The Iraq/al Qaeda Story, As Told By George Tenet and Paul Pillar

Tom Joscelyn wrote to point out this piece in today’s Washington Post by former DIA intelligence analyst Christina Shelton. Shelton says that George Tenet misrepresents a presentation authored by her in his book, At the Center of the Storm:

That day I summarized a body of mostly CIA reporting (dating from 1990 to 2002), from a variety of sources, that reflected a pattern of Iraqi support for al-Qaeda, including high-level contacts between Iraqi senior officials and al-Qaeda, training in bomb making, Iraqi offers of safe haven, and a nonaggression agreement to cooperate on unspecified areas. My position was that analysts were not addressing these reports since much of the material did not surface in finished, disseminated publications.

Tenet himself described Iraq’s relationship with al Qaeda to Congress in a letter dated October 7, 2002, then failed to mention his own letter in his book. Shelton says that Tenet now tries to discredit her work by misrepresenting her background:

Tenet’s response to my presentation was to attempt to denigrate my credentials. I was not a “naval reservist,” as he wrote in his book, assigned to the Pentagon for temporary duty. In fact, I was a career intelligence analyst for two decades, and I spent half of that time in counterintelligence. I did not draw conclusions beyond the reporting, as he suggested. I addressed the substantive material in the reports.

Tenet has been on various sides of the Iraq/al Qaeda issue, but his subordinate Paul Pillar has been consistent: he has stuck to the view that there couldn’t possibly be a significant relationship, and has dismissed all evidence to the contrary. Tom Joscelyn writes:

Ms. Shelton points to something in Tenet’s book that caught my eye as well. Tenet explains that the CIA’s terrorism analysts “believed to be credible the reporting that suggested a deeper relationship” [between Iraq and al Qaeda], while the agency’s regional analysts “significantly limited the cooperation that was suggested by the reporting.”
When Tenet mentions the agency’s “regional” analysts he is most certainly referring to Paul Pillar, the former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, and his supporting crew.

As Tom notes, Pillar has become a hero to liberals for “debunking” the likelihood of any significant relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda. But that debunking is based mostly on theory, not fact. It may be many years before historians are able to assemble enough information to analyze, dispassionately, the extent of the relationship between Saddam’s Iraq and bin Laden’s organization, and the seriousness of the threat that their relationship would have posed, absent the overthrowing of Saddam’s regime.
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