Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
April 27, 2007

Tenet and Cheney … And Bush, Oh My! (Or: The Shot That Just Keeps Giving)

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This is a slightly-revised version of a BAGnewsNotes post that first appeared November 4, 2005 with a revision four days later.

I offer it again for two reasons. First, it continues to raise interesting questions about Bush, Cheney, Tenet and the selling of the war. Second, it provides background, and a reality check, on the White House picture the NYT re-published yesterday (in cropped form) accompanying its article/review of George Tenet’s new book — in which Tenet attacks Cheney for setting him up as the Administration’s Iraq intelligence fall guy.

First, however, let me mention how the photo functions in yesterday’s NYT piece. The Times does not attribute the picture to a specific moment or circumstance.  It just fixes the time as March 2003 and adds the caption sentence: “Mr. Tenet now says there was never a “serious debate” about the Iraq threat.”

Used in this context, one looks at the photo and assumes either Tenet is lying, since the pic looks like evidence that debate took place. Or, it works to Tenet’s advantage, given his now-published claim that he tried to argue Cheney out of various aggressive moves toward Iraq.

Here’s what I offered about the photo on November 4, 2005:

With all the retrospective analysis taking place surrounding how the Administration led us to war, how valid a source are White House photographs in assessing events, behaviors and motives, as compared to written documents or oral accounts?

Consider this photo issued by the White House on March 30, 2003, for example.  The question is: Can it tell us anything about the decision to take out Saddam Hussein with a single missile strike, how the decision was made, and who played what role in that decision?

You might recall that late on March 30th, 2003, before the U.S. launched the Iraqi invasion, the C.I.A. believed it had information as to the location of Saddam Hussein and possibly his two sons. According to reports, an urgent Oval Office meeting was convened earlier that day in order for CIA Director Tenant to present the intelligence.  News sources also revealed that Tenant urged immediate action, warning that a “prime opportunity” could be lost.  Besides Tenet, Card, Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice also took part in the deliberations.  The meeting was reported to last four hours, from 3:20 to 7:20 p.m.  News accounts not only provided the time frame, but indicated that Bush gave his approval at 6:30 p.m., 50 minutes before the meeting officially ended.  (Although Rice and Rumsfeld are not in the photo, someone — possibly Rumsfeld — is reflected in the window just above Tenet’s right shoulder.)

Although nothing can be certain with a single photograph, it’s interesting to speculate what the picture has to tell.  In the image, we see George Tenet vigorously making a point to a seemingly questioning Dick Cheney.  At the same time, Bush looks to be offering some kind of paper Cheney’s way.  Bush is wearing glasses, suggesting he had just been reading.  Given that sunset in Washington that day was 6:21 p.m., Bush signed the order at 6:30 and it’s virtually dark outside, its possible the paper Bush is offering is the attack order.

Here are some obvious questions:

Why, more than three hours into the meeting — especially if the decision has been made — would Tenet still be so animated (and what can one make, if anything, out of Bush’s tentative/concerned expression?  How confident could they have been in the decision?  Or, the intelligence?  (Given what we know of Cheney’s long-running campaign to subvert C.I.A. intelligence to justify the war, could the drama exemplify Cheney’s tendency to second guess/harass Tenet and the C.I.A. till the last minute?)

How do we make sense of Bush’s role, especially in relation to Cheney?

If the paper is the finding, could it be that Bush hands it to Cheney looking for (or requiring) his approval?  Or the other way, if the paper is supporting evidence offered by Cheney out of his voluminous pile, is it possible what this photo best captures is the way Cheney (who clearly seems the central figure in the photo) ran arguments past Bush for his token assent?

And here’s what I posted on August 8th, after the consensus from readers was that the photo “didn’t add up”:

The more I thought about it, the more I, too, have to conclude this photo (supposedly depicting the decision to launch a preemptive strike on Saddam) was staged.  Why? Besides the fact the photo was issued by the White House at a point at which “message control” was at its tightest/highest, here’s what strikes me:

1.) From the timeline, we know that this shot occurred toward the end of the meeting, and it just doesn’t make sense that Bush Co. would have allowed a photograph before or while the bombing decision was made.

2.) If the decision still was being argued, Rice and Rummy would still be there.

3.) After 3+ hours, these guys just wouldn’t look that put together with three of the four wearing coats, etc. Also, it just doesn’t make sense that Tenet would still be arguing the case this late into the meeting.

4.) I’m guessing that Tenet actually posed with his jacket off to dramatize his “working” role in making the case.

5.) The best explanation for why these guys would be all bunched up at/behind Bush’s desk is because they were arranged that way for the dramatization.

6.) It doesn’t make sense that Bush is holding up this paper — the finding to attack? –at the same time Tenet is arguing the case, unless the photographer and/or the participants thought they could convey the process and the result of the process at the same time.

7.) It’s too studied.  How often do you see a shot of Bush wearing glasses?

8.) Does the presence of Cheney’s glasses — neatly situated on top of his files — help argue for the careful use/placement of glasses as props?

9.) I’m still not convinced the figure in the window isn’t Card’s reflection. What it could offer, however, is whoever is overseeing (what, staged or otherwise) remains a photo shoot.

10.) Does it make sense the little gold clock would be so close to the front edge of the desk unless a point was being made? (Such as, time is of the essence!)

Given the above… what’s your take on Tenet then and now, and what are your thoughts on the way the Times used this photo yesterday?

Also, four years after the moment in question, what does the data say about the two original questions: How valid a source are White House photographs in assessing events, behaviors and motives?  And, can the photo tell us anything about the decision to take out Saddam Hussein with a single missile strike, how the decision was made, and who played what role in that decision?

(image: Eric Draper, White House/A.P. March 20, 2003. Oval Office. whitehouse.gov)

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