Since the publication of Michiko Kakutani’s review of George Tenet’s new book, ‘At the Center of the Storm,’ in Saturday’s ‘New York Times,’ neo-conservatives have been jumping all over the book’s account of the author’s alleged encounter with Richard Perle on September 12, 2001, as a way to discredit the former CIA chief. Perle, who was then coming out of the White House, according to the book, turned to Tenet at that moment, and said, “Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility.”
“Here’s the problem (with Tenet’s account),” wrote Perle protégé Bill Kristol gleefully in Sunday’s ‘Weekly Standard.’ ‘’Richard Perle was in France that day, unable to fly back after September 11. In fact Perle did not return to the United State (sic) until September 15,’’ Kristol noted, concluding his article by asking “How many other facts has George Tenet invented?”
Kristol’s observation has been seized on by a number of prominent neo-conservatives as evidence that the book – and presumably its overall thesis that Vice President Dick Cheney, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, and the neo-conservatives, such as then-Defense Policy Board chairman Perle, who served as their chief aides and advisers, were determined to use 9/11 to take the U.S. to war with Iraq – is deeply flawed and can thus be disregarded. In addition to Kristol’s editorial, the ‘Weekly Standard’ has published a lengthy article by Thomas Joscelyn debunking Tenet, while the ‘National Review Online’ has run one editorial, as well as articles by Perle’s colleague at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Michael Ledeen, and Andrew McCarthy of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) devoted to the same purpose. The ‘Washington Times’ also published an editorial, as did an unsigned news item posted at the Fox News website. All have cited the alleged Tenet-Perle encounter as evidence that the book is not to be trusted.
Tenet has since conceded that he may have made a chronological error, telling NBC’s ‘Today’ show on Monday, “…I may have gotten the days wrong, but I know I got the substance of that conversation correct. The encounter occurred.”
A review of the record suggests that Tenet’s recollection of the substance – if not the timing – may indeed be correct. In fact, even while the dust from the Twin Towers was still settling in lower Manhattan – thousands of miles from Perle’s summer home in the south of France – he was apparently offering his opinions in a variety of media about Iraq’s possible responsibility and the desirability of striking against it.
Nor was it only he: in the week that followed the attacks, Kristol himself repeatedly made the same case, although no one was more active outside the administration (we know from many accounts that then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was hyper-active on the subject inside the administration) in arguing for going after Saddam than Perle’s neo-conservative confrere, James Woolsey. (I cited a few of these in a lengthy July 15, 2003 IPS article on how a relatively small network of hawks in and outside the administration used 9/11 as a pretext for war.)
We can begin on September 12, 2001, the day Tenet apparently mistakenly wrote that the encounter took place. On that date, the ‘Washington Post’ quoted Perle, who had presumably been interviewed by telephone the previous day, as follows:
“I believe this will now be the catalyst that causes a significant change in our policy toward terrorism and that change should be to hold responsible governments that support terrorism,” said Richard N. Perle, a Reagan Pentagon official and currently chairman of the Defense Policy Board that advises Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. “It’s been our policy to hold individual terrorists accountable rather than the governments who support them and that policy has failed.”
“…This could not have been done without help of one or more governments,” Perle said, citing the need for passports, communications, intelligence and training for pilots for yesterday’s attacks. “Someone taught these suicide bombers how to fly large airplanes. I don’t think that can be done without the assistance of large governments. You don’t walk in off the street and learn how to fly a Boeing 767.” Perle added, “We have to make the cost to the governments that support terrorism so high that they stop supporting them.”
On the same day, the ‘International Herald Tribune’, in an article titled “For Washington, a Modern Pearl Harbor; Like the Attack in 1941, Air Terrorism Could Provoke Severe Repercussions,”
quoted Perle as saying:
“We have got to put certain governments on notice that if they’re harboring terrorists they will be held responsible by U.S. power even if Washington does not have the sort of detailed evidence that would be needed to get a conviction in a normal court.”
Three days later, when Perle was back in Washington, he was interviewed by Robert Novak on CNN, saying:
“Even if we cannot prove to the standards that we enjoy in our own civil society that they were involved. We do know, for example, that Saddam Hussein has ties to Osama bin Laden. That can be documented. So, on the theory, which seems to be a valid one, that if you support terrorists and they then commit atrocities against Americans, you are responsible. Unless we hold those countries responsible, we will be chasing terrorists without significant effect.”
Perle, who was taken up with two days’ of highly classified meetings of his Defense Policy Board (DPB) to which he invited Iraqi National Congress (INC) leader Ahmad Chalabi, next appears in a September 18 article by Knight-Ridder’s Warren Strobel, who was already ahead of the rest of the mainstream media. In a widely published article, he wrote that Bush’s advisers were divided on how far their new “war on terror” would take them:
“This is just an added reason for making life as difficult as we can for Saddam,” said Richard Perle, an adviser to the Pentagon and leading proponent of vastly increased aid to the opposition Iraqi National Congress. “If all we do is go after bin Laden, it’ll make a mockery of all the president had to say about waging a war on terrorism,” Perle said.
Meanwhile, Kristol himself was pushing very much the same line. Thus, on a special a special, early-afternoon edition of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” September 12,
Kristol opined as follows:
“And then, of course, there needs to be a serious strategy that goes after the terrorist organizations and those states that have either harbored them or assisted them. I think Iraq is, actually, the big, unspoken sort of elephant in the room today. There’s a fair amount of evidence that Iraq has had very close associations with Osama bin Laden in the past, a lot of evidence that it had associations with the previous effort to destroy the World Trade Center. And the real question that the president and his administration need to face is: Are we willing to go back to war with Saddam Hussein and finish the job his father started in 1990? We may well have to do that.”
On Fox News Sunday September 16, he was at it again:
“If Tuesday was a watershed, and I’m afraid it was, the debates that we were having on Monday will look just ludicrous. Should the defense budget be $328 billion or $326 billion? I think we’ll have a defense budget next year over $400 billion.” Kristol added, “We will increase the size of the armed forces.” Kristol also said, “I think we have to get rid of Osama. I don’t care how difficult the terrain in Afghanistan is. I don’t care whether it takes 200,000 ground troops. You cannot win this war in terrorism without getting rid of the man who, more than any other man, with the possible exception of Saddam, has organized it. And I think Osama and Saddam will be the focus of our efforts.”
On Sep 20, Kristol published a letter signed by Perle and 37 other mainly neo-conservative figures, including Kristol himself, in both the ‘Weekly Standard’ and the ‘Washington Times’ in the name of the ‘Project for the New American Century,’ which made clear that Iraq was in their sites.
“It may be that the Iraqi government provided assistance in some form to the recent attack on the United States. But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.”
It sounds like Tenet’s account is pretty plausible, even if he got the date wrong.