It may be hard for younger readers to believe, but there was a time when "60 Minutes" was a blockbuster hit of "American Idol" proportions. From 1978 to 1995, "60 Minutes" finished the ratings year in one of the top-six spots, including finishing first five times and second on three occasions (twice being beaten out by "Dallas"). It was as if Americans winding down their weekends and preparing for the grind of the work week took an hour out to watch the important stories reported by Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, and, until he was made anchor of the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather.
As I watched former CIA head George Tenet spar with Scott Pelley on last night's edition of "60 Minutes," I found myself wishing that it was 1992 and Americans were glued to their screens again, watching. Because anyone listening to what Tenet had to say would be appalled at the Bush administration's lack of integrity, competency and decency. (One advantage of it being 2007 instead of 1992 is that you can go to the CBS website and read a pretty good summary of the interview, as well as look at some other related features.)
Yes, Tenet, who had been silent since his departure from the CIA in 2004, is not doing interviews strictly out of a sense of duty. He is flagging a new book. But, the reason for his decision to start discussing his tenure does not overshadow the content of his statements. And, it is not like Pelley was lobbing him softballs (at no time did he say, "George, tell us how awesome you are ...."). The two sparred in a way rarely seen in modern journalism outside of Comedy Central (kudos to Jon Stewart for calling John McCain on the carpet for his mindless support of the war in Iraq). At times, it felt as if Tenet might walk off the set, or worse, call in one of his old intelligence buddies to take care of Pelley once and for all. Pelley did his job, not letting Tenet dodge the tough questions.
In one exchange, Tenet kept insisting that the U.S. does not torture people, but Pelley would not let him off the hook. Pelley pressed Tenet about the "enhanced interrogation techniques" he approved, asking if they included tactics like water boarding and if they were used on high-profile prisoners like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. At one point, Pelley responded to a Tenet denial with a simple, "Come on, George," and later told Tenet, "It's torture."
Tenet also tried to minimize how his intelligence estimates were so incorrect about Iraq's chemical and biological weapons capability before the war, stressing that they were his best guesses at the time given the intelligence and data he had at his disposal. Pelley pressed him on this issue too.
So, this was not a forum for Tenet to lay out his version of the events from 9/11 to his resignation unchallenged. Through Pelley's tough questioning, and despite Tenet's defensiveness and irritation, there were still some revelations about the Bush administration that I did not find surprising. But, I did find it shocking that they came from a former head of the CIA.
Tenet did not pretend he did not feel betrayed by the administration when someone in the highest seats of the U.S. government leaked to Bob Woodward his now-infamous (and, according to Tenet, misapplied) "slam dunk" comment about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. According to Tenet, the only people in the room who were not CIA agents when he made the comment were Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, then Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. So, one of these people, according to Tenet, had to be the one to leak his remark and use it to "throw him overboard."
Despite Tenet's anger at the administration, and despite his less than responsible views on torture and the intelligence failures, there were certain facts that came through loud and clear about the culpability of the Bush administration. The interview only underscored the irresponsibility of Rudy Giuliani suggesting that the country would be at risk of a massive terrorist attack if a Democrat was elected president in 2008. (Yahoo!/AP Story on the Democratic Response to Giuliani's Remark)
For starters, Tenet tells of how Rice completely dropped the ball on recognizing the threat posed to the U.S. by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. He said he was so alarmed about a potential attack that he sought and got a meeting with Rice where he told her, "There are gonna be multiple spectacular attacks against the United States. We believe these attacks are imminent. Mass casualties are a likelihood. ... We need to consider immediate action inside Afghanistan now. We need to move to the offensive." (CBS Website Article) Rice buried the request with "third-tier officials" and opted not to bring it to the president.
Tenet also noted how the White House on the day after 9/11 had already begun using the tragedy as a pretense for attacking Iraq. He says that he was already well aware of the fact that the attack was the work of Al Qaeda, based on names he recognized on the flight manifests. But, Tenet said on the day after the attacks, Pentagon advisor Richard Perle told him, "Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday, they bear responsibility." (The CBS Website Article says that Perle has denied Tenet's claim.) Tenet called Iraq "a national tragedy" and said there was no evidence linking Iraq to Al Qaeda or the 9/11 attacks.
He also went on to say how the Bush administration's statements linking Iraq to 9/11 were not backed by intelligence or other evidence. Tenet went on to say that on more than one occasion, he removed incorrect items about Iraq and its activities from Bush's speeches, but he failed to catch Bush's 2003 State of the Union claim that the British had learned that Saddam Hussein had sought uranium in Africa, which, Tenet said, was completely false.
Once the war was started and no weapons of mass destruction were found, Tenet described how his "slam dunk" remark was mischaracterized and used to make him a scapegoat for the decision to go to war. Tenet was adamant that White House had already decided to go to war long before his statement on the evidence of weapons of mass destruction. "I'll never believe that what happened that day informed the president's view or belief of the legitimacy or the timing of this war. Never," Tenet said.
Essentially, Tenet's testimony was just another piece of evidence proving a premise we already knew: The Bush administration is incompetent and hell-bent on its own agenda, and that through the war in Iraq, the failure to follow through in Afghanistan, and its inability to adapt or learn from its mistakes, it has threatened the security of this country. After what Bush has done, Giuliani has it backwards. The U.S. cannot afford to allow a Republican to take over the White House, not if the new president acts anything like the current one.