GEORGE Tenet, the former director of Central Intelligence, has written a memoir -- "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA" -- that calls to mind the old quip about the talking dog. What's truly remarkable about the performance is not so much what the dog has to say, but that he speaks at all.
The era in which CIA agents and their leaders took secrets to their graves is behind us, of course, but the notion of a DCI laying out his dealings with the president of the United States while the chief executive still is in office is something new under the sun. In that sense, Tenet's book is part and parcel of the astonishing number of tell-alls this loyalty-obsessed White House has spawned. At some point, George W. Bush's administration became the literary equivalent of a television reality show.
That's hardly the most discomforting thing about Tenet's alternately fascinating and frustrating -- and very readable -- recollection. Far more disturbing is the fact that the country's former spook-in-chief remains disquietingly mystified by so many things -- not serious issues like "Where is Osama bin Laden hiding?" but elementary questions touching on his own conduct in office.
For example, on Sept. 12, 2001, then-CIA Director Tenet arrived at the White House and encountered neoconservative firebrand Richard N. Perle, a passing acquaintance. As Perle was leaving, he paused to tell the spy chief that "Iraq must pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility." Tenet wondered what Perle had been doing at the White House on such a day. By his own account, "I never learned the answer to that question." Similarly, he writes, "One of the great mysteries to me is exactly when the war in Iraq became inevitable."
Three years later, as Tenet prepared to resign, he considered his seven-year directorate and what he considered his accomplishments: "the rebuilding of a broken agency, the restoration of morale, the successes in Afghanistan and the larger war on terrorism, the takedown of [Pakistani nuclear scientist] A.Q. Khan and the neutralizing of WMD development in Libya," among others, he writes. "What I couldn't stop wondering was, had the president been convinced by some of his advisors that the blame [for the failure to find nuclear or biological weapons in Iraq] should be shifted to me? In the end, I will never know the answer to that question."
Oh, come on ...
Still, Tenet's account of his years with the CIA contains a great deal of real value and genuine interest on all those other questions.
Like everyone else who served the United States through this era, however, his reputation will stand or fall on the Iraq question. And, in a dense "Afterword" that seems to bear the clearest marks of Tenet's hand, the former director speaks most directly to the issues likely to draw readers to his memoir.
"Terrorism and Iraq were the two most pressing issues of my tenure, but as critical as they are, we should not be blind to other issues in that troubled region," he writes. "The Middle East is less stable today than at any time in the past quarter century. The security of Israel is at greater peril than at any time I can remember. The United States entered into the war in Iraq and acted as if our actions there had no relationship to the Middle East peace process, events in Lebanon or Syria, or to the broad struggle against Sunni Islamic terrorism."
Concerning the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Tenet concludes: "The core of [the CIA's] judgments turned out to be wrong for 100 different reasons that go to the heart of what we call our 'tradecraft.' " He is unwilling, though, to see the agency shoulder any responsibility for the debacle that has followed Saddam Hussein's fall. "Even if the invading coalition forces had discovered stockpiles of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq after Saddam's ouster, the current situation on the ground would be the same. The same U.S. post-invasion policies would have produced the same disastrous results. While we got it wrong on much of our WMD analysis, we correctly anticipated what might ensue during an extended occupation. What I did not know at the time was how badly our government would mishandle the invasion's aftermath and the effort to win the peace. Once on the ground, the CIA provided clear warning of a growing insurgency. The problem was that our warnings were not heeded. For too long our government was either unable or unwilling to look at new facts and transform its policy. As a consequence, a domestic insurgency in Iraq worsened daily and the political and military situation spiraled out of control. We followed a policy built on hope rather than fact."