[This book review article is scheduled to be published in the Winter 2007 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies.]


Book Review Article


George Tenet’s C.I.A. Memoir: Curious and Provocative

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired



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 war-enthusiasts 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.  He did this by remaining silent on some occasions, by sitting behind Colin Powell when Powell gave his February 2003 U.N. speech justifying going to war in Iraq, and even by such an exuberant exclamation as his “slam dunk” statement at a White House meeting about strengthening the case for concluding that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. 

            Even though Tenet strives to separate himself from the conclusions drawn by the war party (and points out correctly that the fixation on going to war was already present and didn’t await his imprimatur), a careful reading of this book elicits information that would seem to show that the war party’s conclusions on several major points were those that reasonable men could easily find justified on the basis of the intelligence they had before them.  They were practical men dealing with issues of life and death, and had to make decisions based on what the evidence seemed to show.  Unlike Tenet in his role as objective analyst, they didn’t have the luxury of applying an exacting burden of proof.  The result is that, in a strange way, while having a tone of being just the opposite, the book could easily be understood by a careful reader as providing the grist for a defense, not a repudiation, of the hawks in the White House and Pentagon. 

            Hindsight shows (or would seem to show, since one thing Tenet indicates is that the disproof of many things about Saddam is far from definitive even though the conventional perception today seems to think that it is) the hawks to have been wrong, but consider what Tenet has to tell us about certain pivotal issues: 

            (1) Secretary of State Colin Powell’s U.N. speech proved a major embarrassment when it came to be seen as a gross overstatement of the case for Saddam’s possession of WMD, but we find ourselves matching this against Tenet’s own strong conviction at the time, as DCI—in common with the major intelligence services of the world—that indeed Saddam did have those weapons. 

            (2)  The president’s January 2003 State of the Union address contained its now-infamous “16 words” telling (erroneously) how Saddam had tried to get uranium in Africa.  We find ourselves matching this against the fact that the National Intelligence Estimate (N.I.E) in October 2002 gave the president the basis for saying what he did.  Tenet minimizes the importance of the paragraphs in the NIE that spoke directly to the issue by saying they were only part of a long report, but he disingenuously fails to quote those paragraphs to let the reader judge their content.  (Readers can find them at www.fas.org/irp/cia/product/iraq-wmd.html)  The administration’s right to rely on those paragraphs  is only partly vitiated by the fact that in two memoranda separate from the N.I.E the C.I.A. had asserted the unreliability of the information. 

            (3)  Vice President Richard Cheney and others have long held that there was a connection between Saddam, terrorism and al-Qa’ida (we will use Tenet’s spelling here).   Tenet thinks this is an unjustified conclusion, but arrives at this by applying a high burden of proof about whether Saddam had operational control over al-Qa’ida.  Match this against the facts he reveals:           

            .  That al-Qa’ida leader Zarqawi went to Baghdad “under an assumed name in May of 2002,” and “supervised camps in northeastern Iraq run by Ansar al-Islam…a radical Kurdish Islamic group [that was] closely allied to al-Qa’ida.” 

            .  That “there were, over a decade, a number of possible high-level contacts between Iraq and al-Qa’ida, through high-level and third-party intermediaries… The reports we evaluated told us of high-level Iraqi intelligence service contacts with Bin Laden himself, though we never knew the outcome of these contacts.”

            .  That “there were solid reports from senior al-Qa’ida members that raised concerns about al-Qa’ida’s enduring interest in acquiring chemical and biological expertise from Iraq.”

            .  That “there was no doubt that Saddam was making large donations to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and was known to be harboring several prominent terrorists, including Abu Nidal.”

            If all of this is true, we are left to wonder why Tenet is so anxious to disassociate himself from the Bush White House and Pentagon.  Despite the respect for him that his book engenders, we get the impression that he has allowed himself to be blown by the shifting winds of fashionable opinion.

            Beyond these impressions, there is much else that deserves comment.  Here are just a few aspects out of many:

            1.  One thing that strikes us about Tenet’s account is how completely preoccupied the U.S. intelligence effort seemed to be with operational specifics.  No doubt the concrete threats to American interests deserved all the attention they received—and in fact even more, for which Tenet always sought more resources.  But one would think that the macrocosmic world picture, involving such things as the rise and fall of political forces, the intention of leaders, vast geopolitical trends, etc., would also receive engrossing attention from the intelligence community.  There is no hint, say, of a country-by-country survey of the rise of jihadism within Islamic populations, and of the forces, coalitions and influences that can be brought to bear against it.  The impression is that, in the absence of that broader perspective, the United States is trapping itself in a reactive posture, trying desperately to stay ahead of events, rather than adopting a strategically proactive one.

            2.  While strenuously denying that he is doing so, Tenet equivocates quite transparently on the use of torture to gain information.  This was especially apparent in the interview Tenet gave to CBS’s “60 Minutes” on April 29, 2007. 

            Is Tenet to be faulted for this equivocation, and the United States for the use of the torture that would seem to lie behind the equivocation?  Anyone serious about these matters must face this question honestly.  We can agree that all decent human beings abhor torture, but consider the following (which, of course, takes us far beyond what Tenet himself discusses):

            A per se moral injunction against torture would seem to be unwise.  Why?  Because a weighing of lives to be saved and civilizational interests to be protected can hardly be removed from consideration.  A per se rule will certainly seem ludicrously naïve to acting men who must face enemies in real time eyeball-to-eyeball.  In the war with radical Islamists, the United States (not to mention the rest of the world that is targeted by jihadism) faces a stateless enemy that is spread over seventy countries.  It is doubtful whether there are techniques short of torture that can cause a captured leader of al-Qa’ida, say, to tell all he knows about that network and his associates in it.  Often the need for information is impressed, too, with a palpable time-urgency, as when a terrorist act is about to be committed.

            A prudential argument is made that “if one side uses torture, that will evoke and legitimize the other side’s doing the same.”  This presupposes a pristine world that shouldn’t be disturbed.  But there is in fact no existing order in which “rules of civilized warfare” are universally respected.  Much the opposite is true.  Europe once had such rules in conflicts among its own nations, but they broke down quite egregiously well over a century ago for reasons thought exigent by the people who violated them.  Right now, there is a mish-mash of sensibilities, justifying some atrocities and condemning others, with lots of double standards.  It would be worthwhile to work out a system of mutual restraints, but naivete ought not to be the ruling principle.  Agreed-upon restraints will have to be preceded by mutual trust, and right now there is not much reason for anyone fully to trust anyone else.  (It will surprise Americans that this even applies to the United States.  Other peoples are painfully aware of U.S. actions that are premised on an elaborate mosaic of double standards and that, though done with what Americans consider good intention, assign little value to the lives and well-being of the millions they affect.)      

            Another facet brought to mind by the discussion of torture: the fight against radical Islamism suffers from a systemic problem that needs to be appreciated, since it goes far toward affecting the fight itself.  It is a struggle conducted upon a stage, as it were, with world opinion as its judge.  But an inescapable part of the strategic scene is that there is an odd disparity in how the contestants are perceived.  The jihadists take hostages and proudly behead them before cameras for all the world to see.  There is relatively little moral onus brought down upon their heads for this.  On the other hand, everything that is done against the jihadists is examined under the magnifying glass of the world press, with a high moral expectation being applied.  An important facet of this is that, even though covert action is an essential part of the war—and most likely its most valuable part—the media in the United States have for many years loved to uncover and point with alarm at anything covert as though it is treachery of the worst sort.  American movies routinely make the C.I.A. a dark and sinister force.

            Further, it seems apparent that what is needed, although it is almost certainly not attainable, is a new international consensus, with a wholly unprecedented and innovative basis in international law, about the means that can be used to fight a stateless insurgency spread over many nations.  Hard questions exist: What means are to be considered legitimate and lawful?  Assassination?  Kidnapping?  Indefinite holding of prisoners in light of the unending duration of an undeclared war?  And how is the difficult matter of national sovereignty to be addressed agreeably to nations in which action is to be taken?  Without this consensus on a global basis, the United States and its allies in the struggle against jihadism either will be hopelessly hamstrung or will continually violate national sensibilities and appear to be acting lawlessly.   Even though this reviewer doubts whether so thorough a redirection of international law is conceivable, diplomacy is often used to at least arrive at agreements between specific nations or regions.

            3.  Tenet suggests another issue that needs to be faced and openly debated.  This is whether the war against radical Islam can effectively be treated as a “law enforcement” problem.  There is considerable ambiguity in President George W. Bush’s repeated vow to “bring terrorists to justice.”  In a war of worldwide dimensions, it hardly seems practicable to bring each member of the enemy forces before a court of law, with its burdens of proof, requirements of evidence, rights of appeal, and the like.  And even if that is done, it provides far more a show of “due process” than its substance.  There can be no truly independent judiciary, no strict standards of proof, and certainly no meaningful presumption of innocence.  It does not bode well for a free society to become confused about real due process and a mere show of it.  These have long been mixed together in the American mind (as witness the Nuremberg trials and the trial of Saddam), so the problem is not itself new.

            4.  Since there really aren’t any good, achievable solutions to much of this, the presence of such intractable complexities should rank high among the reasons the United States ought to give pause before it wades hip-deep into the world’s psychoses, which the country has been doing since as far back as 1898.  Unfortunately, George Tenet doesn’t reflect on it the way Michael Scheuer (the erstwhile head of the Bin Laden desk) does in his book Imperial Hubris (reviewed in these pages in the Winter 2005 issue).  In fact, Tenet accepts the Wilsonian meliorist vision when he says the United States must preempt terrorism by “promoting honest government, free trade, economic development, educational reform, political freedom, and religious moderation.”  This, of course, is today’s conventional view, and is especially embraced by the neo-conservatives who speak of a “project for a new American century.”  It takes a leap of imagination to see the benefits of the opposite course, one that precisely would not have the United States step  deeper into the swamp.  If complexities are intractable, it should perhaps be considered whether it is wise to put oneself in a position where they need to be confronted.

            Tenet has no empathetic comprehension of just why the United States is hated by so many in the Islamic world.  (The very question of why this is so is considered morally reprehensible by many Americans today, who consider the question unpatriotic.)  But if he were to read Scheuer he would see how Americans’ actions (just as those of Europe in an earlier time) have brought much of this on themselves.  Accordingly, he fails to draw what is perhaps the principal lesson from the horrors of our time, which is that a country invites extreme dangers when it seeks to be involved everywhere and with everybody.

            5.  Tenet briefly touches upon something that accentuates this need for the United States (and Europe) to examine its own policies to see how much it is exacerbating its own problems.  He mentions that “a separate stream of reporting told us of al-Qa’ida plans to smuggle operatives through Mexico to conduct suicide operations in the United States.”  This confirms the fears of those who for so long have understood the danger inherent in the porous borders that allow several million immigrants to enter the country illegally, and many others to overstay their visas and melt into the population.   There have been those who for many years have sounded the alarm, too, for Europe about the dangers of its massive Islamic immigration.  Such policies must certainly be assigned responsibility for the problems they invite. 

            6.  An open sore, of course, in the war with radical Islamism has long been the Israeli-Palestinian face-off.  As a good-hearted man, Tenet adopts a doubtful premise.  He stresses at various points the importance of the United States’ being fair to both sides, on the premise that the United States can be an honest broker between them.  At no time does he reflect on the implications of the United States’ being Israel’s principal sponsor, a fact that is certainly known to the Palestinians and the entire Islamic world.  The latter’s perception of the United States’ relation to the issue was expressed recently by Maher Musleh in a letter to the Wichita Eagle: “The conflict in the Middle East did not start 1,400 years ago.  Rather, it started by the creation of Israel as a Western solution to the plight of the European Jews, which robbed the Palestinian Arabs (Muslims, Christians and Jews) of their rights to their land.  The conflict has continued by America’s unconditional support of the rights of Jews over the rights of Palestinians.”

            Tenet tells about the Wye River negotiations involving William Clinton, Arafat and Netanyahu in October, 1998.  He tells how Israel’s Netanyahu held up agreement for some time by insisting that the United States release the Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard.  When Clinton wouldn’t do so, Netanyahu finally relented and entered into the agreement.  Tenet says “Netanyahu and company were holding out to the last minute to see if we would blink.”  Tenet doesn’t seem to realize it, but this was an astonishing scenario.  It shows how despite Israel’s near-total dependence on the United States, the American president was not willing to exert even the slightest pressure on Netanyahu to stop raising an extraneous and fully unjustified issue.  It is hard to imagine how it can be thought that the United States can be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off if it allows itself to be rendered effete by its need to “walk on eggs” in its dealings with the ally who forms one side of the dispute.

            7.  Tenet sees a long fight ahead.  The struggle against terrorism, he says, “will consume the next generation of Americans.”  At the same time, he does not sense a substantial threat to American liberties by the measures that the American government must take to detect and root out domestic threats. 

            Again, these things call for reflection.  Tenet sees the need for the surveillance, but he does not see how a decades-long continuance of it will, under different leaders with different intentions, pose quite a palpable threat to domestic freedom.  As with the other matters mentioned above, we see an intractable problem.  It is one that is inherent in a confrontation that has no end.  It supplies yet another reason for trying to remove the root causes of the confrontation.

            Needless to say, there is much else that could be highlighted or commented upon about Tenet’s memoir.  It is well written and well worth the attention of serious readers.


                                                                                                 Dwight D. Murphey