Wednesday, May 09, 2007

George Tenet on The Daily Show

Former CIA Director George Tenet was the guest on last night's Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Tenet has just published a book giving his side of the lead-up to and the beginning of the Iraq War, and so he's been making the rounds on television.

Here's the transcript of last night's interview.

Comedy Central, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, 2007-05-08, interview between Jon Stewart and George Tenet:

Jon Stewart: My guest tonight was the Director of the CIA for 7 years, spanning two administrations; his new book is called At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA. Please welcome George Tenet.

Thank you for joining us. The book is called At the Center of the Storm. I read the book, and I was going to go through it with a fine-toothed comb and pick out each inconsistency that I saw, and hypocrisy, and we were going to battle back and forth, and then I saw all the other appearances you have had to make to promote the book.
Harry Smith (CBS, The Early Show): Do you think, "I would've, I could've, I should've done more to stop what has turned into this train wreck"?

Bill O'Reilly (Fox News, The O'Reilly Factor): The hard truth is, you didn't get 'em in time.

Tim Russert (NBC, Meet the Press): Are you an enabler at that time, by not objecting?

Scott Pelley (CBS 60 Minutes): If this plan of yours is so great, and Afghanistan went so well, how does Osama bin Laden get away?

O'Reilly: This is one of the biggest disasters in our foreign policy.

[CNN graphic]: "Instead of resigning in protest, when it could have made a difference in the public debate, you remained silent..." — Former CIA Officers' Letter to George Tenet, Saturday (2007-05-05)

Wolf Blitzer (CNN, The Situation Room): What do you want to say to these angry CIA officers who think you should've resigned?

Pelley: I mean, how can you be so wrong?

Tenet: You don't make this kind of stuff up.

Pelley: Wait a minute — you did make this kind of stuff up.

Tenet: No, we didn't!
Stewart: There's nowhere left for me to bruise, sir, so may I go a different route and offer you a refreshing Fresca?

George Tenet: Can you tell me what's in it?

Stewart: Delicious bubbly ginger soda. I'm telling you, man, I've never seen anything like this. Everywhere you go, there are — are you going to do book signings where people can individually come up and yell at you?

Tenet: I hadn't thought about that one yet, Jon.

Stewart: Are you surprised at the intensity of the reaction that you've been getting from both sides, left and right?

Tenet: Well, Jon, the country is raw. Iraq is a raw issue. Our politics has become increasingly polarized. I wrote the book out of a sense of historical obligation and for one very important reason: young people have a right to know — young people who want to serve their country and become public servants — what we got right, what we got wrong, and do it as truthfully as you possibly can. And you walk into an environment where, obviously, the country is very, very divided, so somehow — somehow at some point, because there is so much at risk, the country has to stop yelling at each other and start talking to each other again.

Stewart: Do you think you're suffering from accessibility? Because so many other people in the administration are not available, you don't have the chance to yell at Dick Cheney or the President, so they're taking out their frustration with their policy. I mean, that's what I was going to do. It was sort of that idea of — (Let 'er rip.) No, no, no. What I found fascinating after reading the book was, it almost seems like the intelligence was a moot point, that no matter what you guys had come up with intelligencewise about WMDs or the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda, we were going to war with Iraq. I mean, the President's even said, knowing what I know today, we'd still do it. It almost seems like, How do you get blamed for — it seemed like you were just another part of their sales pitch.

Tenet: Intelligence is a piece of everything we do. When policymakers make decisions, it is a piece. My only point is, it's not the only piece. They make decisions on the basis of lots of other issues. So, we were wrong on WMD, we were right about the postwar Iraq, we've done a great job on terrorism.

Stewart: All right, we're going to take a commercial break, and we'll come back and talk more about who in the administration you would like to exact revenge upon. We'll be right back with George Tenet.

We're back. We're here with more from former CIA director George Tenet. If George Tenet was President, who would you fire?

Tenet: He doesn't want to be President!

Stewart: In this whole debacle, as you look back on it, since very few people, I think, have been held accountable for any of these mistakes, and a couple of them apparently still work for the administration, who would you fire? Would you get rid of Cheney?

Tenet: Jon, Jon, Jon. (No?) Jon. Look: what we need to do here is, everybody has strong feelings about individuals; not my style to go after people. I've never done that. That's not something I think is appropriate.

Stewart: Sip a Fresca and tell me who you'd fire. Is it Cheney?

Tenet: No, stop! You've gotta stop.

Stewart: Because Doug Feith, you know, he's the guy who, I guess, ran a little separate intelligence operation at the Pentagon — he's very upset with you.

Tenet: Well, that makes me cry a lot.

Stewart: When these guys start coming to you and say, We want intelligence on Iraq's connection to terrorists and al Qaeda, you guys all sort of look at each other and say, well, we don't really have any information on that, because you've been following the Palestinian situation, the Saudi Arabia situation, Pakistan — did they ask you to compile Saudi Arabian stuff, Pakistani stuff, or just Iraq?

Tenet: Well, we understood all of those other relationships, and when we start looking at the Iraqi relationship, it's actually new business for us, in the sense that we hadn't devoted a lot of time to it. We spent —

Stewart: That's the only one that they asked you to do.

Tenet: Well, we spent a lot of time on it, and we did find three areas of concern — contacts, safe haven, training — and I walked through those concerns, and they were legitimate concerns, but what we never found, and never said, was that there was complicity with anything related to 9/11. Now, was there concern? Yes, Zarqawi was a concern. There were EIJ operatives, Egyptian Islamic Jihad operatives, in Baghdad, so there were issues of concern. But where we would never take you, and some wanted to create that legitimacy in that relationship — we never took anybody there.

Stewart: Was there a lot of internal conversation with you guys that the administration is culling information that's suiting their purpose for this, but you were feeling uncomfortable, you said to Cheney, don't make this speech, it's not supported; you had pulled some things from Powell's speech. Did you feel like — did we go to a war with Iraq because the administration wanted to go to war with Iraq more than you and Secretary Powell didn't want to go to war.

Tenet: Well, Jon, it's important for you to understand that as Director of Central Intelligence, you don't make policy. Your job is to give people data. When you start crossing those lines, then your analysis becomes suspect. So, what we did is — intelligence and policymaking is a contact sport. I've worked in two administrations. The terrorism issue became a very big contact sport. Our people, our analysts, never buckled, never changed their point of view, and we never wiggled on this issue. Now, other people sometimes would go out and say things; we tried to rein them in. We stopped speeches from being given. We didn't let Secretary Powell go as far as some may have liked at the United Nations speech. I didn't agree with Doug Feith's analysis; I believe he mischaracterized our data. You don't get your own facts, and if you have a different point of view, you need to stand up and say, this is what I believe, but the Director and his analysts don't believe it. If you say that, go ahead, but please don't create, you know, in some instances, but we worked hard at it, and all your responsibility is to always make sure that no one strays from what the intelligence shows.

Stewart: Do they regret, in the administration, going to war? Do they think that, even now, without the WMDs and anything, do you feel like there's any shame or any sense that —

Tenet: Jon, I haven't talked to anybody. I've been gone almost three years. I haven't talked to anybody in the administration. I don't know what they think or feel.

Stewart: Isn't that — doesn't that make it — isn't that bizarre?

Tenet: Why would that be bizarre?

Stewart: Well, when you have somebody who is in your inner circle, at, perhaps, the "center" of the storm, and —

Tenet: At least you read the cover, Jon.

Stewart: No, no, and the storm is still going on. Aren't you still somewhat of a resource to them, or is it — it just reinforces this feeling with this administration that you're either on the bus or you are useless to us and we no longer deal with you. Isn't that really the essence of what's gone wrong here.

Tenet: Jon, the fact is, once you leave, you leave and you're gone. I was never a policymaker, I was an intelligence official. The fact that you don't get a lot of phone calls is OK with me.

Stewart: But you know, they were very assertive in kind of laying this at your feet. A lot of guys came out and said, "Hey, Tenet said, 'Slam dunk!' and if he hadn't've said that in that meeting, you know, George Bush said, 'Sorry, that's not good enough to convince Joe Public,' and then you said 'Slam dunk' and suddenly he was like, 'Well, great! Let's go to war, then!'" So they were happy to blame you.

Tenet: Jon, that's not what happened at that meeting; we don't have to go over it again, but, look, at the end of the day, I want to own up —

Stewart: Throw me a line here, fella!

Tenet: Here's what I want to say to you: if anybody believes that at that moment (Yeah.) in that meeting, that what I said — and, you know, I didn't get up and do my Air Jordan routine, I didn't have my Nikes on, I didn't jump up and down, I didn't do any of that; it's no more than a passing comment. I believe in how I outline it, this meeting occurred 10 months after the first war plan had been seen, months after we were redeploying forces, two weeks after initial mobilization —

Stewart: In the context you were saying, "We can sell it on that"?

Tenet: No, no, not "sell it," Jon. ("Make the case"?) No, Jon, when intelligence is gonna be used (Uh huh.) — when intelligence is gonna be used (Is this how meetings go at the White House?) — well, you're a little better looking, but anyway. [laughter] — But anyway, when you're going to use intelligence, I have a responsibility that you use it properly. Now, you can walk away from it and go say whatever you want. If we had done that, the draft that the White House sent to Secretary Powell, if he had given his speech, it had to be, if we didn't step up and do our job, it would've been a lot worse. We have a responsibility to make sure that when people use intelligence, it's used correctly. I believed that morning we could declassify more, because we believed — I believed — he had weapons of mass destruction. But you don't roll that line out in '04 when things have gone wrong, and essentially deflect and make it look like we made a decision because of two words that were spoken in a totally different context. That's my point.

Stewart: And that's the basis of this book, really, and that's the point.

Tenet: No, the basis of the book, Jon —

Stewart: Oh, young people —

Tenet: No, the basis of the book is, anybody who serves has some obligation to step back and say, "Here's what I saw." Some people have looked at this as if I was living in the moment and saw everything that was going to go wrong and didn't say anything. You sit back, you reflect, you talk to people, but you know, at the end of the day, this is the United States of America: it's good to tell the truth.

Stewart: That'd be a lovely sentiment. Thank you very much for coming by; really do appreciate it. At the Center of the Storm is on bookshelves now; George Tenet.

Well, folks, obviously, I don't think anything was settled during that interview, except for one thing: we here at The Daily Show are about to get a shitload of Fresca. We gotta go; here it is, your Moment of Zen.
An interesting piece on a related subject that you might want to check out is Jasim al-Azzawi's interview with Larry Wilkerson (Colin Powell's chief of staff at the time of the UN speech) on Al Jazeera English's Inside Iraq, 2007-04-27. You might also be interested in these pieces:

Technorati tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Click below for more...