Chain of Command
Did George Tenet fail the president, or just do his job?
Weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks, George Tenet, then the director of Central Intelligence, was convinced that al Qaeda had planned an imminent strike on the United States, and that President Bush should authorize the CIA to take covert action against the terrorists. Tenet said so to Condoleezza Rice, then Bush's national security adviser, in a hastily arranged meeting on July 10, 2001. At its conclusion, Tenet felt relieved. "We had gotten the full attention of the administration," he writes in his memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA (HarperCollins, 2007).
History now tells us Tenet was wrong. He has absorbed blame for not doing more to prevent the attacks. But since his book's publication, Tenet has been ripped for not sidestepping the president's advisers-namely Rice-and personally warning Bush about al Qaeda.
What was his job, or for that matter, the job of any presidential intelligence adviser? Scott Pelley of CBS' 60 Minutes asked Tenet in an interview why he didn't ask Bush directly to take action. His response has cast him as a classic, and for many, unfortunate, bureaucratic actor.
"Because the United States government doesn't work that way," Tenet said. "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."
Tenet's view apparently is based on both the plain-language reading of the 1947 National Security Act and generations of tradition. "There's a little bit of a misunderstanding about the job of director," Tenet told Jeffrey Goldberg before he left The New Yorker. "You don't cross that policy line. You're supposed to provide objective assessments and analysis. They [policy-makers] make decisions on the policies. . . . We don't."
Bob Woodward, who portrayed Tenet's alleged "slam dunk" assessment of shaky Iraqi weapons intelligence as an impetus for the war, has assailed this analysis. "Tenet should have been the instant messenger to the Oval Office," Woodward wrote in a Washington Post review of Tenet's book. He "was hampered by a bureaucrat's view of the world . . . convinced that the CIA director's 'most important relationship with any administration official is generally with the national security adviser.' "
Who's right? Tenet and Woodward's tête-à-tête over an intelligence director's proper role goes to the heart of a long-simmering, achingly irreconcilable debate over that very question. Should someone who doesn't make policy step outside the chain of command-which is, after all, designed to hold the system together-in moments of great urgency? "I remember directors that went directly to the president, around a policy process, to get a covert action going," Tenet told Goldberg.
"That doesn't work. . . . There's a disciplined process of governance." Woodward responded, "President Bush told me that . . . his blood was not boiling before Sept. 11. I would argue that Tenet's job was to boil the president's blood. . . . I'm raised in a culture where you don't observe the chain of command, you go around."
Exactly. Woodward comes from a different culture-journalism-that challenges government authority. He made his future taking on, and taking down, the Nixon White House. When Woodward and his reporting colleague Carl Bernstein feared their lives were being threatened by the powerful forces they had challenged, they showed up on the doorstep of then-executive editor Ben Bradlee at 2 o'clock in the morning and told him so. They jumped the chain, and for Woodward-and a lot of Tenet's critics-these moments define character. "Do you break down the doors, do you break out of the system?" Woodward asked Goldberg. "This is the issue of courage."
Tenet's defenders argue he was courageous to sound the alarm with Rice. Others, Tenet chief among them, would say he was just doing his job. All are probably correct. But this much is certain: As the president's intelligence advisers are increasingly held accountable for what they did and didn't do, Tenet's job description-as realistic as it is-will provide no cover.
Shane Harris, a staff correspondent for National Journal, wrote about intelligence and technology at Government Executive for five years.