Since its creation in 1947, scores of books have been written about the Central Intelligence Agency. They run the gamut from exposes highlighting the CIA's many supposed nefarious deeds to scholarly works looking dispassionately at the secretive intelligence world.
The newest offering, entitled The CIA At War: Inside the Secret Campaign Against Terror, arrives on store shelves at a crucial time for the intelligence agency.
Debate rages over whether the intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq was flawed, and if so, who was to blame. And, despite numerous successes in fighting terror, some of those who are most wanted, such as Osama bin Laden, Taleban leader Mullah Omar, and deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein remain at large.
Author Ronald Kessler, who has written previous books about the CIA and the FBI, offers a few tantalizing tidbits on the CIA and the anti-terror campaign. For example, he says, the CIA created fake mullahs or paid off real ones to build pro-U.S. support in the Islamic world.
Much of the book also covers territory familiar to anyone who has read any of the history of the CIA. But anyone seeking real blockbuster revelations should look elsewhere.
Mr. Kessler had the full cooperation of the CIA in writing the book and was given unprecedented access to CIA director George Tenet. The director also urged current serving CIA officers to cooperate with Mr. Kessler, and, apparently, quite a few did so.
Mr. Kessler says he gave no promises of favorable treatment in return for access, and none were expected. "I don't become a mouthpiece for the person who gives me cooperation. I'm independent. They know that. I think they did cooperate because they thought I would be fair. They had read my previous book, "Inside the CIA," which they thought was a good appraisal of the agency," he says.
However, although Mr. Tenet is the pivotal figure in the debate over pre-war intelligence on Iraq, there is nary a hint of criticism of the current CIA chief. Indeed, the book is full of praise for Mr. Tenet and his boss, President Bush. Mr. Kessler says Mr. Tenet has revitalized the CIA following the horrific events of September 11, 2001.
"George Tenet was focused on bin Laden, had said as far back as 1997 that he is the greatest threat to the U.S.. And very few people were listening. But there still were a lot of glitches before 9-11. Today they're very focused, aggressive. And a lot of it has to do with President Bush's leadership," he says.
Mr. Tenet's predecessor, John Deutch, is ruthlessly criticized throughout the book for his stewardship of the CIA. In a highly embarrassing episode before he left the agency, Mr. Deutch was found to have kept some 17,000 highly sensitive CIA files on an insecure home computer.
Mr. Kessler also dismisses the questions over the pre-war intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, blaming the story on Western media hyperbole. He remains certain the weapons will eventually be found. "None of these analysts has come forward to the intelligence committees and said, yes we were pressured or we disagree. Clearly there were some minor disagreements here and there among the agencies, but they all signed off on the basic intelligence findings, which said, of course, that he did have weapons of mass destruction," he says.
In the end, the few choice morsels embedded in The CIA At War fail to make a satisfying repast, lacking the kind of dispassionate, objective perspective one would hope that policymakers get from U.S. intelligence analysts.