Tenet’s Mouth is Moving, But We Can’t Understand the Words

George Tenet's story is confusing, and reporters aren't making it any clearer.

Prepare yourself for the deluge. As was the case with the high-profile books by former Bush administration officials Richard Clarke and Paul O’Neill that slammed the president for being almost criminally inept, the political press is about to get some fresh red meat tossed into its Beltway cage: former CIA chief George Tenet’s imminent tell-all.

The book, “At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA,” which has already plugged into the hype machine fed by the big papers and a 60 Minutes piece that will air on Sunday night, is critical of the way the Bush administration treated Tenet, making him a “scapegoat,” he claims, for the war in Iraq.

The funny thing is, while every one is talking about the book, no one has actually read it yet, since it’s embargoed until Monday. Or everyone, that is, except the embargo-busting New York Times. As the paper did back in September 2006 when it scooped The Washington Post by buying a copy of Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” before publication, an unnamed Times reporter has again managed to buy a copy of the book “at retail price in advance of publication.”

Nevertheless, the Times doesn’t tell us much. A little nastiness about Cheney, a little complaint about the infamous “slam dunk” line Tenet uttered in a 2002 Oval Office meeting, and a few more choice tidbits. But this is only the first probing mission in what we expect to be a full, combined arms assault by the national media on Tenet’s book in the next couple of weeks.

But considering what the Times story does give us, some important context is missing. We’re told that Tenet gives a “detailed account” of the “slam dunk” meeting, which has been help up by Bush administration officials as proof that American intelligence agencies were convinced that Saddam had WMD.

The Times reports that the meeting featured a presentation by deputy C.I.A. director, John McLaughlin, who outlined “a proposed public presentation” about how to sell the war to the public “that left the group unimpressed. Mr. Tenet recalls that Mr. Bush suggested that they could ‘add punch’ by bringing in lawyers trained to argue cases before a jury.”

Then, quoting from Tenet’s book: “I told the president that strengthening the public presentation was a ‘slam dunk,’ a phrase that was later taken completely out of context.”

The Times leaves it at that, but there’s much more to the story, specifically Tenet’s changing story about the meeting itself.

The “slam dunk” line was initially reported in April 2004 in a Washington Post excerpt of Bob Woodward’s book, “Plan of Attack,” and at the time Tenet questioned the accuracy of the quote. Then, in an April 2005 speech at Kutztown University, Tenet changed his tune and admitted using the phrase, lamenting that “those were the two dumbest words I ever said.”

Just a year later, in 2006, Ron Suskind reported in his book, “The One Percent Doctrine,” that “Tenet and McLaughlin don’t remember the [2002 White House] meeting very well. Tenet, though outnumbered by what the president and other advisers claim they heard, doesn’t actually remember ever saying ‘slam dunk.’ Doesn’t dispute it. Just doesn’t remember it. McLaughlin said he never remembered Tenet saying ‘slam dunk’ either.”

Later in the book, Suskind (giving voice to Tenet, one assumes), makes the case again, saying that on April 19, 2004, the day the words “slam dunk” appeared in the Post, Tenet “wondered how the president could recall so clearly something Tenet himself didn’t remember saying.”

While we understand that the Times was merely trying to scoop everybody by running snippets from Tenet’s book, it sure left a hell of a lot of history on the cutting room floor.

Will empires fall over the question of what Tenet said? No. That ship has long since sailed, and whether or not he uttered the phrase “slam dunk,” the impression that he did, or the overall sentiment that the phrase conveyed, is really all that matters.

Still, the former head of the CIA seems to be dancing as fast as he can on this question, and has been for years. It’s time someone called him on it.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.