Commentary

No Respect for Tenet

By Charles V. Peña
October 28, 2002
CIA Director George Tenet must feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of the Bush administration. He seemingly gets no respect. Tenet is the chief intelligence officer in the U.S. government and he has warned that a pre-emptive strike against Iraq could prompt that nation to engage in terrorism against America. Yet neither the White House nor many members of Congress apparently want to listen to Tenet.

In response to a request by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Tenet said, “Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW [chemical and biological weapons] against the United States.” But “should Saddam conclude that a U.S.-led attack could not longer be deterred, he probably would become much less constrained in adopting terrorist actions,” and that “Saddam might decide that the extreme step of assisting Islamist terrorists in conducting a WMD [weapons of mass destruction] attack against the United States would be his last chance to exact vengeance by taking a large number of victims with him.”

Two days before, in a speech making the case for military action against Iraq the president said, “Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists.” But the assessment by the highest ranking official in the intelligence community undercuts that argument. And that is only reinforced by the following exchange of Q&A between Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and a senior intelligence witness:

Levin:
If (Saddam) didn’t feel threatened … is it likely that he would initiate an attack using a weapons of mass destruction?
Witness:
My judgment would be that the probability of him initiating an attack … in the foreseeable future … I think would be low.
Levin:
If we initiate an attack and he thought he was in extremis or otherwise, what’s the likelihood in response to our attack that he would use chemical or biological weapons?
Witness:
Pretty high, in my view.

Indeed, military action against Iraq could precipitate the very thing the administration says it is seeking to prevent. Yet this contradiction was lost on lawmakers in both chambers of Congress who - just a few days later - passed a joint resolution by a large majority giving the president the authority to use military force against Iraq as he deems necessary and appropriate. So much for listening to the person who is supposed to provide an impartial and informed assessment of the threat.

A week after the Iraqi threat assessment was ignored, Tenet was back on Capitol Hill testifying about the 9/11 attacks. He warned that the recent shootings of U.S. Marines in Kuwait, the attack of an oil tanker off Yemen, the bombings in the Philippines, and the bombing in Bali signaled a dramatic escalation of the threat posed by al Qaeda to the United States. According to Tenet, “They [al Qaeda] are reconstituted. They are coming after us. They are planning in multi-theaters. They are planning to strike the homeland again.”

So where was the administration’s focus while Tenet was issuing more grave warnings to Congress that al Qaeda still posed a clear and present danger to the United States? Trying to press home a resolution in the U.N. Security Council authorizing the United States to take military action against Iraq - a country not considered an imminent threat by the CIA. Maybe the U.N. has paid more heed to Tenet, for the resolution that the United States is most likely to get will be for weapons inspectors in Iraq, not for regime change and the use of military force.

But perhaps the clearest indication that Tenet’s warnings about al Qaeda are not taken seriously comes from the Office of Homeland Security. Its security advisory system remains unchanged at yellow alert, which signifies a significant risk of terrorist attack. Indeed, the only time the alert has been raised was for the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, but never in response to any CIA warnings.

This is not the first time since 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. military operation against al Qaeda that George Tenet has publicly stated that al Qaeda continues to be an imminent threat capable of more terrorism against the United States. He is not the little boy crying “wolf.” Cooler heads in the administration need to prevail and pay attention to Tenet. Otherwise, al Qaeda could end up having the last laugh.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.