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Before James Comey's stunning memoir, there was George Tenet's remarkable tell-all


The new memoir by former FBI director James B. Comey, left, is generating the same intense interest as the 2007 book by former CIA director George Tenet. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post and AP)

In the literary category of serious Washington tell-all, it doesn’t get much bigger than former FBI Director James B. Comey’s memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.”

On Thursday, Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker scored an advance copy of the book, which is scheduled to be released on Tuesday.

Among its revelations: Before firing Comey, President Trump was obsessed with allegations in an intelligence dossier that Trump had watched Russian prostitutes urinating on each other in a Moscow hotel in 2013. And Comey writes that President Barack Obama absolved him of blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat after the FBI reopened an investigation into her emails two weeks before the election.

The last time a major national security figure generated this level of intense interest was 11 years ago. On April 30, 2007, George Tenet, the CIA director from 1997 to 2004, published his memoir, “At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA.” It was the first book by a key member of the Bush administration recounting the failed pursuit of al-Qaeda in the run-up to the Sept. 11 attacks, and the decision to wage war in Iraq based on faulty intelligence.

Like Comey, Tenet was a largely secretive person atop a secretive agency, finally allowing himself to vent and lash out against senior administration officials.

Like Comey, Tenet inked a multimillion-dollar deal. (They both reportedly got $2 million.)

Former CIA director George Tenet talks with Scott Pelley on CBS’s “60 Minutes” in 2007.

Like Comey, Tenet also scored a sit-down with one of the big networks for an exclusive interview. He talked with Scott Pelley of “60 Minutes,” while Comey will discuss his book with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday.

Comey was aggressively courted by New York editors last year after he testified before Congress, accusing Trump of firing him over the investigation of Russian interference in the election and then lying about the reasons for his dismissal.

Tenet earned his pre-book buzz when The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward reported in his 2004 book “Plan of Attack” that the intelligence proving Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk.” In his memoir, Tenet said Woodward had taken his words out of context and that he told President Bush “strengthening the public presentation [for the war] was a ‘slam dunk.’”

Tenet’s book, though, contained many other newsy threads. The memoir, published by HarperCollins, was so sought after that the New York Times obtained a copy in three days in advance of the publication date and wrote a front-page story about its contents.

“Ex-CIA Chief, in Book, Assails Cheney on Iraq,” the Times headline read, with a photo of Tenet sternly talking to the then-vice president inside the Oval Office.

Tenet’s book was filled with atonement, but also anger that the Bush administration had cast the declining state of the Iraq War in late 2003 as the CIA’s fault. Unlike Comey’s book, Tenet did not go after President George W. Bush very hard. (President Bush awarded Tenet a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 — not exactly something Trump would consider doing for Comey.)

When the reviews came out, they were largely positive. In a bit of a twist, it was Woodward who reviewed Tenet’s book for The Post, even though he disclosed in his piece that he’d actually met with him and his co-writer Bill Harlow more than a year before the book’s publication “to suggest questions he should try to address.”

Woodward called the finished product “remarkable, important, and often unintentionally damning.” In the New York Times, under the headline, “An Ex-CIA Chief on Iraq and the Slam Dunk That Wasn’t,” the longtime (and tough) critic Michiko Kakutani called it: “intermittently fascinating.”

Comey’s book was not to be the first memoir by an FBI director. In September 2005, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, whose tenure lasted from 1993 to the summer of 2001, published his book, “My FBI: Bringing Down the Mafia, Investigating Bill Clinton and Fighting the War on Terror.” The reviews were mixed.

Then-FBI Director Louis Freeh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1998 on U.S. counterterrorism policy.

“A strangely shallow offering by a man who is anything but, Freeh’s book is a letdown, a breezy, middlebrow memoir that appears aimed at ‘Oprah’ watchers rather than Foreign Affairs readers,” wrote Bryan Burrough in the New York Times.

For the Post, the writer Elsa Walsh (who happens to be married to Woodward) called it a “scorching account” of Freeh’s relationship with President Clinton and dubbed it “no ordinary Washington memoir.”

J. Edgar Hoover, who led the FBI for decades, never wrote a memoir, but he did write what appears to be a history book, published in the late 1950s, called “Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It.” Strangely, the Amazon page for the book contains a startlingly opinionated description for the book: “The picture of what life in this country would be under communism (toward which thousands of misguided Americans actually are working now!) is vivid and shocking.”

One former FBI director who has not written a memoir? Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Like Tenet, he presided over an intelligence agency during the Sept. 11 attacks. And like Comey, he is now a central player investigating a Washington political scandal.

This post has been updated.

Read more Retropolis:

James Comey’s memo has shaken a presidency. Here’s why memos have always mattered.

The Saturday Night Massacre: ‘Your commander in chief has given you an order’

The CIA acknowledges the legendary spy who saved Hamid Karzai’s life — and honors him by name

A woman atop the CIA was once unthinkable. But female spies have always been remarkable.

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