The soft-headed wars of Bush and Tenet.

The soft-headed wars of Bush and Tenet.

The soft-headed wars of Bush and Tenet.

Politics and policy.
June 3 2004 6:55 PM

Informer Without Results

The soft-headed wars of Bush and Tenet.

Announcing the resignation of CIA Director George Tenet this morning, President Bush called Tenet "the kind of public servant you like to work with. He's strong, he's resolute. He's served his nation. ... He's been a strong leader in the war on terror."

It's a curious description, loud about good intentions and silent about bad results. There were plenty of strong, resolute public servants in the country's last vague, unending war, President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. But Bush didn't cut them slack for service or resoluteness. "America began a war on poverty more than three decades ago, a story of good intention, but conflicted results," Bush observed two years ago. "Between 1965 and 1995, federal and state spending on poor and low income families increased from around $40 billion to more than $350 billion a year. Yet, during the same 30-year period we made virtually no progress—no progress—in reducing child poverty. And the number of children born out of wedlock grew from one in 13 to one in three."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Last year, Bush's budget proposal featured this quote from the president: "The measure of compassion is more than good intentions, it is good results." The document declared,

Good government—a government responsible to the people whose dollars it takes to fund its operations—must have as its core purpose the achievement of results. No program, however worthy its goal and high-minded its name, is entitled to continue perpetually unless it can demonstrate it is actually effective in solving problems. In a results-oriented government, the burden of proof rests on each federal program and its advocates to prove that the program is getting results.

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The war on terror, however, seems to be judged by a different standard. In his farewell message to CIA colleagues today, Tenet extolled the agency's warm fuzzies and noble purposes. "We have thrown our hearts into rebuilding our Intelligence Community," he effused. He lauded "our enduring efforts to build what we call ourselves—what I believe us to be—a true community." He concluded that he was leaving "with my head held very, very high, as yours should always be, because what you do is critical to everything our nation stands for: its goodness, its decency, and its courage."

Can the CIA's progress be measured by more than goodness, decency, and community? Why, yes, said Tenet. "American Intelligence has, after the drought of the post-Cold War years, begun to receive the investments in people and dollars and attention that we need. ... And I believe the American people will continue to demand that this great community of patriots receive the funding and support that you so richly deserve."

Measuring the value of programs by the amount of money spent on them? Isn't this what Bush criticized in the war on poverty? Perhaps, but money isn't the only thing Bush has given the agency. "He spends time with us almost every day," Tenet told his colleagues, evidently referring to briefings such as the one Bush disastrously failed to pursue on Aug. 6, 2001. "He has shown great care for our officers. He is a great champion for the men and women of US Intelligence and a constant source of support."

Well, OK. Bush has spent time, money, and "care" on the CIA. What has he got to show for it? "We have expanded and empowered our corps of analysts," Tenet said today. "We have restructured and streamlined our support operations. We have developed and acquired the technologies on which intelligence and espionage depend. With new schools and training facilities, we have sharpened instruction for each of our core professions. We are recruiting the finest men and women in our history in record numbers."

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Sounds great. But as any conservative scholar of the war on poverty can tell you, these are internal measurements. They show where the money went. They don't show results outside the bureaucracy.

What has the CIA accomplished with all this expansion, empowerment, restructuring, streamlining, technology acquisition, and sharpened instruction? Tenet can't say. It's secret. "What you have achieved in this fight against a clever, fanatical enemy, around the world—the cells destroyed, the conspiracies defeated, the innocent lives saved—will for most Americans be forever unknown and uncounted," he told his colleagues. "But for those privileged to observe these often hidden successes, they will be an unforgettable testament to your dedication and your valor."

Well, perhaps in time we'll hear all about the CIA's "hidden successes" under Bush and Tenet. In the meantime, here's a partial list of its glaring failures: The agency knew long before 9/11 that men who had attended an al-Qaida meeting in Malaysia were coming to the United States, but it didn't put their names on a terrorist watch list until August 2001. That month, Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested, and Tenet received an internal memo headlined, "Islamic Extremist Learns to Fly," but he didn't brief Bush about it or mention the information at a Cabinet meeting a week before 9/11. In January 2003, Tenet failed to read—and Bush failed to provide him with—the final draft of the State of the Union address, in which Bush embraced reports, found spurious by a CIA investigator a year earlier, that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger. In December 2002, according to Bob Woodward, Tenet told Bush that Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction was a "slam-dunk" certainty. And in February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the United Nations with "evidence" of Iraqi WMD, given to him by the CIA, that has since been discredited.

What does Tenet have to say about these failures? "Our record is not without flaws," he said today in a masterpiece of understatement. "The world of Intelligence is a uniquely human endeavor, and as in all human endeavors, we all understand the need to always do better. We are not perfect, but one of our best kept secrets is that we are very, very, very good."

But intelligence is not a uniquely human endeavor. The war on poverty, too, is human and imperfect. The bureaucrats who wage that war, like those who wage the war on terror, strive to do better. The difference is, Bush doesn't let them measure their progress by goodness, decency, community, caring, funding, and "hidden successes." The soft-headed liberalism that Bush sees only in the war on poverty is the best kept secret of the war on terror.