An unlikely path to the agency
It's a classic American story. George Tenet's Greek immigrant parents arrived in the United States with nothing, but they taught their son the value of hard work. And, busing tables at his father's diner in Queens, N.Y., the value of people. Back then, Tenet joked in a recent commencement speech, "I was the guy who could never keep a secret." But he learned--and over time the hard work and people skills paid off in the arcane world of Washington bureaucracy. A Georgetown graduate, Tenet quickly took to the culture of Capitol Hill, where loyalty and friendships can get you through a lot of trouble. He joined the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1985--even though he knew little about intelligence. "He really had to learn, and he grew immensely," says Charles Battaglia, who worked with Tenet for seven years. "His warm personality stood him in good stead." And his political wiles made him staff director of the committee that oversees the CIA. After a tour on President Clinton's National Security Council, he was named deputy CIA director and then, surprisingly, director in July 1997. Battaglia recalled that no one on President Bush's transition team thought Tenet had a chance of staying on, except for one asset: "George Bush senior liked him very much." Tenet had organized a big ceremony when the agency renamed its Langley, Va., headquarters the George Bush Center for Intelligence in 1999.
Tenet's outgoing personality helped him earn the trust of the second President Bush. "He always puts his arms around you and makes you feel like his best friend," says Battaglia. And he turned that same charm on the battered CIA bureaucracy, where he is credited with improving morale. Unlike his more cerebral predecessors, he skipped the limousines and mostly ate in the cafeteria. His down-to-earth manner also included a blunt speaking style that leaves him with a legacy of memorable quotes and images. He told Bush that evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction amounted to a "slam-dunk case." He said "the system was blinking red" with al Qaeda threats in summer 2001. Former terrorism czar Richard Clarke and others described Tenet as having "his hair on fire" that summer. Last week, Tenet saved his most emotional words for his teenage son, John Michael, who was in the audience as Tenet spoke to CIA employees. "You've just been a great son," he said. "And I'm now going to be a great dad." -Angie Cannon
This story appears in the June 14, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.