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Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron

Posted: May 1, 2007 10:18 PM

The Answer to the Question Why Didn't George Tenet Just Resign?


No one resigns.

I don't know why anyone thinks anyone does.

Or is ever going to.

The last person who resigned, children, was a man named Eliot Richardson, who was Attorney General in the Nixon Administration. This was in 1973, in the midst of Watergate. Richardson happened to resign on a Saturday night, which was one reason why the event was known forever after as the Saturday Night Massacre. It's been 33 years since then, and I am hard put to think of another major administration figure who has since pulled the plug in order to take a principled stand on anything.

The notion that George Tenet -- or Colin Powell, to take another example of a person we keep asking this question about -- would have resigned just because he knew that the administration was lying about weapons of mass destruction, is truly laughable. "I'm an agnostic," Tenet said to Tom Brokaw the other morning, as if his job simply consisted of providing intelligence and then looking the other way when it was deliberately misused. (Powell has an equally lame excuse, by the way: he travels the country giving speeches in which he covers his behavior by saying that he spent his life in a chain of command and was therefore a man who was used to carrying out orders.)

We have such affection for the idea that people will quit on a matter of principle that it's almost sweet. We believe that they quit for moral reasons, that they quit because they want to take a stand against impropriety, that they quit, willingly quit, because they know right from wrong. Once again, let me say this: no one quits. Even when there's a demand that they quit, they don't quit. Look at Alberto Gonzales and Paul Wolfowitz, hanging in there in spite of everything.

And in fairness to Tenet and Powell, what's clear now wasn't so clear back in the day. That image of the two of them at the United Nations is today such an indelible marker on the road to war. But they couldn't have known at that time that the war would be such an unmitigated disaster; they surely couldn't have known that there wouldn't even be a July 4th sparkler found in all of Iraq; and Tenet certainly couldn't have known that years later, he would open Bob Woodward's book and discover that he himself, George Tenet, a simple agnostic from Queens, was going to be blamed for the war just because the words "slam-dunk" fell from his obsequious lips -- and were somehow misinterpreted. The exercise Tenet goes through in his book to explain what he actually meant when he said "slam-dunk" should be logged forever in the Annals of Hair-Splitting, right after "It depends on what the definition of 'is' is."

But never mind why Tenet didn't resign. My question is: Why, when he read Woodward's book, didn't he say right then that that wasn't what he meant? Why didn't he go public and say that the administration had misused the available intelligence? Mightn't it have made some sort of difference? I'm probably being just as romantic as the people who are asking why he didn't resign, but after all, it's been five years since the guy knew that this administration had lied its way to war. So -- as the rabbi said about the dead parrot who spoke twenty-six languages -- why did he not speak up?

Oh, that's right, I forgot: he was saving it for his book.