sap for you”? I think George Tenet (who isn’t nearly as tough-looking as Bogart) just did that to George W. Bush (who, whatever your sexual orientation, isn’t nearly as sexy as Mary Astor).

Ever since the Iraq crisis started to heat up, advocates of war, and especially the White House and its friends, have criticized the CIA for understating the Iraqi threat, and in particular Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Now that David Kay has combed Iraq and reported “Yes, we have no bananas,” the Mr. Bush’s friends have done a quick 180: they’re now claiming that, if he and his advisors made false claims about Iraqi WMD’s, it was on the basis of intelligence supplied by the CIA.

That is to say, having been painted as next door to traitors for not believing in Iraqi WMDs, they’re now being painted as fools for having believed in Iraqi WMDs.

Well, it looks as if George Tenet isn’t willing to play the patsy.

Here’s the key paragraph from Tenet’s speech today, referring to the National Intelligence Estimate prepared in October 2002:

We said that Saddam did not have a nuclear weapon and probably would have been unable to make one until 2007 to 2009.

So when George W. Bush said, that same month:

Knowing these realities, America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof — the smoking gun — that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud

he knew that his own intelligence estimate completely discounted any imminent risk of a “mushroom cloud.” And when he spoke the famous “16 words” about yellowcake in the State of the Union address in January 2003, he knew that the CIA estimated that Iraq wasn’t within five years of having a nuclear weapon. That meant that there was no strategic hurry — as opposed to a political hurry — that compelled us to go to war the following spring, rather than waiting six months or a year to finish off the al-Qaeda hunt, stablize Afghanistan, and gather international support.

I was and am sympathetic to the notion that getting rid of a very bad tyrant who was also very hostile to us and to Israel might have been worth the blood, treasure, and diplomatic heartache it cost. (That would hav been more plausible if the administration had been as serious, and as clever, about winning the peace as the military was about winning the war, but I’m still not convinced that going to war left us worse off than not going to war would have left us.)

But that’s separate from the question of whether the President deceived the American people about the nuclear threat from Iraq. The Director of Central Intelligence just told us, unemphatically but also unequivocally, that he did.

The least you can say about this is that it can’t be right for Bush and Tenet each to keep his job. If Tenet is lying, he should be fired. If Tenet is telling the truth, Bush should be replaced. (Yes, thanks, I’ll take both; my point here is that one or the other must be right.)

And before we hear too much more about how Tenet is a “Clinton appointee,” let’s not forget who he really is: a Republican Congressional staffer forced on Clinton by the refusal of Richard Shelby to allow the Anthony Lake nomination to come to a vote.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com