[Posted by WLS]
In a significant blow (or maybe not) to 60 Minutes and HarperCollins, the NYT managed to make a retail purchase of George Tenet’s book “At The Center of the Storm” which isn’t supposed to hit bookstore shelves until Monday. They have an early story up which focuses, shockingly, on disputes Tenet has with the V.P. and the “neocons” over the intelligence case for the Iraq War.
The 60 Minutes tease and now this NYT story focus first on the source of Tenet’s “Slam Dunk” nickname bestowed upon him by the leftwingnutroots. Tenet claims that his use of the phrase has been taken out of context by the VP and others who have deflected blame for the faulty intelligence to the CIA. Here is his explanation as explained by the NYT reporters:
He gives a detailed account of the episode, which occurred during an Oval Office meeting in December 2002 when the administration was preparing to make public its case for war against Iraq.
During the meeting, the deputy C.I.A. director, John McLaughlin, unveiled a draft of a proposed public presentation 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.
“I told the president that strengthening the public presentation was a ‘slam dunk,’ a phrase that was later taken completely out of context,” Mr. Tenet writes. “If I had simply said, ‘I’m sure we can do better,’ I wouldn’t be writing this chapter — or maybe even this book.”
So, in other words, Tenet claims his “slam dunk” comment was nothing more than an assurance to the President that the CIA could re-tool their presentation to make it more persuasive when presented to the public.
I find this less than compelling — it sure sounds like a guy trying to reverse-engineer the situation to make it come out better for himself. Tenet’s primary gripe is that “Slam Dunk” has come to define his career with the CIA, and that the VP and other war advocate have repeatedly referred back to it in their years-long battle with the CIA over where the blame for faulty intelligence should lie.
The reporting on this subject started with Woodward’s book. Of the same meeting, Woodward wrote:
On Dec. 19, 2002, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice asked Tenet and McLaughlin how strong the case was on weapons of mass destruction and what could be said publicly….
Two days later, Tenet and McLaughlin went to the Oval Office. The meeting was for presenting “The Case” on WMD as it might be presented to a jury with Top Secret security clearances. There was great expectation. In addition to the president, Cheney, Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. attended.
With some fanfare, McLaughlin stepped up to brief with a series of flip charts. This was the rough cut, he indicated, still highly classified and not cleared for public release….
When McLaughlin concluded, there was a look on the president’s face of, What’s this? And then a brief moment of silence.
“Nice try,” Bush said. “I don’t think this is quite — it’s not something that Joe Public would understand or would gain a lot of confidence from.”
Card was also underwhelmed. The presentation was a flop. In terms of marketing, the examples didn’t work, the charts didn’t work, the photos were not gripping, the intercepts were less than compelling.
Bush turned to Tenet. “I’ve been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we’ve got?”
From the end of one of the couches in the Oval Office, Tenet rose up, threw him arms in the air. “It’s a slam-dunk case!” the director of central intelligence said.
Bush pressed. “George, how confident are you?”
Tenet, a basketball fan who attended as many home games of his alma mater Georgetown University as possible, leaned forward and threw his arms up again. “Don’t worry, it’s a slam dunk!”
It was unusual for Tenet to be so certain. From McLaughlin’s presentation, Card was worried that there might be no “there there,” but Tenet’s double reassurance on the slam dunk was memorable and comforting. Cheney could think of no reason to question Tenet’s assertion. He was, after all, the head of the CIA and would know the most. The president later recalled that McLaughlin’s presentation “wouldn’t have stood the test of time.” But, said Bush, Tenet’s reassurance — “That was very important.”
This is a pretty straightforward account by Woodward, and it is completely at odds with what Tenet is now saying. Given the way its written, I suspect the primary source for the account was Card, who was reported to have been quite accommodating of Woodward when he was writing the book.
Woodward’s book was excerpted by the WaPo in April 2004. But in 2003, Ronald Kessler had published “The CIA At War”, for which Tenet had given two sitdown interviews, and McLaughlin had given more than one interview.
The “slam dunk” episode isn’t recounted in Kessler’s book, but there is zero animosity by Tenet towards the VP or the White House, and McLaughlin actually praises the VP and his interaction with the CIA in the months leading up to the war. Take this passage, for example, from pg. 316-17:
When Cheney visited the CIA, McLaughlin would escort him into a conference room across the hall from the DCI’s office. There, the Vice President would spend three or four hours at a time with analysts. Besides the weapons of mass destruction issue, Cheney made visits to look into three or four other issues that interested him, such as North Korea and China.
“He came here a lot,” McLaughlin told me. “The characterization Colin Powell gave was exactly right: He loves to dig into things. When he comes, he is polite and respectful. Most of the people I would bring in to talk to him were thankful he was here. We were saying, “Thank you, God, for bringing us someone who is interested.”
More later. WLS