WASHINGTON -- In the most detailed accounting to date of the origins of the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program, former CIA Director George J. Tenet says the effort was started at the urging of Vice President Dick Cheney.
In his new book released yesterday, Tenet mounts a lengthy defense of the program, noting that he regularly tracked reviews of the intelligence leads it produced. However, he also contends that CIA interrogations of detainees were more effective than any other tool that U.S. intelligence agencies had at their disposal.
Tenet says he was dismayed by the NSA's budget decline in the 1990s and that he made it a priority to "restore the capabilities of the National Security Agency." As director of central intelligence from 1998 to 2004, Tenet oversaw all U.S. spy agencies.
The book, At the Center of the Storm, which accuses Cheney of manipulating intelligence to suit the march to war in Iraq, has ruffled feathers at intelligence agencies and in the executive branch. But current and former intelligence officials said Tenet's wide-ranging defense of his tenure is unlikely to change many minds.
Cheney's role at the inception of the NSA program had been hinted at previously in news reports that quoted anonymous sources, but Tenet's description is the first time it has been detailed on the record.
In October 2001, Cheney asked Tenet if the NSA could do more to monitor al-Qaida, and Tenet called Gen. Michael V. Hayden, then the NSA's director, to relay the message, Tenet says.
Hayden "made it clear we could do no more with existing authorities," and he and Tenet met with Cheney, Tenet wrote. "Mike laid out what could be done that would be feasible, prudent and effective."
Within a week, Tenet says, the NSA was authorized to pursue what President Bush has called the "Terrorist Surveillance Program." That program, as administration officials have described it, monitors conversations into and out of the United States of suspected al-Qaida operatives and their allies.
Tenet also discusses another post-9/11 NSA program, alluded to previously by Hayden but not explained, which monitored communications to and from Afghanistan that predated the Terrorist Surveillance Program.
A former NSA official said, "One could argue that that was really the beginning" of the warrantless program.
Cheney's office would not confirm Tenet's account.
"I'm not going to get into the inception of a classified program," said Megan McGinn, Cheney's deputy press secretary.
Tenet, generally known for his role as CIA director, wrote at length about his responsibilities in overseeing the other U.S. intelligence agencies.
"Despite what might have been seen as a CIA-centric focus, my highest budget priority was to restore the capabilities of the National Security Agency, which by the mid-to-late 1990s was in serious jeopardy," he wrote, referring to cuts in the NSA budget that began near the start of the Clinton administration.
Tenet provides little detail about what he did to follow up, though he acknowledges that "the money never showed up in the early years."
Tenet "accepted and recognized that the budget problem was critical," said the former NSA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, but "he couldn't deliver." The problem, according to the former official, was that the Pentagon controlled the NSA's budget and the agency was forced to compete for its share of a shrinking intelligence pie.
A half-dozen current and former intelligence officials said in interviews yesterday that Tenet's book would have little impact on their views of his performance as CIA director or the larger debate on pre-war intelligence.
To supporters, the book offers a chance for Tenet to finally offer his version of events.
"George speaks his mind," said John O. Brennan, who served as a top deputy.
Detractors said Tenet was more interested in being accepted into the White House inner circle than in defending the intelligence that the CIA and other agencies were producing.
"By allowing the [CIA] and the intelligence community to be viewed as suckers and fools and bumblers for both 9/11 and Iraq, what kind of permanent damage is that going to do to U.S. security?" said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official. "No one is more responsible for that than George Tenet."