Surely the best job in Washington right now, if you like a big challenge, is to be director of the CIA. The place has been a mess for more than a decade, it has a permanent "Kick Me" sign attached to its behind, and its best employees are screaming for real leadership.

And unlike a lot of the other government tasks, there's no doubting that this one really matters. The agency's mission is to figure out the real threats that could get Americans killed -- and then manipulate our adversaries, steal their secrets and spin them so much that they don't know which end is up.

Hard not to enjoy a job like that. But you need a cast-iron stomach to do it right these days. The CIA remains everyone's favorite whipping boy, and it continues to make enough dumb mistakes, such as targeting bombs on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, to deserve much of its miserable press.

So how's the new guy, George Tenet, doing? He's just finished two years on the job, and it's a good time for a fitness report.

When Tenet was appointed as director of central intelligence in July 1997, it seemed unlikely he was the right person for the job. He had made his mark as a staff man, directing the Senate Intelligence Committee. But the agency needed a strong leader -- someone who could tell the professional nit-pickers and second-guessers in Congress and the media to take a hike, and someone who could overturn the culture of mediocrity that had developed at Langley.

The first good thing to say about Tenet is that he hung the right portrait on the wall. Looming over his private dining area is a painting of former director Richard Helms, looking as lean and self-assured as a professional jewel thief.

Tenet has embraced the spirit of Helms's trademark phrase within the agency, "Let's get on with it." He wants his people to get out in the world and run operations. Tenet is said to open his 8 a.m. staff meeting by asking a simple question: "Who did we recruit last night, and what difference will it make?"

A second thing to like about Tenet is that he talks like a high school football coach. Ask him what he thinks about a newspaper column that morning suggesting that, in light of all the CIA screw-ups, he should resign, and he answers: "I don't give a ----!" And he sounds like he means it.

On paper, Tenet's record looks pretty good so far. He's on a hiring binge: The number of job offers is up 52 percent over a year ago, and the agency just brought in its largest class of new hires in nearly a decade. Resignations by case officers are also said to have declined and are now about half the rate of three years ago.

Tenet gets generally good marks from Congress. The wisest of his overseers, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss -- a former CIA case officer himself -- says that "energy and enthusiasm are a lot better in the field" and that "risk-taking is understood again."

And Tenet made a tough but correct decision Friday, when he decided to suspend indefinitely the security clearance of his predecessor, John Deutch, who had improperly handled classified information on his personal computer. That's the kind of accountability the agency needs.

But the rebuilding is just starting. The CIA work force is graying and greening at the same time, and Tenet reckons that by 2005, up to 35 percent of the CIA's employees will have worked at the agency five years or less. To take up the slack, he's bringing former CIA officers back on contract -- especially to handle "surge" demands in crisis areas such as the Balkans.

Tenet's biggest challenge will be to focus the agency's energies on the hard targets -- the things that could actually get us killed, such as Iraqi germ warfare, or Iranian nuclear bombs or North Korean missiles.

Tackling these hard problems will require a big change in the CIA bureaucracy, which has tended in recent years to reward easy successes, rather than slow and patient operations that can take years to mature. Embittered former officers complain that promotions were often based on what amounted to phony recruitments -- impressive-looking strings of agents who didn't have access to information that mattered.

Tenet claims he wants to change that numbers game and push his case officers to take more risks. He says privately that in two years as director, he has never turned down a good operation because it sounded too risky. Some of those risks will inevitably go bad, but Tenet insists he'll be there to back up his people. If a good operation screws up, he tells people, his response will be: "That's life. It's a cost of doing business."

In all these ways, Tenet sounds like the kind of boss you'd want to work for if you were a spy. But to make the CIA a great intelligence service again, Tenet will have to be more than a coach and cheerleader. The agency needs tough love.

Insiders say the organization is still too big and bloated, with too many people doing things that don't make the country safer or smarter. Hiring more case officers and dispatching them under thin cover to U.S. embassies overseas won't fix what's wrong. The agency needs new ways to hide its agents and steal secrets -- ways that fit the realities of our global, high-tech economy.

Being CIA director may be the best job in Washington, but it's also the hardest. To do it right, Tenet will need to make more friends, yes -- and also a lot more enemies.