Skip to main content
Search
Services


 

Return to Transcripts main page

CNN LARRY KING LIVE

Interview With George Tenet

Aired April 30, 2007 - 21:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


LARRY KING, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, former CIA Director George Tenet -- he claimed the intelligence case on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was a slam dunk. And after keeping silent three years, he's dropping bombshells on the Bush administration.
But now he's getting slammed by some former CIA officers. They say he's no victim, but a failed leader with blood on his hands.

Did he help mislead the United States into an unnecessary war?

Why was the CIA so wrong on Saddam's weapons?

Could he have done more to warn the president about the 9/11 plot?

And could those kinds of mistakes happen again?

Questions of life and death for America's former top spy, George Tenet, in his first live prime time interview on his explosive new book.

What a kickoff for our 50th anniversary week.

It's next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Wow!

That's the first time I've seen that.

We welcome George Tenet to LARRY KING LIVE, the former CIA director, author of the new memoir, "At The Center of the Storm."

With all that's come out, what -- can we call you director? Professor?

I know you're teaching at Georgetown now.

George?

What do you like?

GEORGE TENET, FORMER CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY DIRECTOR: Whatever you like, Larry.

KING: I'll try George, all right?

TENET: That's great.

Thanks.

KING: With all that's come out, you -- you signed a book contract three years ago in which, naturally, they want confidentiality.

What about news that breaks during that time that you could have affected?

Was it hard for you not to come out with it?

TENET: Well, Larry, you know, writing -- writing is a -- is a difficult thing. It took a lot of time to reflect on what I was thinking about. I worked at CIA as director for seven years. The process of thinking and sifting -- I interviewed scores of colleagues, looked at thousands of documents.

So in that process of thinking through a very tough job, I guess there are all kinds of things you can comment on. But at the end of the day, you've got to take your time. You've got to reflect on what you thought about it. You can't do it in haste.

And you -- you want to leave history with something that says this is what I saw through my eyes.

KING: Weren't there times -- I know you made speeches during that time...

TENET: Right.

KING: ... which the press wasn't there. It wasn't covered.

TENET: Right.

KING: Weren't there times, though, you wanted to come and say something?

TENET: Larry, you know, it's a -- it's a funny thing. I worked -- I worked in the shadows my whole life. And I -- I never had that compelling need. I've never -- never done interviews before I started -- started this week, started today, really.

But the truth is, no, I never had -- I was -- I never felt compelled to come say something or get on the air.

KING: A lot of criticism is occurring.

You're not surprised at that, are you?

TENET: Well, no, Larry.

America is a great country. Everybody's going to have an opinion.

KING: Six former CIA officers write a highly critical open letter to you, among other things, describing you has having been the Alberto Gonzales of the intelligence community. One of those officers, Larry Johnson, spoke with CNN earlier today.

Here's some of what he had to say.

Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "AMERICAN MORNING")

LARRY JOHNSON: I think George Tenet owes the soldiers and their families who have died or have been killed or wounded in Iraq part of the proceeds of his book, because now -- he could have stood up and spoke out when he had the chance, when he had the job. He could have changed the course of American history.

Instead, he kept silent and now he wants to get a $4 million payday and $50,000 speaking engagements. The man is profiting from the blood of American soldiers and I think he owes America -- Americans more than just an "I'm sorry."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: George?

TENET: Well, Larry, when -- when Mr. Johnson attacks your integrity that way, there is a lot of things you can say. But I'd like to say a couple of things.

First of all, our job -- my job -- I -- I viewed my job to protect American soldiers, to make them safe. The notion that we -- I have blood on my hands is just -- just something I will never accept.

Now, let's get down -- let's get down to issues for Mr. Johnson.

The implication, of course, is I knew how bad this was all going to be and didn't speak up.

Well, Larry, nobody had that kind of wisdom. I wasn't prescient. I will say this, we called them as we saw them when we got on the ground in Iraq. When we understood how badly a post-war plan would be implemented, we spoke truth to power.

We always did our best to tell people what we thought, why we thought and made it as clear as possible. We were wrong on weapons of mass destruction. We were not wrong on what happened in the post-war Iraq environment. And the notion -- and the notion that I didn't look at my job as a sacred responsibility to protect those soldiers, to warn them, to make sure that when they were put in harm's way, we didn't give them the best intelligence, well I -- I just can't agree with that.

KING: Does it hurt you?

TENET: No, it doesn't -- it doesn't hurt me, Larry.

I mean people who know me -- and many of my colleagues who work with me know me better than that -- he's -- have has a right to his opinion. He has a right to evaluate me and my performance. What he doesn't have a right to do is -- is attack my integrity.

Now, he says I'm profiting and doing all that. My family and I have been in public service all our lives. We've looked after people all of our lives. We'll continue to do that.

KING: In an op-ed titled "Tenet Tries To Shift The Blame: Don't Blame It" in Sunday's "Washington Post," the one time head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, also argues that you should have told your story sooner.

He writes: "At this late date, the Bush bashing that Tenet's book will inevitably stir up seems designed to rehabilitate Tenet in his first home, the Democratic Party. He seems to blame the war on everyone but Bush, who gave Tenet the Medal of Freedom and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

How do you respond to that?

TENET: Well, Larry, I -- I've never thought of myself as a Democrat or a Republican. I've thought of myself as an American throughout right -- my life. If you look at the book carefully, I take responsibility for what we got wrong. I try and reflect on some pretty brilliant work on the part of the American intelligence community and CIA officers.

I'm not trying to rehabilitate myself. I -- I viewed -- I think I had a historical obligation to tell people what I saw to the best of my ability. And Mr. Scheuer and others are free to their opinions.

KING: And he's in your book.

TENET: Yes. Yes he is.

KING: (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

TENET: Yes.

KING: Are you surprised at this?

TENET: No, I guess not. I guess I'm not surprised.

KING: I mean, your former colleagues coming forward.

TENET: Well, you know, Mr. Scheuer is somebody who worked directly for me for a period of time. The other men didn't. I'd say, Larry, there are a lot of people that worked with me and I call colleagues and friends who would have a different view of my time there.

But that's neither here nor there. People -- this is a great democracy. People are allowed to criticize and I accept that.

KING: There are some saying would you give thought to giving back the Medal of Freedom? TENET: No, I would never give thought to giving back the Medal of Freedom because it was -- it was an honor bestowed because of the work of the men and women of CIA in Afghanistan and our work against terrorism. And I believe that that work -- I accepted the award on their behalf and I will never give that medal back.

KING: Do you think President Bush will be hurt by this book?

TENET: I...

KING: I know you praise him in the book...

TENET: I don't...

KING: ... but do you think he...

TENET: I don't think so. Larry, look, I like the president. I respect the president. He -- I was responsible for what I, you know, the intelligence community. He's the commander-in-chief. He's never shied away from -- from responsibility.

It's not my intention to hurt people. It's not my intention to point fingers at people. I'm trying to tell a story.

KING: And you're saying everything you write in here is perceived correctly, as you see it?

TENET: Perceived by who correctly?

KING: You.

TENET: Yes, it's my -- it's my -- it's an honest reflection of how I viewed what I lived through -- mine.

KING: All right.

TENET: People will differ on that.

KING: As we go to break, a key moment in the buildup to the war in Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation at the United Nations with the CIA director sitting right behind him. We'll ask George Tenet about that historic moment. More from his book, when LARRY KING LIVE returns.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, FEBRUARY 5, 2003)

COLIN POWELL, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: There could be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more -- many more. And he has the ability to dispense these lethal poisons and diseases in ways that can cause massive death and destruction.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We're back with George Tenet. The book, "At The Center of the Storm."

Like it or not, the phrase "slam dunk" is going to be attached to George Tenet forever. In an interview marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney sought to underscore that connection.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "MEET THE PRESS," SEPTEMBER 10, 2006, COURTESY NBC)

TIM RUSSERT, HOST: Based on what you know now, that Saddam did not have the weapons of mass destruction described, would you still have gone into Iraq?

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, Tim, because what the reports also showed, while he did not have stockpiles -- clearly, the intelligence that said he did was wrong. That was the intelligence all of us saw. That was the intelligence all of us believed. It was -- when -- when George Tenet sat in the Oval Office and the president of the United States asked him directly, he said, "George, how good is the case against Saddam on weapons of mass destruction?," the director of the CIA said, "It's a slam dunk, Mr. President. "It's a slam dunk."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: I don't have to ask you a question.

What do you make of that?

TENET: Well, as if the vice president needed me to say slam dunk to want to invade Iraq, that's what I say. You know, Larry, here's a meeting that occurs in December of 2002. This is a meeting that occurs 10 months after the president saw his worst -- first war plans on Iraq, four months after the vice president makes his VFW speech, months after the Congress had authorized war, weeks after the -- weeks after we had issued the first major mobilization order.

I will never believe those comments had anything to do with the president's view of the legitimacy or timing of the war. We were sitting in a meeting. We were sitting in a meeting talking about the public case that would be made.

Now, when you're sitting with the president of the United States, you owe him discipline. You owe him your best judgment. And what I was saying that day was I think we can make this a better public case.

If I had said that, you know, the vice president wouldn't have to say that. But, you know, when this is used as a defection and it comes out in a book in '04, when things are going quite badly, look, we were wrong about WMD. I believed he had WMD.

We -- we said so. We said so with high confidence. But -- but for the vice president to make that kind of a statement on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 and to imply that the decision to go to war was based on my saying "slam dunk" to the president of the United States just does not comport with any reality that I know.

KING: Didn't you want to go public that day?

TENET: I did. I did, Larry. I was -- I remember sitting there and watching it and getting quiet upset about it.

But here I am. I was writing a book...

KING: See, that's what I mean...

TENET: And I was so...

KING: You could have come out.

TENET: Well, yes. I was writing my book and I knew that I was going to deal with these things, but, you know, I chose to be patient about it.

KING: That you used the phrase "slam dunk" was first reported by Bob Woodward in a 2004 best-seller, "Plan Of Attack." Here's part of what Woodward describes as taking place at that December 21st, 2002 White House meeting: "Bush turned to Tenet. 'I've been told all this intelligence about having WMD and this is the best we've got?'

From the end of one of the couches in the Oval Office, Tenet rose, threw his arms in the air. 'It's a slam dunk case,' he said."

TENET: It never happened. It never happened that way.

I -- there were five people from the Central Intelligence Agency in that room. I've talked to all of them. I talked to the person sitting next to me on the couch. He said, "Boss, you said it. I know you said it."

It's interesting that no one else remember my saying it.

"You didn't jump up and down. It was no more than a passing comment."

And when I read it in Woodward's book, this individual said to me, "You know, it's as if you -- you conducted this pantomime routine, they heard you and then we -- they made a decision to go to war." And he said, "That's not what happened in that room that day."

KING: All right, why didn't you call Woodward that day?

TENET: Well...

KING: The book comes out.

TENET: Yes, I understand.

KING: Come on.

I would have.

TENET: Well, you know -- you know what the irony is, Larry?

The irony is, is that the book comes out, the truth is, is I haven't even -- I walked out of that meeting that way and never gave it another -- another -- another moment of thought. And the book comes out. All of this breaks out and you're just sitting there. You keep doing your job. And maybe I should have reacted and I didn't.

I just went back to work, did my job. But I understood at that moment -- I understood that we had to -- we had to think about moving on.

KING: Now, the Colin Powell speech. You're sitting behind him.

TENET: Yes.

KING: Do you know he had the wrong information?

TENET: No. Absolutely -- look, first of all, he's a friend. Second of all, he's the secretary of state. You know, you -- you -- you want your secretary of state to present the best case to the world possible. That's what we worked for over days at CIA headquarters, our staff and his staff.

The greatest pain here, of course, is we allowed the secretary of state to present information that didn't hold up. It eroded his credibility, our credibility and it's something we've had to deal with ever since.

KING: What went wrong?

How did -- why was it wrong?

TENET: Well, I -- we've thought about this a long time. A lot of it has to do with history. Ten years of following this guy deceive, deny, not tell us the truth and history played an important role on us.

His brother-in-law's defection. How close they were to a nuclear weapon in 1991 when we -- we thought they were years away.

So, when you take our history and you take his deception, you take his denial, we looked at what we weren't seeing and believed there was a lot more there.

And here's the other thing. We watched this deception mechanism work even as inspectors were on the ground. We had a source, an important source, who told us even after we produced our estimate, the production of chemical and biological weapons is continuing.

KING: So he tricked you?

TENET: Well, the -- here's the -- here's the irony, OK?

KING: For what purpose?

TENET: The irony of the whole situation is, is he was bluffing and he didn't believe -- and he didn't know we weren't.

KING: Do you feel sorry for Colin?

TENET: Well, of course. He's the secretary -- sorry -- as a friend and as a professional thing, of course you...

KING: Have you talked to him since?

TENET: Well, Colin and I have talked often. We've talked about this.

KING: He's writing a book now.

TENET: I understand that.

KING: Are you looking forward to that?

TENET: Of course. Of course.

KING: Coming up, Secretary of State Condi Rice -- did she drop the ball in the lead-up to 9/11?

We'll ask the former CIA director, George Tenet, when LARRY KING LIVE returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Oprah Winfrey is the special guest tomorrow night.

Our guest is George Tenet. The book is "At The Center of the Storm."

You charge in your book: "There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat, nor was there ever a significant discussion regarding enhanced containment of the costs and benefits of such an approach versus full out planning for overt and covert regime change."

Is the key phrase there "that I know of?"

TENET: Yes, Larry. I'm -- I'm reflecting back on a period and -- and I didn't see it. I -- I went back and talked to scores of people that work for me about meetings they attended in trying to piece this whole story together.

I -- we'd look at this and say, you know, we -- we -- a lot of us -- a lot of people that worked for me, my deputy and others, went to meetings and they were -- the impression they had was, well, this is a question of not if, but whether and how.

So from a -- the reason I reflect on this is so now you're teaching kids.

And it's how do you take a country to war?

What questions should you have asked? If we had asked better questions at the front end, could we have avoided some of the pitfalls at the back end?

I don't know the answer to that question.

What's the implication of a large -- a large force in the -- in the heart of the Middle East?

How do we talk about the post-war in all this?

So "that I know of" is -- is -- obviously other people think those deliberations occurred.

KING: This weekend on CNN, the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, disputed your assertion that there hadn't been any serious debate on the imminence of the Iraqi threat. She also addressed the "slam dunk" matter with Wolf Blitzer.

Let's watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM CNN'S "LATE EDITION")

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: I was asked about this and I was asked, "Did he say 'slam dunk'?"

I said, "Yes."

I said, "But we all thought that the intelligence case was strong."

To the degree that there was an intelligence problem here, it was not just an intelligence problem with George Tenet. It was not just an intelligence problem with U.S. intelligence. It was an intelligence problem worldwide.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Are you saying she didn't see something?

What -- what's the critique of Secretary of State Rice?

TENET: Well, I -- I don't have a critique of what she just said. I mean it was -- those were kind words for me and -- and she -- she...

KING: She's also been critical, saying that...

TENET: Well, that -- that's fine.

KING: All right.

TENET: I mean she can be critical...

KING: Are you saying she missed something?

TENET: With regard to -- we just talked about slam dunk here...

KING: The buildup of the war.

TENET: Well, you know, Larry, I'm more critical at the back end. I'm more critical about when we saw data that came forward, when we understood what this insurgency looked like, we under -- when we understood the implications of de-Baathification, when we understood the implications of disbanding of the Iraqi Army, when we took the Sunnis and basically shoved them off, when we looked at what was happening on the ground, I think that we had a lot of data in our possession, data that we faithfully reported that we all should have done a better job at.

The NSC should have done a better job by itself.

Look, these are tough jobs and -- and I think -- and I think particularly in the post-war environment, I think we looked at data. I think that data was available. I think the intelligence was clear. I think the course should have been changed.

KING: Did you warn her or threat -- did you warn her that a threat was imminent?

TENET: You're talking in the run-up to 9...

KING: Yes.

TENET: ... to 9/11?

Well, you know, we provided, I think...

KING: You knew there was a threat imminent.

TENET: Well, sure. There was -- we had a meeting on July 10th and we -- we, you know, I jumped in the car and went down to see the national security adviser. We believed that there were -- the threat was imminent, there would be multiple spectacular...

KING: What did she do?

TENET: Well, she got it. She understand the nature of the threat. She turned around, she had the deputies convene. Other things happened around that time. We had asked for -- we had asked for specific authorities to help us get into Afghanistan. We had asked for those in the spring. This all came a little bit slowly.

But, Larry, everybody now wants to look at was one person responsible?

Look, look, policymakers and law enforcement intelligence, all of us in this owed the families of 9/11 better than they got. Human beings make mistakes. There's no silver bullet in any of this.

So having the game of who did what and what happened, look, this was the most painful day of our lives.

So did we provide strategic warning?

Yes.

Did we -- did we have a sense -- were we operating overseas with all our cylinders, disrupting acts?

We probably saved thousands of lives overseas in the spring and summer before what happened in this country. We worked our hearts out.

KING: When 9/11 happened, did you at all say to yourself, did we screw up?

TENET: Well, Larry, something...

KING: What do you say to yourself...

TENET: Well, it...

KING: ... when an event like that happens and you're head of the CIA?

TENET: Well, the first thing -- the first thing you think about, Larry, is what are we doing next?

I mean you always know that that's going to come down the road and you're going to have to go evaluate your record and see what happens. We didn't have that luxury. Three thousand of our people were dead.

Four days later at Camp David, we gave the president of the United States a plan to get into Afghanistan and operate against al Qaeda in 92 countries.

We didn't have time to think about that then. Obviously, many retrospectives have done. But if you're in this job, you're moving forward as fast as you possibly can. We thought there were going to be follow-on attacks. The threat reporting tonight after 9/11 -- the sense of fear that we had with regard to what we did not know -- was palpable for all of us.

So, yes, you're going to do the retrospective. Not at that time. Not at that moment. You -- you have a responsibility to lead your people and get ready for action.

KING: Was there fear?

TENET: Well, of course there was, Larry.

I mean, you know, the homeland in the United States was -- was struck. You know, it -- during the millennium, in the year 2000, we told the president of the United States to expect between five and 15 attacks against the United States either here or overseas. We told President Clinton, you know?

And if you look back historically, one thing -- one thing that didn't happen was that fellow in -- in Vancouver who came over on the ferry who was going to bomb the Los Angeles airport. A very alert woman on the border picked that guy up.

In hindsight, when you go back and look at that, it was the first hint -- they're coming here.

So, the moral of the story?

The moral of the story, people -- people are now inconvenienced when they go to the airport. People don't like the fact that we have to be vigilant.

Well, the country was absolutely unprotected on 9/11 -- borders, visa policies, how we did airline security, how we thought about securing the country.

We all thought terrorism was over there, not here.

KING: Up ahead, does the United States torture its prisoners?

We'll ask the former CIA director, George Tenet, when LARRY KING LIVE returns.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM MARCH 29, march 19, 1987)

TENET: I'm deeply honored that you have nominated me to be director of Central Intelligence.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM MARCH 29, march 19, 1987)

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He brings a wealth of experience and skill to the challenge of leading our intelligence community into the 21st century.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I've got a lot of confidence in him and I've got a lot of confidence in the CIA.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM CIA VIDEO, JUNE 3, 2004)

TENET: We're not perfect. But one of our best kept secrets is that we are very, very, very good.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Our guest is George Tenet. He did an interview on "60 Minutes" yesterday and he was asked about torture. That was a highly charged exchange. Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TENET: You know the image that's been portrayed is we sat around the campfire and said, "Oh, boy, now we get to torture people." We don't torture people. Let me say that again to you. We don't torture people, OK.

SCOTT PELLEY, CBS NEWS: Come on, George.

TENET: We don't torture people.

PELLEY: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

TENET: We don't torture people.

PELLEY: Water boarding.

TENET: We do not -- I don't talk about techniques and we don't torture people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: OK, I guess we're into definitions here. We all know what torture is. I know what torture is. If I put a clamp around your neck and squeeze you, I'm torturing you. Are you saying we never torture people?

TENET: Larry, we don't torture people. It's very, very important for a people to understand that we live in a nation of laws. And you know we have very valuable people who gave us information that saved thousands of lives: plot lines, names of individuals. Here's the bottom line. Whatever we did was authorized. Whatever this program is, the attorney general of the United States said is legal, you can go ahead. This program was briefed to the chairman and ranking committee of the Oversight Committees.

Look, Larry, at the end of the day, I want to come back to that post 9/11 period, I want to come back to that sense of fear of what we did not now.

You know Senator McCain has done a great service to the country by basically raising very important issues. What do we do to protect a just society? And here's the bottom line for CIA and American intelligence officers, look, a country has to have an understanding and debate about where you want to fit in this moral spectrum. What do you need to do to protect the lives of your fellow citizens? If you don't want intelligence officers crossing lines that raise moral and legal lines that you're not comfortable with as a democratic society, then let's not do them. Let's not do those things. We're not advocates. All I can tell you is what we were up against at the time. All I can tell you is how valuable this program was.

KING: Was there ever a procedure authorized by the attorney general in which you said, "I'm not sure about this?"

TENET: Larry, let's just...

KING: Because he authorized it doesn't make it not torture. TENET: We talked to them in a collegial manner. It never was the attorney general tells you what to do. We sit down collectively. We get legal advice. We were never at cross purposes with each other on these issues.

KING: What's water boarding?

TENET: I don't talk about those issues, Larry.

KING: Why?

TENET: I just don't. I don't talk about techniques. We don't talk about those things.

KING: But you don't torture.

TENET: Larry, I've told you that what we did was authorized, legal, prudent, briefed. And we don't torture and I don't talk about techniques.

KING: But your conscience is clear.

TENET: Larry, of course, yes, it is. It's clear because I know that what we learned saved lives, protected our citizens.

KING: On Sunday, Senator McCain, who you just praised, challenged your premise that enhanced interrogation is not torture and he questioned your assertion that these practices save lives. Watch John McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Everybody who's been in war doesn't want to torture people and think that it's the wrong thing to do, and history shows that. We cannot torture people and maintain our moral superiority in the world. And that's a fact.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But George Tenet says...

MCCAIN: I don't care what George Tenet says, I know what's right. I know what's morally right as far as America's behavior.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But if I may, sir, when George Tenet says, "We saved lives through some of these techniques"...

MCCAIN: I don't accept it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: John McCain told us on this program that those kind of extreme techniques work in reverse. You don't learn the truth. He had it in Vietnam and lied.

TENET: Listen, Larry, I respect Senator McCain and I know what his experience was. I can tell you that what we learned we were able to corroborate with other data that we had at our disposal. It was a very valuable source of information.

And Senator McCain raised something at the end that's quite important. He raised this value question. He raised where we want to be as a society. All I'm saying, wherever we decide to be, whatever the country decides, whatever we decide on a bipartisan basis, listen; I accept the issues he raises.

KING: Can we retain our high sense of morality and still quell possible threats to us?

TENET: Well, Larry...

KING: Is it possible?

TENET: Larry, there's always that tension. You know people often say, "Well, what happens in the extreme case where you have a ticking bomb that's about to go off and you capture somebody who may know where that ticking bomb is." OK, now that's the extreme.

In the fall after 9/11, we had reports that there was a nuclear weapon in New York City. We had reports of apartment buildings blowing up. We had reports of additional airline hijacking plots. We didn't have enough -- listen, it's inevitable that this is going to be a constants tension in our society. I can't give you a straight answer.

KING: All right. Did we, the CIA, others, prevent a lot that we never even heard about?

TENET: Larry, I can tell you that pre-9/11, post 9/11, by our actions, by the action offers the intelligence officers, help from the FBI, our foreign partners overseas, it's a big coalition of people that worked this, I can tell you unequivocally we have taken action that has absolutely stopped things and saved lives around the world.

KING: Why did you leave?

TENET: Well, it was time to go, Larry.

KING: Did you quit or they asked you to leave?

TENET: No, no, no, I left on my own steam. You know I had a couple of reasons: one, I had been there a long time, had a son that needed my attention; and two, I recognize, as I write the book, after we went through this "slam-dunk" incident, I thought trust was broken. I thought it was time to go. My credibility was eroded to the outside world. I don't believe it was to the men and women that work with me. But when you get to that point, you're going to hurt the institution if you stay.

KING: We met your lovely wife. How's she held up through all of this?

TENET: Well, she's just a pillar of strength, you know. I could never have done this without her. She was an inspiration of families at the CIA that was an inspiration to me. You know she's the best part of my life. I couldn't have done it without her.

KING: Still to come, why can't we find Osama bin Laden? If we do find him, what's more valuable, proving he's dead or bringing him back alive? That and more when former CIA director George Tenet comes back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: George Tenet, the director of the CIA, submitted a letter of resignation. I told him I'm sorry he's leaving.

TENET: This is the most difficult decision I've ever had to make. And while Washington and the media will put many different faces on the decision, it was a personal decision.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We're back with George Tenet.

OK, why can't we find, kill, capture Mr. bin Laden?

TENET: Larry, I need you to that understand hundreds of people wake up everyday and focus on both bin Laden and Zawahiri. I also need you to understand that the game is all about getting after people one level below: the senior operational planners, the financiers, the logisticians, the document forgers, the people that can hurt you. And we've been very successful at that over the last four or five years. You have to keep working at that. You'll get a break some day. You'll find these people but you have to show patience and keep your eye on the ball.

KING: We came close. We almost had him, right, at Tora Bora?

TENET: Well, almost is I would say...

KING: Well, how close is close?

TENET: Well, I don't know, Larry. If you've ever seen the geography up there, if you've ever seen the multiple ways to get out of there, it's hard to know how close was. We thought he was up there. I thought he was up there in any event. Ultimately, didn't have enough on the ground, came to Afghanistan very light, didn't have enough on the ground, couldn't get enough people up there fast enough. And when he escaped, how he escaped, I don't know and I wish we had caught him.

KING: All right, why is he so good at this?

TENET: Larry, you're talking about...

KING: The whole free world looking for one guy.

TENET: Well, Larry, look where he lives. He probably lives up in these frontier areas of Pakistan somewhere, surrounded by tribes that are supportive of him, in geographic locations. He's very, very adept at the way he communicates. He doesn't leave a lot of traces. He's operationally savvy. He runs an intelligence organization. It's going to take us some time and we have to be patient. Sooner or later, we'll get him.

KING: Do you think he's got more al Qaeda cells in the United States?

TENET: Look, Larry, and I say in the book, there's nothing I learned in my time as director that didn't convince me that they must have more people here. I never -- now, can I prove that to you? I can't, but my operational sense tells me they would have understood after an event like 9/11 that the country's going to get very tough and going to shut our borders or are going to do things. My fear is is other people are infiltrated in and they're going to be patient.

KING: So if they have more people here, does that mean quid pro quo, we're going to get another event?

TENET: Look, Larry, you don't want to -- look, all I'm...

KING: If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

TENET: Look, the country is saver than it once was. We put in -- you know before 9/11 we didn't have any of the security measures we have in place. That creates a huge deterrent. You have to keep working at it every day with great religion, OK.

What are they counting on? You're going to get lazy. You're going to get sloppy. The longer you get away from the event; Americans will lose their appetite for protection, security, and other kinds of -- it's not pleasant. It's not pleasant. While we work at this overseas and try and get new plot lines and while the FBI works at it here and tries to develop more leads, you need to protect the country and be vigilant about it. And you can't get lazy about it.

KING: Was, in retrospect, 9/11 preventable?

TENET: Larry, you know, we probably -- we probably sat around and thought about that. I wish I could tell you there was a silver bullet. One thing that would have happened that would have made it so. I can't. If you go looking through the literature, you looking through everything that happened, you know there are multiple places where everybody should have done better. I can't point at one thing that, said, "God, if we'd only done this."

KING: What were you doing that morning?

TENET: I was having breakfast with my old boss, Senator David Borne from Oklahoma in a hotel downtown. And one of my security guys came to me and told me that a plane had just crashed into one of the towers here in Manhattan. I knew right away it was bin Laden, knew it was al Qaeda, jumped in the car, went back to headquarters, evacuated our building, spent two hours in a different part of the campus out there and came back and went back to work.

KING: You call it a campus, right?

TENET: Well, we call it a lot of things but a campus would be nicer.

KING: Mr. Borne is president of the University of Oklahoma?

TENET: He's president of the great University of Oklahoma, yes, he is.

KING: When we come back, more about 9/111, the monumental mistake and Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. They both happened on our watch here with Mr. Tenet. What do we say about that and how can we prevent it in the future? Don't go away.

Coming up Tuesday, the incomparable Oprah Winfrey joins me for the hour; Wednesday, Katie Couric turns the tables and interviews me; Thursday, a "CNN PRESENTS" special "50 Years of Pop Culture" through my eyes; and Friday, an all-star toast hosting by Bill Maher. What a 50 years it's been, what a week it's going to be.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We're back with George Tenet. "At The Center of The Storm" is the book touching some other bases. When you go to Condi Rice, let's say, and present a case and nothing seemed to happen, why didn't you, as head of the CIA, go right to Bush?

TENET: Well...

KING: Right to the president?

TENET: ...it presumes nothing seemed to happen, but the way I thought about my job was is you don't race around to the president. The president is not...

KING: You would think it would be dangerous.

TENET: ...the action officer. We talked to the president in the mornings. He understood our concerns about imminent threat. He understood what we were working against that summer. It was the president that came back us to and asked the question that led to that famous August 6 PDB meeting, could they be coming here, that briefing that we wrote.

So we were all engaged in this, Larry, as hard as we could. At the end of the day, you know obviously we didn't succeed.

KING: The same with Clinton? Could you have gone right to Clinton on information?

TENET: Well, I didn't. It was a different system and I worked through the national security adviser. If I needed access to the president, I could get it. Sandy Berger was a good conduit for me and he was certainly steeped in what we were telling him. It was just different styles and different systems.

KING: But in no case, do you go make a beeline to the president?

TENET: Larry, I see the president everyday. I saw President Bush everyday, six days a week and I believed that the president understood what my concerns were on that particular day. I took them to the national security adviser. I have to assume she told the president about the briefing as well. We never held anything back, Larry.

KING: What's your greatest regret?

TENET: My greatest regret has always been the loss of life that we had. Well, on my watch, we lost 11 officers. You know any time you send an officer into harm's way and you lose one, it's something you never forget. 9/11 was a regret, you know. But we had a lot of things, you know, I wish we had done better on weapons of mass destruction.

We had a lot of things that I think were terrific, you know. We helped disarm a country called Libya. We brought down a nuclear proliferation network known as the A.Q. Khan proliferation network. We gave the president a plan to invade Afghanistan and go after al Qaeda around the world. We worked with Palestinian and Israeli security officials for a period of time, to enable diplomacy to try and settle that dispute. So there's pluses and minuses, a mixed record history will judge. But you know, Larry, I'm awfully proud of the men and women that I work with.

KING: What's the biggest failing in government? What's the biggest problem in getting things done, making things happen?

TENET: Well, Larry, everybody believes -- the biggest failure about how we're thought of is everybody believes that everybody's in this -- everybody knows everything, everybody has perfect judgment. We've got hundreds of things going on everyday. When you come back and look at something and put the spotlight on it, you and everybody else believes, well, my God, how could you miss something like this, when the pressure you were under and things you were doing. So there's a lack of patience and tolerance. There's a lack of understanding of risk. There's a lack of understanding of the fact, human beings make mistakes. We all do all the time. You can't design a perfect mousetrap.

KING: Back with our remaining moments with the former head of the CIA, George Tenet, the author of "At the Center of The Storm." Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We're back with George Tenet. Some quickie opinions, should Scooter Libby be pardoned?

TENET: No view about that, Larry. I wish him the best and you don't wish jail on anybody. But I have no view on that.

KING: Are you going to testify before the Waxman Committee in all of this, Niger and Scooter Libby?

TENET: I will talk to the congressman personally when we get back to town and we'll deal with him -- we'll talk to him about that. KING: Of course, if you're subpoenaed, you'll have to.

TENET: Well, you don't want to be subpoenaed, Larry.

KING: No, not a good idea.

TENET: It's never a good idea.

KING: All right, give me some tin types of people, just your quick thoughts.

TENET: Larry, not a good thing to do.

KING: No?

TENET: No.

KING: Dick Cheney, what do you think of Dick Cheney?

TENET: You know, Larry, you know, these are all people. They're hard working professional men and women that I work with and I'd rather not give you descriptions of people.

KING: Is President Bush a strong leader?

TENET: I think he is, Larry.

KING: Why do you think the public opinion of the war is so low?

TENET: Well, Larry, it hasn't gone well, has it? And the consequences have been difficult in the region, in Iraq. We've been there a long time and the American people are expressing a serious concern about it. So something that goes this long and something they've got concerns of, we've got an Army stretched pretty thin, we've got people's redeployment rates up. That's going to create a certain amount of angst inside the United States. So as difficult as it is, it's predictable that people are going to have these concerns.

KING: You like teaching?

TENET: I love being with students at Georgetown University, Larry. It's a great place to teach. I went to the Foreign Service School and I'm delighted to be able to give something back to those kids.

KING: Do you fear a nuclear attack?

TENET: What I fear is most, Larry, is terrorists acquiring nuclear capability, because...

KING: Why?

TENET: ...I know bin Laden has the intent to do so. And it's a tough issue and it's the one that I worry about the most even after leaving office.

KING: What if he does?

TENET: Well, Larry, let's hope he doesn't. Let's hope we can get on top of this and prevent that from happening.

KING: But if he does, how does he deliver it?

TENET: Well, Larry, I don't know, and I don't want to speculate other than to say, you know, he looks at the United States and he thinks about us as a target. He wants to hurt us commensurate with our standing as a superpower in the world. And you know when we think about what he's been capable of; this is the one area that causes me the greatest concern.

KING: Why did you like running an agency that has spies?

TENET: Well, they have spies. And these are great men and women who have great passion for their work, a great passion for our country, care about what they do and are talented. It's an agency full of characters and has a great deal of character. And what you miss the most is you don't miss the meetings, you don't miss all of the stuff you used to go through, you miss that camaraderie and that sense of let's go get this done for the country today, that's what I miss.

KING: More PhDs than any other government agency, right?

TENET: That may be true, Larry. I don't know.

KING: That used to be said.

TENET: Well, there are a lot of PhD's, a lot of smart people or analysts have PhDs. That's right.

KING: So you're proud you served? You're glad you were director?

TENET: It's the best job in government. I'll never have another job like that for the rest of my life.

KING: Thank you so much, George.

TENET: Thank you very, very much, Larry.

KING: George Tenet, the book is "At the Center of The Storm: My Years at The CIA" written with Bill Harlow and published by Harper Collins.

Before we go, a reminder that Oprah joins me tomorrow night. And here's a preview.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OPRAH WINFREY, HOST, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW": I can't believe it's 50 years for you.

KING: Fifty years. WINFREY: What does it feel like?

KING: Fifty years.

WINFREY: Fifty years.

KING: I can remember it like yesterday.

WINFREY: Can you really?

KING: Yes, I can remember my first day on. Yes, do you want to do 50?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And on Wednesday night, Katie Couric will interview me. Thursday night, there will be a retrospective, a two hour special. On Friday night, Bill Maher hosts a rather surprise party and toast. That's Oprah though tomorrow night.

And we thank George Tenet for tonight.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.voxant.com

Search
© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by CNN.com
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines