JULY 2, 2007
George Tenet was in a rush to cash in--or, at least, that was theimpression he gave. No CIA director had ever moved so quickly towrite an account of his tenure. After resigning his post in June2004, Tenet swiftly retained Robert Barnett--agent to theWashington stars, renowned for negotiating monumental advances forBill and Hillary Clinton, among others-- to organize a secretiveauction for his memoir. The winner--with a bid of slightly over $4million, according to a publishing source--was Random House's CrownPublishing Group. But the real winner, at least initially, wasTenet, who was best known for describing the case that Iraq had WMDas a "slam dunk" and who would now have the opportunity to distancehimself from that fiasco--while getting paid handsomely to do so.
And then an odd thing happened. Sometime between the auction and themoment when a contract should have been inked, Tenet balked,informing Random House that he had decided to delay the book.Eighteen months would pass before Tenet approached the publishingindustry again. By that time, the value of his story had fallendramatically. In the end, HarperCollins--which had bid $4 millionthe first time around, barely losing out to Random House--won thesecond auction with a bid that was just half its original offer,according to the publishing source. Tenet has done nothing tocorrect media reports--in The New Yorker and elsewhere--that hereceived $4 million to write the book. But Barnett, who representedhim in the negotiations, conceded to me that "all of the numbers"he has seen publicly reported about Tenet's contract were wrong andthat the delay caused his client to settle "for less."
Which raises a question: Why did a man who seemed so bent on cashingin put off writing his memoir--at a loss of some $2 million?
There can be no doubt that, while the delay was costly to Tenet, itwas very valuable to the White House. The net effect was to pushthe book's publication date beyond the 2006 midterm elections. Inthe course of these book deliberations, Tenet received thePresidential Medal of Freedom.
Coincidence? Tenet says yes. "My decision not to proceed was basedsolely on my desire to let some time pass, to do more research, andto gain some perspective," he told me over e-mail last week. "Noother reason."
And it certainly seems plausible that Tenet "was not ready to writethe book, " as he had said to me in an interview earlier thismonth. But he was not very clear on why this realization struck himafter he had gone to the trouble of hiring a lawyer and conductingan auction. Nor was he clear on what conversations he'd had withmembers of the Bush family during the 18-month interval betweenauctions.
The reason I was asking such questions was because Tenet's book hadcome up last summer when I was interviewing Prince Bandar--a closefriend of Tenet, former Saudi ambassador to Washington, andconfidant of the Bush family who has been described as a surrogateson to the elder Bush. At the time, the book-- which wouldeventually be published in April 2007 under the title At the Centerof the Storm: My Years at the CIA--was headed for a long securityreview, a process designed to prevent sensitive information fromslipping inadvertently into books by officials who have had accessto intelligence.
Bandar told me that he had been contacted by Tenet to check some ofthe references to Saudi Arabia. But he also told me something quiterevealing about how the Bush family operates behind the scenes. "Iknew President Bush called him," Bandar explained. "The questionis: Was it 41 or 43?" Bandar thought it very unlikely that GeorgeW. Bush called. "He would not have had it in him to come and say[to Tenet], 'Please, please, don't write this book.' It is not inhis character."
Tenet, Bandar says, greatly admires Bush 41, and the feeling ismutual. It was under Tenet that the CIA's headquarters in Langleywas renamed the George H. W. Bush Center for Intelligence. AndBandar explains that Tenet "shared with Senior more things thanpeople know." In other words, the two men were close. Bandar'sguess is that, after he heard about the book, the elder Bush--or afamily member acting on his behalf--contacted Tenet and saidsomething like, "This is not dignified. You are not from the StateDepartment. You are the CIA, and you are keeping the flag up."
When I asked Tenet whether he had received a call from PresidentBush-- either one--to express concerns about the book, he becamequite agitated and said everything I had heard in that regard was a"complete fabrication." I was almost startled when he said, "Iswear on my father's grave" that no such counsel from the former orcurrent president had been forthcoming. A week or so later, when Iasked him to put in writing what he wanted to reiterate about thematter, Tenet said this: "Neither President GHW Bush nor PresidentGW Bush--nor anyone acting on their behalf--influenced me or soughtto influence me. No one. " For his part, Bush Senior sent me thefollowing statement: "It is absolutely not true. I never discussedwith George Tenet when or if he should write a book. There is noteven a semblance of truth to this."
Whether or not Bandar's theory is true, the Bush camp was clearlypaying close attention to the book. It wasn't just the CIA thatvetted Tenet's memoir; the White House press office did as well.What's more, according to a foreign diplomat who visited the OvalOffice earlier this year, President Bush seemed well-briefed on therevelations in Tenet's manuscript. The visitor, whom I have knownfor years, asked the president about Tenet's book in passing. Bushreplied that he understood the book would soon be cleared and thatit contained no criticism of the president but had some tough wordsabout "others" in the administration. (The White House did notrespond to a request for comment.)
In the end, the Bushies got just about everything they wanted out ofwhat could have been a dicey situation. For one thing, the bookwasn't nearly as nasty toward Bush as it might have been,especially given the depth of Tenet's private disdain for Bush'shandling of the Iraq war and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Foranother, the White House, armed with foreknowledge of the memoir'scontents, was able to put Tenet on the defensive from the moment thebook appeared--unlike when Richard Clarke's book came out and theadministration seemed caught off guard.
But, perhaps most important, Tenet's late publication date ensuredthat his revelations would not affect the outcome of the midterms.Of course, we'll probably never know whether Tenet was listening toBush or his own conscience when he held back publication and causedthe value of his memoir to plummet by some $2 million. Either way,though, Tenet did the Bush family a very expensive favor.
By Patrick Tyler; Patrick Tyler is a former foreign correspondent forThe New York Times and The Washington Post.