Better Things To Do

by digby

I have been listening to various people today discuss the George Tenet book in light of Bob Woodward's review of Tenet's book in today's WaPo:

In his remarkable, important and often unintentionally damning memoir, George Tenet, the former CIA chief, describes a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, two months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In much more vivid and emotional detail than previously reported, Tenet writes that he had received intelligence that day, July 10, 2001, about the threat from al-Qaeda that "literally made my hair stand on end."

According to At the Center of the Storm, Tenet picked up the phone, insisted on meeting with Rice about the threat from al-Qaeda, and raced to the White House with his counter-terrorism deputy, Cofer Black, and a briefer known only as "Rich B."

"There will be a significant terrorist attack in the coming weeks or months," Rich B. told Rice, and the attack would be "spectacular." Black added, "This country needs to go on a war footing now." He said that President Bush should give the CIA new covert action authorities to go after Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. After the meeting, Tenet's briefer and deputy "congratulated each other," Tenet writes. "At last, they felt, we had gotten the full attention of the administration."

Though Tenet was meeting almost daily with President Bush to give him an intelligence briefing and an update on threat reports -- "extraordinary access," he labels it -- by his own account he did not take the request for action "now" directly to the president.

During a CBS "60 Minutes" television interview that aired April 29, correspondent Scott Pelley nailed the crucial question that Tenet leaves unanswered in his book "Why aren't you telling the president, 'Mr. President, this is terrifying. We have to do this now'? " Pelley asked Tenet.

"Because the United States government doesn't work that way," Tenet replied. "The president is not the action officer. You bring the action to the national security adviser and people who set the table for the president to decide on policies they're going to implement."

Whoa! That's a startling admission. I'm pretty certain that President Bush or any president, for that matter, would consider himself or herself the action officer when it comes to protecting the country from terrorism. I can already see the 2008 presidential candidates promising, "I will be your action officer on terrorism and security."

Tenet was asked about this on Meet The Press and others discussing the Tenet book this morning also seemed to assume that had Tenet gone directly to the president with this briefing, all hell would have broken loose and the entire government would have lurched immediately into action. (Not that anyone brought up this little bit of unpleasantness, but the implication then must also be that Condi failed to mention this to the "Action Officer" as well.)

Whatever. This whole line of thinking is bizarre. We already know what Bush's reaction was to being informed that "bin Laden determined to strike in the United States":

The alarming August 6, 2001, memo from the CIA to the President -- "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" -- has been widely noted in the past few years.

But, also in August, CIA analysts flew to Crawford to personally brief the President -- to intrude on his vacation with face-to-face alerts.

The analytical arm of CIA was in a kind of panic mode at this point. Other intelligence services, including those from the Arab world, were sounding an alarm. The arrows were all in the red. They didn't know the place or time of an attack, but something was coming. The President needed to know.


He looked hard at the panicked CIA briefer.

"All right," he said. "You've covered your ass, now."

Bush knew about the terrorist threat assessment that summer and simply didn't give a damn. He thought the CIA were all a bunch of panty-waisted panic artists (that's what Uncle Dick said, anyway.)

Tenet has a lot to answer for, most especially for failing to speak up when it really mattered instead of now that he's trying desperately to keep from being seen as Bush's personal cheerleader. But Woodward's odd notion that his crime was not taking his concerns directly to the president in the summer of 2001 would only be meaningful if there was a shred of evidence it would have made any difference. I don't think so. The "action officer in chief" spent most of that summer posing for what appeared to be a series of Ralph Lauren undershirt ads. He wasn't exactly minding the store.