Directors of Central Intelligence

At the Center of the Storm

Tenet, George J., with Bill Harlow. At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Clark comment: Just for the record: I did not serve under George Tenet, having retired from the CIA long before he arrived on the scene; and I only met him once -- and that in a crowd at the 50th anniversary activities in 1997. I did, however, spend his years as DCI watching his performance from the perspective of both an interested former CIA employee and an academic commentator on national security and intelligence matters.

By most accounts, Tenet is a good and honorable man who, to paraphrase his own words (p. 505), tried his damnedest to protect his country. His memoirs are in many ways poignant when you consider his retelling of the psychological battering that he took from multiple sides between 9/11 and his resignation in 2004. Such, of course, is what happens when you stand too close to the political fire in Washington. And Tenet did indeed stand too close. Some have said that he became too much a part of the political process. Others have opined that he wanted too badly to be a "player" to have handled his job as DCI the way it was supposed to be done. There is even a bit of that in the title of his memoirs -- At the Center of the Storm. The true center of the storm was not Tenet or the CIA; rather both were pulled into the storm by the force of the White House's desire to distance itself from its mistakes. Nonetheless, I can readily imagine that Tenet felt himself to be standing in the middle of a storm, with events swirling around him out of control.

As with all memoirs, this is one individual's view of his time, in Tenet's case a period of frantic and momentous events. I have no doubt that he has tried to report those events as honestly as possible. He admits mistakes, both his and the Agency's, but wants the world to know about the successes that were also achieved. Given that he was ill-equipped to take on the high-level management job he was given in 1997, Tenet did a fine job of leading the CIA. His ability to serve two very different presidents says a great deal about his bureaucratic astuteness.

Tenet's telling of his tenure as DCI is largely well done and readable. The one fault that I have with readability is that the book is repetitious in places. Nevertheless, attempts to "set the record straight" rarely are successful. Through no fault of his, I doubt that Tenet's version of events will become the "gold standard" against which all other accounts are measured. The sad thing is that Woodward's "slam dunk" story will be the one that is remembered, not Tenet's more nuanced telling.

Woodward, Washington Post, 6 May 2007, BW1, calls this a "remarkable, important and often unintentionally damning memoir.... A dedicated, often innovative and strong leader..., Tenet nevertheless was hampered by a bureaucrat's view of the world" and "hobbled by the traditional chain of command." In this memoir, he "has adhered to the rule of CIA directors: protect the president at all costs." Tenet "provides further documentation that the Bush national security team was dysfunctional and members didn't communicate among themselves very well or at all." He also "keeps trying to get himself off the hook" for his "slam dunk" comment.

CNN, "Perle: Tenet Trying to Shift Blame for 9/11," 4 May 2007, reports that former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle said on 4 May 2007 "that former CIA Director George Tenet is attempting to 'shift responsibility' for his failure to anticipate the September 11, 2001, attacks." Perle, "singled out in Tenet's book for immediately linking former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, disputed Tenet's recollection." According to Michael Duffy, "'A Slow-Motion Car Crash,'" Time, 14 May 2007, 40, "Tenet admitted within a few days of publication that he might have the date wrong" on Perle's remarks. Duffy introduces an excerpt from Tenet's memoir carried by Time, 14 May 2007, 41-44.

Christina Shelton, "Iraq, al-Qaeda and Tenet's Equivocation," Washington Post, 30 Jun. 2007, A21, takes issue with Tenet's version of the briefing she gave at CIA Headquarters on 15 August 2002 (see At the Center of the Storm, pp. 346-348). Shelton was "an intelligence analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1984 to 2006."

For Freedman, FA 86.5 (Sep.-Oct. 2007), "the bulk of the book makes for an interesting and generally candid read about the CIA's role in contemporary U.S. foreign policy.... The problem with the book is that Tenet has allowed a criticism [the "slam dunk" remark] to sting and divert him." Brooks. NIPQ 23.3 (Jun. 2007), concludes his review with the words, "Were this reviewer to run into George Tenet, I would say 'Good book George . . . and by the way, good job." (Italics in original)

Hutchinson, IJI&C 20.4 (Winter 2007), finds that Tenet "provides useful and unique insights into the interaction of intelligence and policy." However, "the narrative still leaves many questions unasked and unanswered about the selection and execution of policies and the failures of the two most recent presidential administrations to recognize the scope and intensity of the radical Islamist threats to the United States." In the end, his telling "displays what many will see as too little independence in his role as DCI and too much deference to senior policymaking officials."

To DeMattei, DIJ 16.2 (2007), this is a "skillful mix of memoir and chronicle." Although it "is highly readable and engaging, the style is emotional, and the recommendations are sprawling." The author's "words and stories ... were meant to convey an unvarnished, personal assessment from his vantage point as DCI of what happened and why. In that respect, Tenet ultimately triumphs."

In "Review Roundtable: The Embattled Helmsman: George Tenet's Years at the CIA," Intelligence and National Security 24, no. 2 (Apr. 2009): 291-302, Sir David Omand suggests that "this is a book that students of the impact of intelligence on international affairs should read carefully and from which they can profit.... [I]t is the dramatic sense of Washington atmosphere Tenet provides that is valuable for an understanding of that fateful period." John Prados is disappointed that Tenet provides "no meaningful substantive treatment" of renditions and interrogations. Nevertheless, the former DCI "has a story to tell, some of it rather defensive in tone, but mostly told well." Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones says that the book "glosses over ... the Bush administration's failure to understand the Middle East, a failure to which Tenet contributed."

Arpin, NWCR 63.1 (Winter 2010), sees this book as "above all a story of love and passion, for Tenet is not a cold chronicler who hides his emotions behind a detached, simple narrative of events.... Just as his love for his country and for his family shines throughout this work, so does his love for the CIA and its officers. This book reads as a first-person history should. It is engrossing and fascinating."

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