This spring, all media—from print to broadcast to broadband—saturated former Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet and his book At the Center of the Storm with coverage. The frenzy was the climax of public anticipation surrounding this on-again, off-again tell-all from the second-longest-serving DCI ever (July 1997 to July 2004). Tenet had kept mum on his views since stepping down from the post three years ago, and the delay in the book’s publication, occasioned by a protracted review at CIA, only raised drama and expectations further.
Now that the media spasm has passed, we can look behind the headlines to see what actually lies inside Tenet’s 520-page book. The short answer is that At the Center of the Storm, to continue the weather metaphor, comes off mainly as a low-pressure system. It is strong on generating political heat and humidity, but weak on clearing much air or providing substantive enlightenment.
It is also unusually personal. Tenet is fond of reminding readers of his Greek ancestry, and, indeed, his story is a kind of Greek tragedy. Tenet the protagonist engages in a moral struggle against evil but ends up in personal disappointment and brings ruin to an institution, the Central Intelligence Agency, about which he genuinely and deeply cares.
Tenet’s ascension to DCI from the deputy’s post was enthusiastically welcomed by the CIA’s senior management and its rank and file. The staff breathed a collective sigh of relief after suffering a string of short-term DCIs, culminating with John Deutch, who showed no warmth for the Agency and whose personnel readily reciprocated the cool feelings. Morale under Tenet rebounded. Working-level staffers (like me) appreciated bumping into the gregarious Tenet walking around the Agency compound in Langley, or riding up the elevator in the Headquarters building, with an unlit cigar in his mouth or an ice cream cone in his hand.
Early in his tenure, Tenet gave a passionate in-house speech on his strategic plans, promising that the Agency would get back to the basics—stealing secrets and analyzing American adversaries. The speech gave the workforce even further hope and high expectations. Tenet writes of his management philosophy: “Show them that you care—and when you have to kick them in the butt, they will understand that it is not personal, but rather about doing the job right for the country.” Unfortunately, Tenet didn’t kick nearly enough ass, and he subsequently fell into a trap that any parent ought to understand: If a father tries to be his son’s best friend, he loses the authority necessary to patiently steer his...