Though John F. Kennedy took full responsibility for the Bay of Pigs in 1961, he also sacked CIA Director Allen Dulles and his deputy for failing to provide adequate intelligence. The moment has come for similar action with CIA Director George J. Tenet.
In a just world, President Bush would also acknowledge his administration's culpability in seeking worst-case scenarios to justify war with Iraq and in propping up Iraqi exile sources who were known stretchers of the truth. The CIA fed the maw, but the White House knew what it wanted to consume. Yet that doesn't let Tenet off the hook.
Tenet's fault was in doing little to dispel the prewar scenarios. Before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, Tenet declared it was premature to draw conclusions about intelligence failures: "Whether it stands up or it doesn't stand up over the course of time is something we're going to look at quite carefully." Contrast that with former U.S. weapons inspector David Kay's conclusion in January that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction "don't exist" and "it's an issue of the capabilities of one's intelligence service to collect valid, truthful information."
Tenet continued to argue that the CIA did not bear chief blame for either the incorrect estimates of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or missed opportunities in the months before the 9/11 terror attacks. The federal 9/11 commission has disclosed that German intelligence officials supplied the CIA with the first name and phone number of Sept. 11 hijacker Marwan Al-Shehhi in March 1999, described him as a dangerous militant and were amazed that U.S. officials didn't follow up. Tenet dismissed the tip before the Senate committee: "You got a name, named Joe, and here's a phone number. We didn't have enough, but we didn't sit around." What Tenet should be asking is what the CIA could have done to crack the 9/11 plot.
Similarly, Tenet continues to defend CIA estimates of Saddam Hussein's weaponry. His analysts, he declared in a recent Georgetown University speech, "never said there was an 'imminent threat.' " Although Tenet was not as bold in his pronouncements as Vice President Dick Cheney, he was on the team.
It was Tenet who sat behind Secretary of State Colin Powell as he declared at the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, that Iraqi biological weapons efforts were "all well documented." And it was Tenet who declared days later to the Senate Intelligence Committee that "Iraq's biological weapons program includes mobile research and production facilities."
Tenet, who became the second-longest-serving CIA director on Feb. 15, brought stability to the agency and got deserved praise for a prescient 2000 report on the changing threats, including Osama bin Laden, that faced the United States. Tenet also doesn't deserve all the blame for 9/11 or the faulty Iraq war intelligence. But the longer he remains in command, the longer the agency will be stuck in a defensive crouch.