George Tenet's Memoir: Curious and Provocative

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George Tenet's Memoir: Curious and Provocative At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA George Tenet, with Bill Harlow HarperCollins, 2007

This memoir is an important book for a number of reasons. Primary among them is that it, in common with the memoirs of others prominent in the William Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, will serve historians as one of the main source documents for sorting out the intricacies of the pre- and post-9/11 periods, including the U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

No one could have been more central to those events than George Tenet, who served at the heart of U.S. intelligence throughout the Clinton administration and for the first three-and-a half years of the ensuing Bush administration. He had for four years been the staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee before joining the National Security Council staff for three years. He became the second in command at the Central Intelligence Agency in 1995, and the Acting Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) in 1996. The "acting" was soon dropped, and he served as DCI (running the C.I.A. and 16 other agencies) from 1997 until July 2004. Tenet is now on the Georgetown University faculty as a distinguished professor. The book is written "with Bill Harlow," but Harlow is someone quite different from the usual professional writer brought in to fashion a book for a celebrity. Instead, Harlow, as C.I.A. spokesman, worked closely with Tenet during the seven years of Tenet's service as DCI.

By its nature, the memoir is a gold mine of information about many facets of those years. Much of the initial interest in the book has been in the context of the "finger pointing" that is inevitably going on about responsibility for what is commonly perceived as a series of debacles. These include intelligence insufficiencies before 9/11; the botched intelligence on Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction; whether the intelligence was misused in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq; and the American mistakes that led into and then fed the quagmire that has so long existed following the United States' initial success in Iraq.

We won't assess in total context the pros and cons of that finger pointing in this review. Such assessment is receiving considerable attention elsewhere, and is being done by people who have been much better positioned to judge it than we are. At most, we will do so to a limited extent made possible by a critique simply of the book's content.

It is hard to come away from the book without being struck by the magnitude of the responsibilities George Tenet shouldered and by the immensely difficult human position he found himself in. A chief intelligence officer is in a delicate position when he, as essentially a factual analyst who aspires to objectivity, finds himself part of a human milieu whose members for ideological or policy reasons desperately desire the facts to be as they would like them to be. There is much reason to empathize strongly with Tenet in those circumstances.

But there is something curious about Tenet's discussion. But first, a caveat: although it may seem so, none of what we mention about this should be understood as this reviewer's attempt to draw from the book a defense of the invasion of Iraq as wise or as competently planned and executed. The points we will explore have to do with certain specific judgments that, though important, were not themselves definitive as to the whole picture.

Now, to proceed: Tenet seeks to separate himself from the warenthusiasts within the Bush administration, doing so by telling how on several occasions he intended to communicate facts circumspectly, applying a high burden of proof before conclusions could be affirmed. But even though this was, as he says, his intention, he reacted to his circumstances by allowing himself to put his imprimatur as DCI on White House and Pentagon thinking that applied a lesser, common-sense burden of proof. …

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