The rise and fall of former CIA Director George Tenet, the burly son of Greek immigrants, is pure Washington folklore.
The man who, as a boy, bused tables at his father's diner in Queens, N. Y., worked to the sound of operatic arias as an adult. He would show up to meetings in jeans and a leather jacket while chomping on an unlit cigar. He was chummy with everyone, from the cafeteria workers at CIA headquarters to the two presidents for whom he worked.
In the end, though, he resigned amid a cloud of controversy.
Speaking of his youth at a recent commencement speech, he said: "I was the guy who could never keep a secret."
Of course, Tenet was very good at keeping secrets. His job as head of international intelligence for the United States required it.
He was also adept in the ways of Washington. A quick study and natural political operator, Tenet rose from an anonymous staffer on a Senate committee to director of the Central Intelligence Agency in little more than a decade. A few lucky breaks along the way helped. President Clinton appointed Tenet to head the CIA in 1997 after the nomination of his first choice, Anthony Lake, foundered.
Tenet's friendly demeanor served him well in a city that thrives on personal connections. He also had a populist's touch, eschewing limousines, and eating at the CIA cafeteria with the rank and file.
After the 2000 elections, it was assumed that Tenet would resign, like nearly every other Clinton administration official. But his straight-talking style and love of sports helped him forge a bond with President Bush, and Tenet stayed on as CIA director.
Tenet is credited with improving morale at the agency, but during his long tenure, the CIA was caught off guard a number of times. It failed to foresee India's 1998 nuclear test, the attacks against U.S. embassies in East Africa, the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen and the attacks of Sept. 11.
Tenet did, however, issue a warning to the CIA in December 1998 claiming "we are at war" with al-Qaida. He claims his warnings about terrorism were largely ignored by the Bush White House during most of 2001.
Fittingly, for a man who loves sports, his legacy may hinge on a sports metaphor.
In his new memoir, At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA, Tenet admits making the infamous "slam dunk" comment during a 2002 Oval Office meeting with President Bush. He now claims, though, that his comment was taken out of context and that it had little impact on an administration that had already made up its mind to go to war.
"I remember watching and thinking, 'As if you needed me to say slam dunk to convince you to go to war in Iraq,'" Tenet writes in his book, according to a The New York Times report Friday. The Times obtained an advance copy of the book, which will be released by Harper Collins on Monday.
In February 2003, Tenet sat behind Secretary of State Colin Powell as Powell spoke before the U.N. Security Council. Powell's assertion that Iraq was developing biological and possibly nuclear weapons was based largely on CIA intelligence. That intelligence, though, turned out to be wrong. No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq.
Despite their differences, on a brisk December day in 2004, President Bush conferred the highest civilian honor on George Tenet, the Medal of Freedom. In bestowing the award, whose past recipients include Mother Theresa and Rosa Parks, President Bush commended Tenet for being "one of the first to recognize" the growing threat from "radical terrorist networks."
Now, Tenet writes that he was "not at all sure he wanted to accept" the prestigious award. Tenet resigned as CIA director in 2004, saying he wanted to spend more time with his wife and teenage son.
In his book, Tenet blames Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials for pushing the country to war in Iraq without conducting a "serious" debate about the merits of doing so.
But Tenet, a man who got so far so fast partly because of his bluntness, also shoulders some of the blame for the faulty intelligence.
"In retrospect we got it wrong partly because the truth was so implausible," he writes. The truth Tenet refers to, we now know, is that no unconventional weapons would be found in Iraq.