WASHINGTON – Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, who presided over intelligence failures and successes of historical proportions, said Thursday he would leave the job, telling CIA employees in a tearful speech that his decision had “only one basis in fact,” a desire to spend time with his wife and teenage son.
President Bush named deputy director John McLaughlin, a mild-mannered professorial analyst, as acting director and is not expected to name a successor before the election. James Pavitt, the CIA’s deputy director of operations, has also told associates recently that he will resign in midsummer, leaving the agency with new leaders at a time of a heightened threat of terrorist attacks during political conventions and the Olympics in Greece.
Current and former intelligence officials described Tenet, a gregarious schmoozer who has held the job for seven years, as being psychologically worn down by the pace of clandestine counterterrorism operations, and by the barrage of public criticism over the CIA’s inability to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks and its failure to accurately characterize the threat from Iraq’s prewar weapons programs.
Tenet had wanted to leave the job more than a year ago, but Bush asked him to stay. Bush has maintained a close, almost chummy, working relationship with the director. On Thursday, the president said Tenet had “done a superb job on behalf of the American people. He’s been a strong leader in the war on terror, and I will miss him.”
A senior administration official with firsthand knowledge, however, said that while no one at the White House asked Tenet to leave, nobody asked him to stay, either.
“Relations haven’t been good for some time,” said one former White House official. “But the friction had achieved an equilibrium where it was a sustainable working relationship, even though it was tense.”
White House officials have sought to blame Tenet for leading the president into war based on bad intelligence. But even before the intelligence community had produced its definitive reports on Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top administration officials were describing the threat from Saddam Hussein in more dramatic and unequivocal terms than the intelligence ever supported.
Tenet’s relationship with White House staff grew tense when Tenet refused to take sole blame for an inaccurate statement about Iraq in the president’s State of the Union address. It worsened after Tenet’s Georgetown University speech when he pointed out that the agency had never used the word “imminent” to characterize the threat from Saddam’s weapons.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One that Bush met with Tenet in the White House residence for about 45 minutes Wednesday evening, and that Bush had received no advance notice of Tenet’s decision.
Asked if Bush tried to talk Tenet out of his decision, McClellan said, “I think the president understood his reasons for leaving.” McClellan also replied with a firm “no” when asked if Bush had at any time sent a signal to Tenet that he should spend more time with his family.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said Tenet had worked “extremely hard on behalf of our nation,” but, he added, “There is no question, however, that there have been significant intelligence failures, and the administration has to accept responsibility for those failures.”
Some critics said they believed Tenet was being made the scapegoat for Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq and for the Defense Department’s mishandling of the war’s aftermath. “There were clearly errors in our country’s intelligence gathering and handling,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said. “I hope that he’s not taking the fall as a sacrificial lamb.”
The criticism of Tenet is only expected to get worse when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence releases its report in mid-June on pre-war intelligence on Iraq, said officials who have seen the report. It accuses Tenet of failing the president by providing poor analysis and relying on outdated and thinly sourced information to prepare its National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons have been found in Iraq.
The 9-11 Commission, whose report is due in mid-July, is expected to be equally as harsh on the CIA director.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said Thursday morning that he was disappointed that “almost three years after 9-11, no one has been fired or disciplined.” Likewise, “nearly two years after the NIE on Iraq” was written, “no one in intelligence has been fired or disciplined.”
Tenet, who read the Senate report last week, told a friend, “I’m not going to be chased out by a piece of paper.”
But neither did he want to become a focus in the presidential compaign – either as a target of Democrats’ attack or as a defender of the Bush White House.
Former Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., a longtime friend of Tenet, said Democrats in the campaign will surely bring up a passage in Bob Woodward’s new book, in which Tenet is quoted as telling Bush that the evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction amounted to a “slam-dunk case.”
Tenet “was not going to talk about conversations with the president and he did not want to see the agency as a political football,” said Boren, who was chairman of the Senate intelligence panel when Tenet was a Senate staffer.
Boren said Tenet had been looking for a time when he could step down. “Each time he started to resign, they would be in the middle of something and the president wanted him to stay on,” Boren said. More than avoiding the coming criticism, Boren said, Tenet “wanted to get on with the rest of his life.”
The recent crush of criticism of the CIA has virtually drowned out public talk of the agency’s successes, which include the assassination or capture of two-thirds of al Qaeda’s leadership, the dismantling of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan’s black-market nuclear supply network, pushing Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to end his nuclear-weapons programs and the fact that there have been no terrorist attacks in the United States since Sept, 11, 2001.
In his address to CIA employees, Tenet only briefly acknowledged the agency’s troubles. “Our record is not without flaws,” he said. “The world of intelligence is a uniquely human endeavor . . . and we all understand the need to always do better. We are not perfect but one of our best kept secrets is that we are very, very, very good.”
Several Florida lawmakers suggested Bush replace Tenet with Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former CIA case officer who would have a good chance at confirmation. Goss, 65, who is retiring after 16 years in the House, said he had not ruled out such an appointment.
Bush kept the secret overnight even from some of his closest aides, and no public word of the news leaked out until moments before the president made his comments on the South Lawn at 10:26 a.m. as he headed toward his chopper, Marine One. Tenet has said he would like to go into business as well as write, lecture and teach at a university after he leaves the job.