WASHINGTON – George Tenet’s sudden resignation as CIA director could hardly have come at a worse time for the U.S. intelligence community and President Bush.
Tenet’s departure deprives Bush of a trusted senior partner in his war on global terrorism. And it comes as the CIA and its sister agencies face demands for far-reaching reform after being rocked by disclosures of intelligence lapses in Iraq and elsewhere, U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers said Thursday.
The exit by Tenet, the CIA’s second-longest-serving director, is likely to touch off a bruising struggle over the future of the $40-billion-a-year U.S. intelligence apparatus, the officials and lawmakers said.
That apparatus, with tools ranging from human spies and analysts to powerful code-breaking computers and eavesdropping satellites, has been thrust ever more onto the public stage as Bush has launched a struggle against terrorism and opted for a war in Iraq waged largely on the basis of intelligence, much of it faulty.
Though highly praised by Bush, Tenet leaves a decidedly mixed record.
In the near term, Bush loses a confidant who helped plot the war on terrorism as a ranking member of his national security team.
“He’s really been the glue that held a lot of this activity together,” said Richard Kerr, a former deputy CIA director who still advises the agency. “That worries me a little bit.”
Tenet’s deputy, John E. McLaughlin, who will serve as acting director, hasn’t been involved “to the degree that George has been,” Kerr said.
Most observers give Tenet high marks for attempting to rebuild an agency that was devastated by cuts in personnel and funding after the Cold War ended and was largely marginalized during the Clinton years. Tenet fought for, and won, large budget increases to expand the agency’s cadre of human spies in the Directorate of Operations.
But the changes didn’t go nearly far enough, senior intelligence officials say. The CIA and 14 other U.S. intelligence agencies remain mired in a Cold War structure ill-suited for a 21st-century battle against far-flung cells of Islamic militants.
As Tenet himself acknowledged this spring, the CIA never penetrated the upper levels of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
The CIA and military were slow to get a handle on the dual Sunni and Shiite Muslim insurgencies in Iraq, which have frustrated American troops’ attempts to stabilize the country.
This week, it was reported that the United States had lost a crucial source of intelligence on Iran, a would-be nuclear power, when former Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi told Tehran that Washington had broken its codes. Chalabi denies he did so.
Beyond that, there are brewing Washington scandals over American troops’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners and the leak of the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame, the wife of Bush critic Joseph Wilson.
One senior official close to Tenet, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while Tenet’s resignation was timed to minimize the political impact on the president, the CIA chief also had little good news to look forward to in the months ahead.
A Senate Intelligence Committee report due out next month is expected to be highly critical of the CIA’s handling of prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Tenet “brought many good things to the agency – restored morale, rebuilt the clandestine operations . . . but also on his watch, there were major intelligence failures, 9-11, the WMD (weapons of mass destruction) progress in Iraq, the failure to predict the insurgency in Iraq that has led to this colossal prison scandal,” said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
“I think this is an opportunity for President Bush to make a fresh start,” she said.
Harman said reform should begin immediately because “any more intelligence failures put U.S. security at risk.”
Others say the reform debate is unlikely to begin before next January’s presidential inauguration and could involve costly turf battles between the CIA and the Pentagon.
While the CIA chief also holds the title of director of central intelligence and in theory coordinates all U.S. spying, the Pentagon controls roughly 90 percent of the intelligence budget. Under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the Pentagon has sought to expand its control of intelligence and covert action.
Many reform proposals, citing the CIA’s and FBI’s inability to cooperate to piece together hints of the Sept. 11 plots, revolve around establishing a Cabinet-level “director of national intelligence.” The individual would be separate from the CIA and would control all civilian and military intelligence agencies.
Critics see it as a simplistic solution that could weaken the CIA and would take years to implement.
“We know we’re going to get reform,” said Frederick Hitz, a former CIA inspector general who served under five agency directors. “What I worry about is rather than keeping our eye on the ball and saying, ‘What do we want to come out of this process?’ . . . it’ll get into the typical Washington turf struggle and not necessarily improve things.”
“There’s no instant solution, no matter what anybody says,” said Richard Best, a specialist at the Congressional Research Service, part of the Library of Congress. Proposals to wrest agencies such as the Defense Intelligence Agency away from Pentagon control “would be highly controversial,” he said.
Within the CIA, officials said, more must be done to create a group of highly trained spies who can crack terrorist cells or weapons-smuggling rings. Tenet said in April that it would take five years to complete the process.
Hitz said what was needed was more spies operating under “nonofficial cover” – posing as businessmen and the like – rather than the traditional route of posing as diplomats. That involves more risks and individuals willing to take them.
“These people don’t grow on trees,” he said.