Ex-spy chief on his years 'At the Center of the Storm'
George Tenet offers a rose-tinted view of the CIA's response to terrorism.
Sure, the CIA made mistakes. But wait… there's an explanation.
Such is the core message of At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, George Tenet's engaging, revealing but ultimately unsatisfying book about one of the darkest periods in the agency's history.
You remember Mr. Tenet, the CIA director from 1997-2004. A few years ago, he was described as running around before 9/11 with his "hair on fire," beset by a "system [that] was blinking red."
Most recently, he appeared about ready to spontaneously combust during a combative interview on "60 Minutes."
A calmer Tenet emerges in "Center of the Storm," the new bestseller about Tenet's tenure as the nation's top intelligence chief. In fact, Tenet seems to like just about everybody he worked with, including Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and many of their minions.
Instead of bashing his bosses, he wants to correct misconceptions and poke at a few easy targets like the press and the political culture of Washington.
As the media has noticed, he also takes a slam at the unnamed White House official who accused him of convincing Bush to go to war in Iraq by saying the case for weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk."
Happily for readers, Tenet writes in a smooth, simple style that makes the book easy to plow through despite its 520-page heft (and the author's failure to obey the old saw, "Avoid clichés like the plague. They're old hat").
Throughout, Tenet comes across as a good-natured, likeable family man who enjoys a milkshake and fries and gleefully rides a Schwinn bike between Mideast peace delegations at a Maryland estate.
While he fails to provide any great insight into the character of the people who run this country, he does have an eye for detail and sprinkles the text with plenty of juicy tidbits.
Consider Tenet's hiring as CIA director under President Clinton. If Tenet is to be believed, Mr. Clinton didn't even bother to give him a job interview or ask about his plans for the agency.
There are other revelations. It's no secret that the CIA and FBI don't always get along, but who knew that only about a dozen people – fewer than work at a typical McDonald's – oversee communications between the two agencies? And it should surprise most readers to learn that apparent leaks about classified information showed up in the press about once a week, and lawyers had to report them to the Justice Department.
While Tenet enjoys giving readers a glimpse into the inner workings of his beloved CIA, he's more interested in protecting the agency from taking full responsibility for the mishaps and disasters that occurred on his watch.
The accidental 1991 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade? The CIA fired a contractor, but Tenet now regrets the dismissal and says the Pentagon should share the blame.
The failure to detect the 9/11 plot? The CIA erred, but don't forget that it "struggled mightily," and "fighting terrorism is what we do." (Tenet mentions that the CIA knew about two of the highjackers, but doesn't add that one was amazingly easy to find if anyone had bothered to look: he was listed in the San Diego white pages.)
The blame-shifting and mishap-downplaying goes on and on, with even the scandal over incorrect information in a State of the Union speech dismissed as just a matter of "sixteen words."
Reflection isn't Tenet's strong point, and there's little to nothing in the book about his own personal failings or, for that matter, major internal problems within the culture of the CIA.
Tenet defends CIA workers as dedicated and hard-working and says fighting terrorism "is personal to us." He's certainly right.
But there's more to competence than good values, and many readers will wonder if Tenet's rosy view of the CIA's performance is yet another example of failed intelligence.
• Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.