For the past two years, George J. Tenet has maintained a determined silence even as senior White House officials have laid the blame for the prewar mistakes about Saddam Hussein on him. But now Tenet, the nation’s former spy chief, is preparing to return fire.
Tenet was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom at a grand White House ceremony in December 2004, after stepping down as director of central intelligence, only to have Vice President Dick Cheney appear on “Meet the Press” 21 months later and pin the mistake about the Iraq intelligence squarely on him.
Now, as he races to complete a memoir due out this spring, the talk in Washington has turned to how Tenet, known for fierce loyalty and political survival instincts that enabled him to weather both Democratic and Republican administrations, will use the book to juggle a host of different agendas: polishing his legacy, settling old scores and explaining just what he meant when he said it was a “slam dunk” that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. Of course, Tenet must finish the book first, which has proved to be something of a challenge. The book was supposed to hit the shelves last week, but Tenet was still writing as late as January.
The book has also undergone a slow vetting process at the White House and CIA, which reviewed the manuscript to ensure that it did not contain classified information.
Friends and former colleagues of Tenet note that he built his career by making more friends than enemies, and they say he is unlikely to use his book to pick new fights. But some of president Bush’s top aides with whom Tenet clashed in the past, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, are said to be targets of criticism.
“George is a born politician and he wants everyone to love him, but in order to sell books he’s going to have to throw somebody out of the lifeboat,” said a former colleague of Tenet at the CIA, one of several people interviewed for this article who requested anonymity because they did not want to speak on the record until the book was published.
Tenet is not expected to take on Bush, with whom he developed a close bond during early-morning intelligence briefings in the Oval Office. But Tenet’s friends said he had been surprised when both Cheney and Rice, in appearances on Sunday talk shows last September, pointed to him when justifying Bush’s decision to go to invade Iraq.
In the interview on “Meet the Press,” Cheney said: “George Tenet sat in the Oval Office and the president of the United States asked him directly, he said, ‘George, how good is the case against Saddam on weapons of mass destruction?’ The director of the CIA said, ‘It’s a slam dunk, Mr. President, it’s a slam dunk.”’
Cheney added, “That was the intelligence that was provided to us at the time, and based upon which we made a choice.”
Promotional materials for the book promise that Tenet will give the “real context” for that episode.