The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

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Low-Pressure System

George Tenet is the low-pressure system in At the Center of the Storm.

Published on July 1, 2007

At the Center of the Storm
by George Tenet (with Bill Harlow)
HarperCollins, 2007, 549 pp., $30

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 child down the straight and narrow path even after the father stops walking this earth. The CIA’s management desperately needed disciplining, but Tenet was too busy trying to be its best buddy.

[credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/Corbis]


Tenet’s personality and wit come through the pages of At the Center of the Storm as he recounts experiences nurturing American relationships with foreign officials and intelligence services. One has to marvel, for example, at his telling of a late-night drinking session in Georgia in which he bad-mouthed the Russians, to the delight of his Georgian intelligence hosts; or at the image of Tenet lying on the floor to ease back pain, with Yasir Arafat at his side, in Arafat’s Israeli-besieged Ramallah headquarters. Tenet was in his element in darkly lit, smoke-filled rooms abroad, developing trust and confidence with foreign counterparts. The time and effort needed to nurture these relationships, coupled with Tenet’s long service as DCI, were invaluable for bolstering American intelligence exchanges with foreign partners, especially in the Middle East, which dominated Tenet’s foreign travel. “At least 90 percent of the trips I made overseas during my seven years as DCI were to the Middle East or to the border nations of Central and South Asia”, he writes. Indeed, a reader would look in vain here for any substantive history of intelligence operations and analyses of Russia, China, Europe (even in the Balkans), Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa during Tenet’s tenure.

Part and parcel of Tenet’s big personality is a tender pride, flashes of which are sprinkled throughout the book. Tenet disputes claims by Bob Woodward that he stood up and waved his arms to call the case of Iraqi WMD a “slam-dunk” in 2002, and he accuses the Bush Administration of trying to lay the blame on him for the war. “As if you needed me to say ‘slam dunk’ to convince you to go to war with Iraq”, he quips in response to Vice President Cheney’s account of the incident.

Outside the Beltway, the “slam dunk” controversy may seem to boil down to “he said, she said”, but the stubborn fact remains that the CIA’s assessments that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs stood head and shoulders above the litany of other rationales for waging war. Tenet sat, literally and figuratively, behind Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 as Powell articulated the WMD case for war. Tenet acknowledges that, “One by one, the various pillars of the speech, particularly on Iraq’s biological and chemical weapons programs, began to buckle.” Moreover, the WMD fiasco was only part of the Agency’s failure in Iraq. Political intelligence about Iraq was sparse at the CIA, and Tenet did little to remedy the deficit despite spending years at the helm.



The Administration and some of its supporters have also tried to blame the 9/11 attacks on Tenet and the CIA, if only a little less directly than they blame them for the Iraq WMD screw-up. Here Tenet has a more persuasive defense brief. He ably documents the Agency’s general strategic warning to the President in the summer of 2001 of an upcoming catastrophic al-Qaeda attack. He also documents how he and the CIA pushed back political pressures to directly link 9/11 with Iraq. However, he throws far too many of the terrorist threat reports that flooded CIA headquarters at the reader, at one point asking us to “imagine how we felt at the time living through it” if we feel “confused, frustrated or exhausted reading this litany” today.

Tenet’s fascination with this gusher of human intelligence reporting raises the troubling prospect that he was too much the tactician and too little the strategist, allowing himself and his senior staff to become overwhelmed by time-perishable current intelligence at the expense of longer-term strategic analysis. He comes off as the country’s al-Qaeda action officer, unable to take a step back and order up more reflective strategic intelligence assessments. Daily current intelligence apparently overwhelmed Tenet to the point that he failed to see the need for a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s WMD in the run-up to the 2003 war. One was eventually, and hastily, written only because Congress demanded it. Tenet admits, “An NIE on Iraq should have been initiated earlier, but at the time I didn’t think one was necessary. I was wrong.”

Moving from past to present, Tenet issues a stark warning that al-Qaeda is working hard today to get its hands on WMD. This fact, he says, is what makes him lose sleep. All the more reason, one would have thought, for Tenet to be much more hard-hitting in his assessments of the duplicities of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, whose nuclear weapons al-Qaeda could one day acquire either by gift or theft from Pakistan’s military. Tenet assumes that Musharraf was blissfully unaware of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear weapons aid to Libya and Iran, a view that any street-savvy intelligence officer would find laughable. Tenet is equally glowing in his appraisals of Saudi Arabia and its efforts in the so-called global War on Terror. He averts his eyes from the dark underbelly of militant Islam that is nurtured in the Saudi Kingdom. He sees no duplicity in the royal family’s juggling of its relations with the Americans abroad while catering to Saudi Islamists at home for the sake of political legitimacy, nor does he imagine that the regime in Riyadh could be much shakier than it looks.

Tenet defends what he calls “aggressive interrogation” by CIA personnel of key al-Qaeda suspects held in CIA-run detainment centers. He goes even further, torturing his readers with laborious descriptions of bureaucratic processes in order to explain the Agency’s performance lapses. He discusses extensively the report of Iraqi attempts to procure uranium from Niger, rightfully dismissed by the CIA, but which nevertheless found its way into the President’s 2003 State of the Union Address. He belabors, too, the subsequent finger-pointing by Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his covert CIA employee wife, Valerie Plame, whose identity was leaked to the press by at least enough high-level officials to make up a decent poker game. This scandal, however, was truly a tempest in a teapot, because the Niger uranium report did not factor heavily in the CIA’s abysmal assessment of Iraq’s nuclear program.

Meanwhile, Tenet’s analysis of the CIA’s horrible Iraqi biological warfare (BW) assessment rehearses at length the bureaucratic mechanics of the CIA’s failure to recognize that the primary human intelligence source called “Curveball” fabricated reports on Iraqi mobile BW production facilities. Yet after numerous pages of explanations and excuses, a serious reader can still be forgiven for wondering how the CIA could have been so grossly negligent on issue after issue.

Tenet sometimes appears to want to have it both ways in order to soften blame on himself and the CIA. He prophetically warned in a 1998 memorandum to his senior intelligence lieutenants that the United States was at war with al-Qaeda and that he wanted no resources spared in that fight. He subsequently pleads poverty, that the intelligence community’s budget was squeezed and had no surplus resources to devote to the fight. That supposed lack of resources apparently was quickly rectified immediately after 9/11, when Tenet notes,


In the weeks following the attacks of 9/11, we quadrupled the size of CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, made massive shifts in personnel and money, and closed down and scaled back operations in many parts of the world to support the offensive that was being launched against al-Qa‘ida.

So why weren’t these strategic managerial reallocation decisions made years earlier, if Tenet really held the conviction of his own words in his 1998 “We Are at War” memo?

Tenet also acknowledges that mistakes were made on the “key judgments”, which is akin to an executive summary, of the Iraq NIE. In retrospect he finds that the report is “too assertive and conveys an air of certainty.” But the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the morning intelligence brief to the President, was also overly confident in its intelligence judgments. Tenet and his senior officials verbally briefed then-National Security Advisor Rice in December 2002 on modest confidence levels on judgments regarding Iraq’s WMD programs, to which she responded, “That’s a heck of a lot lower than we’re getting from reading the PDB.” Tenet and his senior staff were probably hyping the Iraqi reporting in the PDB all along to impress “First Customer” Bush who, even before entering office, pronounced himself underwhelmed by the quality of intelligence in the PDB. (Bush had remarked to a CIA briefer who was giving him the full presidential intelligence briefings before he was sworn in as commander-in-chief, “Well, I assume I will start seeing the good stuff when I become president.” But he was already seeing the “good stuff.”)

Most of the major national security engagements of the Bush Administration have been better explored in books by journalists, former Clinton Administration counter-terrorism officials and former CIA operatives, especially those involved in the covert action program that brilliantly facilitated the ousting of the Taliban regime by U.S. Special Forces in autumn 2001. To be sure, Tenet’s account fills in some details, but it drops no bombshells that profoundly change the main story lines already in the public domain. Even Tenet’s recollection of covert action against Osama bin Laden before 9/11, a topic on which he is in a position to shed new light, amounts to just another “he said, she said” dispute. He argues, “Almost every authority granted to CIA prior to 9/11 made it clear that just going out and assassinating [Osama bin Laden] would not have been permissible or acceptable.” Some former policymakers and intelligence officials have faulted the CIA for failing to do just that. Perhaps Tenet was gun shy after the CIA’s tragic bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, which it misidentified as a Serb military factory during the 1999 Kosovo war.

Where Tenet might have filled gaps in public knowledge in other areas, he fails again to take on the task. He adds little to Bob Woodward’s reporting on the pre-war human intelligence network in Iraq. Reporting from this network formed the basis for the Bush Administration’s attempted political-decapitation bombing strikes against Saddam Hussein in the first blows of the 2003 war. Were the agents fabricating the intelligence? We aren’t told.

Nor does Tenet touch on James Risen’s reporting in his book, State of War, that some unorthodox and innovative CIA officers had used Iraqi émigrés living in the United States to travel back to Iraq before the 2003 war, where they contacted relatives who had been working in Saddam’s WMD programs. By Risen’s account, these Iraqi runners collected intelligence that Iraq’s WMD programs were mostly defunct, but their reports were dismissed by the CIA’s old guard.

Tenet does not address Hussein Kamil, Saddam Hussein’s long-time right-hand man who defected to Jordan in 1995 and reported that Iraq had no more WMD. Nor does Tenet shed any new light on the American-Saudi controversy over suspected Iranian government involvement in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American servicemen. He also treads lightly on the CIA intelligence that supported the attack on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998 in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s bombings of two American embassies in Africa earlier that year. About the CIA’s completely missing the Indian nuclear tests of 1998? We get two pages of anecdotal chagrin, but not even two words of explanation.

The downfall of George Tenet and the CIA is partly disguised in At the Center of the Storm as a great “success story.” President Bush wanted Tenet to give him daily intelligence briefings, a break from the practice under President George H.W. Bush, in which the DCI attended the morning presidential intelligence briefing led by a senior CIA official perhaps once a week. As Tenet sees it, “Being in regular, direct contact with the president is an incredible boon to a CIA director’s ability to do his job.” But being the president’s daily briefer is a full-time job in and of itself. No mortal, even one as energetic and dedicated as Tenet, can be both the president’s daily briefer and the manager of the entire intelligence community of some 100,000 people, with a post-9/11 budget of more than $40 billion. The president’s national security advisor only has to manage a staff of some 200 people and needs to brief the president daily, but not the DCI. Tenet should have had the guts, or the wisdom, to insist that the president relieve him of daily intelligence briefing chores to free up time to manage the American intelligence community.

In the three years since Tenet retired from the CIA, during which time his book has been incubating, what has happened to American intelligence? The CIA, the institution that Tenet loved, has been demoted and will be overseen by the newly created Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The DCI post has gone to the ash heap of history, and the director of the CIA is no longer a president’s top intelligence adviser. Advocates for the creation of the DNI had argued that the DCI job was too big for one individual, but the DNI has simply taken over the same portfolio of responsibilities that the DCI exercised under Tenet’s tenure, most notably to include giving daily intelligence briefings to the president. What we needed under Tenet was better strategic management of the CIA’s role as the “first among equals” in the intelligence community, but what we got after the 9/11 and Iraq intelligence debacles were even more cumbersome and burdensome layers of bureaucrats. That, as they say, is history—but it’s a history you won’t read about in At the Center of the Storm.


Richard L. Russell, who was a political-military analyst for the CIA from 1984 to 2001, teaches security studies at Georgetown University and is the author of Sharpening Strategic Intelligence: Why the CIA Gets It Wrong and What Needs to Be Done to Get It Right (Cambridge University Press, 2007).