Kessler, a New York Times journalist and best-selling author, gained impressive access to the CIA and recorded interviews with many of its highest officers, past and present. The result is the CIA at War, a tantalizing journey into the organization, its history, secrets, travails, and successes.

From a Cold War operation run by Ivy League East Coast insiders to an enormous apparatus of human and technological counterterrorism headed by a son of immigrants, the CIA has chalked up remarkable successes (identifying the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba) and astonishing failures (being hoodwinked by a brace of double agents, many of whom continued in their ruinous ways after failing polygraph tests).

What emerges is a CIA that suffered long bouts of institutional atrophy, congressional hostility, and public lack of confidence, all of which made for staggering lapses in national security. A long period of patient reconstruction and striking success in the post-September 11 war on militant Islam has since followed. Kessler's access to contemporary officials, not least the media-shy George Tenet, makes by far for the book's greatest interest.

Allowing for Kessler's clear partisanship for Tenet, this book makes for a corrective to the view of the CIA as napping while dangers multiplied. The CIA's failure to preempt Al-Qaeda is located in a combination of Clinton administration uninterest, legal and technical shackles, and a prevailing mood of complacency in Washington.

Kessler offers teasing glimpses, interesting anecdotes, and even occasionally absorbing testimony, but in the end, these fail to satisfy as the author ultimately is limited by his sources. Whether they have truly been forthcoming and whether he has given due weight to the variables involved is a matter for judgment. Kessler's story is additionally fitful and riddled with digressions (for example, five pages on the CIA's public image immediately following the September 11 attacks).