Thursday, October 05, 2006
Blogging Woodward (4)
State of Denial has one grand theme: revenge. And on pp. 49-52, it is George Tenet's turn to exact his. His target: Condoleezza Rice. These are the pages in which Tenet spills the beans on the now-famous July 10, 2001, White House meeting at which he and J. Cofer Black claim to have alerted Rice to imminent al Qaeda attack. Alas,
They both felt they were not getting through to Rice. She was polite, but they felt the brush-off. Bush had said he didn't want to swat at flies. As they all knew, a coherent plan for covert action against bin Laden was in the pipeline, but it would take some time.
Tenet left the meeting feeling frustrated. Though Rice had given them a fair hearing, no immediate action meant great risk.
1) What exactly did Tenet and Black say? Because of poor intelligence sharing between the CIA and FBI, they did not know that al Qaeda agents were present in the US. They did not know any details of the plot whose signals they were catching. As Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 commission is quoted as complaining,
Tenet and Black had demanded action that day, but it was not clear to Zelikow what immediate action really would have meant. The strategic warning Tenet and Black gave lacked details. When? Where? How?
Besides, Zelikow concluded, the planning for covert action to go after bin Laden in his sanctuary actually did go forward at a pretty fast clip - quite fast for a national security bureaucracy .... In fact, Rice had a National Security Presidential Directive to launch a new covert war against bin Laden set to go to Bush on September 10, 2001.
So in fairness to Rice and Bush, it has to be acknowledged: The Bush administration was moving to attack bin Laden. The claim that the threat was ignored is simply wrong. And Bill Clinton's claim that he "tried" while the Bush administration did not "try" looks petty and word-twisting: The Bush administration was willing even before 9/11 to go much further to attack bin Laden than Clinton had been willing to do in 1998-2000.
2) That said, the story still reflects badly on Rice. One of the things I was struck by in the Bush White House, as I wrote in The Right Man, was how much it felt like the last of the great midcentury American hierarchical organizations: Proctor & Gamble circa 1954. Imagine that you were the head of the National Security Council, and the DCI bursts into your office and tells you: Something horrible is about to strike the United States! Would you reply, as Rice in effect did, "We have got a process working its way to its own conclusion at its own speed - we'll get back to you when we're done"??
3) Does this mean that Tenet has permanently abandoned plans to write his own book? Seems like he's fired his best shot at Rice already. And while it damages her, it hardly clears him - after all, instead of doing something about his "frustration" (eg: go to the president and demand action), he meekly returned to Langley and waited to find out what it was al Qaeda had in mind to do.
On that final point ...
One of the lessons you can learn from any Woodward book, dear reader, is the answer to the question: "Why have I not been more successful in my Washington career?" From his books, you can draw a composite profile of the powerful Washington player. That person is highly circumspect, highly risk averse, eschews new ideas, flatters his colleagues to their face (while trashing them to Woodward behind their backs), and is always careful to avoid career-threatening confrontation. We all admire heroes, but Woodward's books teach us that those who rise to leadership are precisely those who take care to abjure heroism for themselves.
10/05 11:07 AM