Does this sound familiar? A senior Bush administration official plays a key role in selling the Iraq war debacle to the American public, resigns a few years later, and then tries to distance himself from Bush and the war by writing a book or talking to Bob Woodward, portraying himself as a poor, hapless victim who knew the truth at the time and really, really wanted to tell it, but, somehow, just had no choice but to go along. What else could he do?
Each version of this contemptible tale shares the same fatal flaw. It requires that the remedy that was readily available -- resignation -- did not exist.
The latest to trod this pathetic path is George Tenet.
Poor George Tenet. Flogging his book, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, on 60 Minutes, Tenet tells Scott Pelley about how his phrase "slam dunk" was misused by the Bush administration. Tenet, you see, didn't mean it was a "slam dunk" that Hussein actually had WMD, he only meant it was a "slam dunk" that a public case could be made that Hussein had WMD.
I can't really see that the distinction matters, but Tenet apparently does. "I became campaign talk," Tenet tells Pelley, "I was a talking point. 'Look at what the idiot told us, and we decided to go to war.' Well, let's not be so disingenuous. Let's stand up. This is why we did it. This is why, this is how we did it. And let's tell, let's everybody tell the truth."
Great -- except he's about four years too late. Tenet seems to believe there's a major distinction between lying and standing by silently while others lie, and then proudly receiving a Medal of Freedom from the liars.
He could have simply resigned and freed himself to "tell the truth." Tenet acts as if resignation were not an option. But it was. And the passion and anger he displays now in the service of book sales could have been used then in the service of his country.
"It's the most despicable thing I've ever heard in my life," Tenet tells Pelley. "You don't do this... You're gonna throw somebody overboard just because it's a deflection? Is that honorable? It's not honorable to me."
The problem is, the honorable train left the station a long time ago, and Tenet wasn't on board.
But others were. Like John Brady Kiesling, a career U.S. diplomat, who resigned from the State Department. As he wrote in his resignation letter to Colin Powell:
"I am resigning because I have tried and failed to reconcile my conscience with my ability to represent the current U.S. administration. I have confidence that our democratic process is ultimately self-correcting, and hope that in a small way I can contribute from outside to shaping policies that better serve the security and prosperity of the American people and the world we share."
That, Mr. Tenet, is how it's done.
It's way too late for George Tenet to do the right thing. But can someone please remind Paul Wolfowitz and Alberto Gonzales, as they are pathetically fighting tooth and nail to cling to their jobs, that there is another option.
And how long do you think it's going to be after the end of the Bush administration before we are treated to General Petraeus' memoir explaining how the surge would have worked "if only he had been given the troops he needed to implement it properly."
So here is a plea to all Bush administration officials: Now is the time. If, like John Brady Kiesling, you're finding it hard to reconcile what you see going on around you with what you know to be the truth, do the right thing and resign. While it matters.
As Tenet says on 60 Minutes: "At the end of the day, the only thing you have is trust and honor in this world. It's all you have. All you have is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor. And when you don't have that anymore, well, there you go."
George Tenet and I are both Greek and there is a great word for it: filotimo.
There are still lives to be saved if a few administration officials have the guts to do what they know is right now -- instead of five years from now while flogging their books.