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CIA Director George Tenet’s Ethical Obligations Case Study

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Updated: Jul 24th, 2020


In a period of less than two year, the Director of CIA, George Tenet, went from seeing his organization take on Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban to resigning from his position in the agency. He had made clear records that the Taliban were involved in the making of nuclear weapons but could not find any when American troops went to Iraq. Tenet’s appointment to the top intelligence agency had come during the second term of President Clinton. Since Tenet was the only experienced individual who could be confirmed for the job, he was given the mandate to run the CIA.

Through his commitment in the job alongside his people-skills, Tenet made a big name in the agency gaining support from both sides of the political divide. Even after President Bush was elected into office, Tenet retained his job at the agency. Ethical obligations are laws or rules by which individuals are expected to observe in their professions. Some professions, such as that f George Tenet, require one to discipline other people who do not observe their ethical obligations. When such interferences are significantly serious, suspension or complete expulsion of the individual may be required.

Cross-coded ethical dilemmas facing former CIA Director George Tenet and their impact on his leadership abilities

There were many of these ethical dilemmas faced by George Tenet, the former CIA Director. Amongst these were serious national as well as international human rights violations. Tenet was also faced with the dilemma of being honest with his colleagues at work, especially his field agents. For example, George knew all along that all the statements about Saddam Hussein and the chemical weapons involved were false but he just played along.

Consequently, his ignorance, lack of action, and most importantly lack of professional ethics, cost over four thousand American lives. He therefore lied to the entire nation in the build-up to a sad national event. The mediation talks that George held between the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also brought up ethical concerns. Within the American government, some people were not comfortable with Tenet having such a significant role in those mediation talks. Doubt was cast over the cabinet and the entire government administration because of Tenet’s position (Baron, 2009).

Besides, Tenet also has ethical dilemmas in his loyalty. In his line of work as the Director of CIA, Tenet ignored many of his field officers, as he preferred the baseless stories supplied by the administration about the situation at hand. His ignorance to the foundations, reports as well as recommendations of his field officers led to the war in Iraq. Tenet therefore seems to have had a dilemma whether to be loyal to his professional ethics or to his administrative seniors and other executive forces. This tug and pull competition of obligations must have become too much for Tenet to bear as he later resigned from the CIA.

Ways in which Tenet addressed the prioritization of ethical concerns

Tenet spoke about the prioritization of ethical concerns in many ways. First, he made sure that the ethical policies were implemented within the CIA, and not made there. The Israeli Prime Minister, as well as the Palestinian leader preferred to go to George Tenet whenever there was a conflict or rift between them. Tenet would speak to them about ethical concerns and their prioritization making it clear that this was the only entity that could be trusted by both sides.

This expression of professionalism by the CIA Director would bring sanity into the talks between the two sides since it would appear that there was no other way to solve their conflicts. During the time that the Clinton administration realized that Osama Bin Laden posed a real threat to America and her people, Tenet played a central role in analyzing all the ethical concerns involved in any move meant to address the situation. When America made a plan to capture Bin Laden, Tenet warned the senior top officials of the threat that such a plan posed.

Tenet explained that the country was at war and there was no need to waste any more resources and personnel in parallel operations. This shows that Tenet was concerned about the good of the country and the people of America. His advice to the government was the best way that the situation could have been handled. If America had gone ahead with the plan to seek and capture Bin Laden, it would probably have been an excellent window for an enemy to strike. However, Tenet prioritized on the safety of the country and the people of America.

In May 1988, when the Indian testing program began, the entire American intelligence community was shocked. Mr. Tenet confessed to Senator Shelby that the CIA did not have any clue about the operation at all. In taking responsibility for overlooking such an operation, Tenet displayed an element of honesty, which is important in his profession. Had he stated otherwise, then the government would have invested many resources in something not well understood by anyone in the top agencies. Tenet’s professional honesty was also evident when he shouldered the blame after United States warplanes bombed a Chinese embassy because of faulty intelligence reports.

Strategies used in competing ethical obligations in relation to the many intergovernmental organizations that overlapped his office

In relation to the many organizations that overlapped Tenet’s office, there are several strategies used in competing ethical obligations. These obligations were meant to ensure that all activities within these organizations are ethical and legal in accordance with the set regulations. These strategies also ensure that any individual or organizational development in character is achieved through ethical programs. Such may include the training of employees. Besides, these ethics strategies should also be a means for the provision of solutions in the policing and monitoring of organizational activities. In this way, ethical and legal violations in these organizations are minimized.

Communication is another strategy where it is used as a tool for making the ethical culture in organizations sustainable. Some of the activities that can be achieved through communication include the proper outlining of compliance, training as well as behavioral expectations. This increases the effectiveness of the organizations by decreasing fraud and abuse within the organizations. In the same way, the use of ethical policies, commonly known as codes of conduct, shows the commitment in an organization concerning ethical behavior. Another strategy is leadership. Elements of leadership such as code enforcement and monitoring are significant in organizational development. These elements demonstrate the ethical responsibility in an organization and ensure that the organization displays seriousness in its activities (Stillman, 2010).

Notions for designing ethical maps for defining and prioritizing ethical obligations

Some of the top priorities identified by George Tenet include better training, improved analysis and execution of intelligence as well as the identification of a well-defined organizational mission, amongst others. In order to ensure that these priorities are met, Tenet made several appointments in a bid to rebuild the organization. In this way, he shaped the financial profile of the organization such that there were no cases of overspending or misappropriation of funds. Some of the retired agents were also recalled back to serve in the organization. In most cases, there is usually a public outcry when top intelligence officials write books about on-going issues of national concern. George Tenet took this risk when he made records of the Al-Qaeda issue stating that the terror organization was developing a nuclear weapon (Zenko, 2009).

Other notions include the creation of governments that stays in power irrespective of whether the deeds of the top officials pass the integrity bar or not. The governments should ensure that they use the appropriate techniques when acting in public. Such techniques may include public obedience of top officials and supervisors with disobedience occurring only in private. This may also apply to the rejection of directives, orders and policies that an individual thinks are not applicable. The fourth notion is the creation if an organization that is not well equipped to deal with emerging issues in the government. For example an organization where there are no opportunities to make statements of dissent on any governmental issue (Giraldi, 2007).


Baron, I. Z. (2009). Justifying the obligation to die: War, ethics, and political obligation with illustrations from Zionism. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Giraldi, P. (2007). George Tenet’s Machiavellian Moment. Mediterranean Quarterly, 18(3), 31-38. doi:10.1215/10474552-2007-015

Stillman, R. J. (2010). Public administration: Concepts and cases. Boston, Mass: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Zenko, M. (2009). Foregoing Limited Force: The George W. Bush Administration’s Decision Not to Attack Ansar Al-Islam. Journal of Strategic Studies, 32(4), 615-649. doi:10.1080/01402390902987046.

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