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Gelb: Tenet Resigned to Protect CIA From 'Barrage of Criticism'

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewees: Daniel K. Tarullo, Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow, and Stephen S. Roach
June 3, 2004


Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus and board senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a long-time friend of George Tenet, says he believes Tenet resigned on June 3 as director of central intelligence because “he felt he was doing good for the CIA and that the agency needed him to move on in order to lift the barrage of criticism that has been leveled at the agency because of Iraq.”

In an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, Gelb said that the top officials of the Defense Department, including Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Under Secretary for Policy Douglas Feith, should also resign because of damage they have done to their agency.

The interview took place on June 3, 2004.

How long have you known George Tenet, whose resignation as CIA director was announced today?

I’ve known him since 1981, when I was his teacher at a seminar at Georgetown University. I was a correspondent for The New York Times and moonlighting once a week giving a seminar on national security policy for Georgetown seniors.

Did you know him professionally?

I knew him when he went to work for the Senate Intelligence Committee staff and then when he was chief of staff for the committee. I have known him throughout his career.

So you count him as a friend, evidently?

Yes. I do.

Were you surprised by the resignation?

I was not surprised that he resigned before the year was out, but I did not know when he was going to do it.

He told the CIA employees today after his resignation was announced that he did it strictly for personal reasons; he wanted to spend more time with his family. Of course, a number of people will speculate that he did it to help President Bush politically. What is your sense of it?

First of all, you have to be there with your ear to the ground to listen to the Washington drumbeats to figure out what is going on in a situation like this. Generally, you never know exactly what is going on. You hear some people repeating one rumor and other rumors come out, too. I don’t think his leaving helps Bush politically, and I don’t think he would resign to help Bush politically. I think the only thing that would lead him to resign is if he felt he was doing good for the CIA and that the agency needed him to move on in order to lift the barrage of criticism that has been leveled at the agency because of Iraq.

Obviously, he knows that the various commission reports are going to be fairly critical of the CIA and they will be coming out in the next couple of months.

That’s right. Tenet’s a tough guy and he’s willing to take shots and he would rather have the commission reports blame him than blame the agency as a whole. He’ll take responsibility and he’ll take it in this way, by resigning. He’s not your typical Washington “pol.” He really came to have an emotional attachment to the CIA. You can see it in his resignation statement to his employees today. He broke down several times. This was a deep feeling for the people he was working with. It was really paramount. He’s an emotional guy.

He must feel let down by the intelligence information that his agency produced on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). He was quoted in Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack” telling the president that the evidence against Iraq was a “slam dunk.”

That quote surprises me, not that that isn’t a phrase he would use. He is a big basketball fan. “Slam dunk” is a George Tenet word, but when I spoke to senior officials at the agency about WMD in Iraq before the invasion, they always told me that they did not have a “smoking gun” on any of these areas. They believed they had a lot of circumstantial evidence, but they never claimed they had a “smoking gun.” The “slam dunk” phrase kind of jarred me.

Secretary of State Colin Powell apparently feels he was so misled by CIA briefings prior to his presentation to the U.N. Security Council in February 2003 that he will be embarrassed historically.

Look, I believed, Colin Powell believed, almost everybody who followed this with any care that I knew of believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. So far as I know, however, that judgment was never based on the CIA flatly stating that it had hard, concrete evidence or a “smoking gun.” If it did, it could have told the United Nations inspectors where to find them. But it never happened. You also remember that whenever Tenet would brief the [congressional] intelligence committees, the senators or representatives would come out to the microphones later and would be asked if they heard of a “smoking gun,” and they said no.

So without a “smoking gun,” where did the firm belief arise that Iraq had WMD?

It wasn’t hypothetical, it was circumstantial and historical. We knew for a fact that Saddam had used chemical weapons against the Kurds and against the Iranians. We knew from U.N. inspections that he still had stores of chemical weapons. We knew as late as 1998 from documents that there were chemical weapons and at least biological weapons programs. And we knew from over the years that he had been putting together scientific teams and seeking to purchase equipment related to building nuclear weapons.

So these three types of information that came from direct evidence, documents, and from a variety of defectors, including Saddam’s sons-in-law, provided the basis of the judgment that many of us reached in and out of government that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

If I understand you correctly, you think Tenet resigned for personal reasons, largely to protect the CIA?

I think his family was putting pressure on him, but also I think he was concerned about his organization getting hammered as an institution.

Do you think the agency will escape the hammering now that he’s leaving?

I think he would have been the focal point of it, given his rather strong and assertive personality. I think he came to the view that his departure would deflect a lot of the inevitable criticism from the agency.

Do you think that others should resign?

Absolutely. There has to be accountability and responsibility. And if the president doesn’t want to resign, then somebody else should.

The secretary of defense, in particular?

Yes, and his chief subordinates. The actions they took were so reckless, so careless, that they weaken the continuing role of the Defense Department by staying on.

You’re talking about Wolfowitz and Feith?


Do you expect a new CIA director will be chosen before the election?

I strongly doubt it.

Do you think Tenet tailored his analyses to make political points with the administration?

This is a question that comes up with the CIA all the time: is it producing intelligence to political orders? To some degree the agency always does, and it is responsive to prevailing political pressures. During the Cold War, it produced intelligence estimates that played up Soviet military power any time the conservatives said they were underplaying it. I think the agency in all periods was politically responsive and that was true under George as well. But I don’t believe he cooked the intelligence to make it consistent with or support administration policy. I think he took the evidence and, when asked, would put a face on it that was consistent with the administration, but he did not invent the evidence or taint it to support the politics of the administration.