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He could tell you, but then he’d have to kill you

Carlin Romano, literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer and critic-at-large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, is a former president of the National Book Critics Circle. He teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.

ON APRIL 30, after repeated delays necessary because even a former CIA director can’t be trusted by the CIA, HarperCollins will publish George Tenet’s long-awaited memoir, “At the Center of the Storm.” It’s been announced at 511 pages, with an ambitious 300,000-copy first printing. Tenet, who supposedly received an advance of more than $4 million for his initial proposal, apparently submitted the book to the agency for vetting section-by-section, and got the green light in mid-March.

We -- the nation’s benighted book editors and critics -- would like to tell you something about it, but we can’t.

Normally, we get an advance galley months before a book’s publication. In Tenet’s case, the bound book alone will arrive -- the nerve of these folks -- the day ordinary riffraff can buy it. So we critics are in the same position, presumably, as CIA spooks are in regard to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s pillow talk, Tony Blair’s true thoughts about George W., Kim Jong Il’s favorite vodka and much else around the world.

HarperCollins’ publishing strategy is an utterly trite routine, the publishing industry equivalent -- in handling supposed “tell-all” books by former top administration officials -- of the music business stamping single names on the foreheads of prepackaged pop divas.

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The publishing house has embargoed the book, except, presumably, to a handful of above-prime media. We’ll get the usual major magazine excerpt in Time, Vanity Fair or some such publication (possibly undermined by leaks), as well as appearances by the author on the “Today” show and “Meet the Press.” The eternal hope is that initial breakout media -- an appearance on “60 Minutes,” say -- will excite readers with tantalizing scooplets while not convincing them that everything worth reading has been divulged (so there’s no need to buy the book).

Will “At the Center of the Storm” be a slam-dunk bestseller or just predictable dribbling? Will it be a classic chart-climber that makes Bob Woodward’s “Bush” books look like duds at a Fourth of July fireworks display?

Forgive me if I yawn.

According to a Washington Whispers piece in U.S. News & World Report, Tenet splits the blame for intelligence failures -- now that’s certainly news! -- but reports big successes (the item seems to be based on comments by Washington pals of Tenet). Will those revelations constitute the usual selected “scoops” a few days before the “60 Minutes” curtain raiser? Remember how those “everything’s under control” thoughts led to the international bestseller-dom of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf’s memoir, “In the Line of Fire?” Musharraf pooh-poohed concern about his deal with the tribal homelands chiefs. (You don’t?)

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To be sure, these putative “spill-the-beans” books by former top administration officials, or in cooperation with top-notch journalists, sometimes not only sell, but become essential laproscopes that allow us to examine an administration’s innards.

Ron Suskind’s book with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, “The Price of Loyalty,” sizzled because President Bush humiliated O’Neill, and O’Neill wanted revenge. Karen DeYoung’s biography of Colin Powell, done with Powell’s cooperation, rightly won attention because Powell’s estrangement from the administration was conventional wisdom, and Powell-watchers knew, given the former secretary of State’s personal code of ethics, that he’d only say what he really thought indirectly, and through others. Richard Clarke felt squashed by higher-ups, his advice on terrorism ignored. Woodward is Woodward.

As for the ultimate insider from the previous administration, can you blame people for thinking that Bill Clinton might, for his reported $13-million advance, bring them closer to him and Monica, and so bought his memoir big time?

All these books drew appreciative reviews, though journalists like Suskind and DeYoung don’t pull down what Woodward or big former insiders take home, from Tommy Frank’s $5 million to Hillary Clinton’s $8 million. But why would any publisher think that Tenet falls into this category? If I. Lewis Libby’s a “Scooter,” then Tenet’s a “Neuter” by trade -- hush it up, make it go away, can’t talk about that. Not a fine predictor of revelation. This is the spy who’s coming in from talks on college campuses about the importance of national security, not a guy who’s dedicated to memoir gold. Add up his assets and they come to WMB -- weapons of mass boredom.

Sure, there will be stuff we don’t know. There has to be if Tenet wants to collect his paycheck. Presumably he’ll be rougher on former colleagues out of power -- Donald Rumsfeld, perhaps, or Paul Wolfowitz -- than on Bush. But can you imagine Tenet, who’s kept basically shoulder-to-shoulder with his commander in chief, describing Bush, a la O’Neill, as “a blind man in a room full of deaf people”? Is the successor to storied CIA directors such as Richard Helms, whose biographer titled his life “The Man Who Kept the Secrets,” likely to want eternal literary fame as “the man who spilled the secrets”?

In my dictionary of literary and publishing terms, “tell-all” and “CIA” remain antonyms.

I may be wrong. If I am, I promise to eat yellowcake -- or maybe Tastykake -- in front of HarperCollins’ headquarters in Manhattan the day after publication date. And, to plead the obvious -- it was the best judgment we could make in the absence of hard intelligence.

If I’m right, the only tenet sure to survive this moment will be a publishing no-brainer: Don’t pay big bucks for the confessions of a man trained not to confess, and don’t invest in the revelations of a writer most familiar with whole paragraphs redacted in black.

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I say save your money for Rummy. He’s got everything -- thumb-in-your-eye style, time on his hands and, like O’Neill, a motive. Tenet, I’m guessing, is New Memoir -- lots of hype, little dish. Rumsfeld -- should any Manhattan editor display the cojones to sign him up -- will be Old Memoir: stiletto-mean, ready to shock and awe, certain to neither greet nor be greeted with flowers.


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