Tenet’s choice

Was the CIA director pushed out by a White House looking for a scapegoat on Iraq and 9/11? Or did he flee before Bush could make him the fall guy?

Topics: Iraq, Middle East,

Tenet's choice

Two enduring stories about outgoing CIA Director George Tenet seem destined to follow him into history. The first is the tale told by former White House terrorism czar Richard Clarke, about the panicked Tenet running around Washington in the summer of 2001 with his “hair on fire,” warning fruitlessly of an impending catastrophic al-Qaida attack. The second is of a supremely confident Tenet in the run-up to the Iraq war, as depicted in Bob Woodward’s “Plan of Attack,” telling President Bush what he apparently wanted to hear: that the case for Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction was a “slam dunk.”

On Thursday, the personal stresses, institutional failures and political pressures captured by those two stories culminated in Tenet’s announcement that he would retire after an extraordinary seven years at the helm of America’s spy community. Tenet’s resignation is effective July 11, on the seventh anniversary of his appointment by President Clinton. In a morning address to Central Intelligence Agency employees in the planetarium-like auditorium of their Langley, Va., headquarters, known as “the bubble,” Tenet cited the common — and commonly disbelieved — excuse for leaving a high-profile job: He wants to spend more time with his family.

“This is the most difficult decision that I have ever had to make,” he said. “And while Washington and the media will put many different faces on the decision, it was a personal decision and had only one basis in fact: the well-being of my wonderful family.”

Tenet may have been wrong about WMD in Iraq, but he was right about the Washington speculation game, which centers on the question of why Tenet is leaving now, with the nation on alert for a possible election-related terrorist attack and only five months before a presidential election. “I can’t remember any resignation that has struck me as more startling than this one,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the Associated Press. “I suspect there is going to be more of a story to tell than just personal reasons.”

The most prominent theory is that Bush is making Tenet the fall guy for pre-9/11 intelligence failures and for the inability to find Saddam’s supposed arsenal. Although President Bush praised Tenet in announcing his resignation, calling him “a strong leader in the war on terror” and adding, “I will miss him,” there’s wide speculation that the president wanted Tenet gone.

“I think he’s being pushed out. The president feels he has to have someone to blame,” former President Jimmy Carter’s director of central intelligence, Stansfield Turner, told CNN. Former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham, D-Fla., suggested something similar to reporters on Capitol Hill, speculating that the issue of faulty intelligence had become too large a political liability for Bush. In his official statement, Graham said Tenet’s tenure has been “marred by the intelligence lapses prior to 9/11 and the flawed information about weapons of mass destruction upon which the Iraq war was predicated.”

But other Democrats were admiring. “Director Tenet is an honorable and decent man who has served his country well in difficult times, and no one should make him a fall guy for anything,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Added House Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.: “I did not lose confidence in his judgment … I think there are many more people who are responsible for the mess that the administration has” created.

The strong support for Tenet from many Democrats, who are otherwise eager to tear down Bush administration officials, suggests a tantalizing alternative to the reigning theory: that instead of taking the fall, Tenet is leaving early precisely to avoid becoming a scapegoat.

There has certainly been loud rumbling about tension between the CIA on the one hand, and the Pentagon and White House on the other, over the Iraq intelligence mess. Tenet had already fallen on his sword over the controversy about Bush’s mistaken claim in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq was seeking to buy uranium for nuclear weapons in the African nation of Niger. Although the CIA had in fact warned Bush’s national security council deputy, Stephen Hadley, that the information was false, in the end it was Tenet who accepted responsibility.

With the White House having thrown Tenet overboard once, there is little doubt it would do so again. But there is some question about whether he would take the fall a second time. And there are two possible sources of friction between Tenet and the White House that are heating up: the inquiry into who revealed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, and the unfolding scandal over allegations that Pentagon-favorite Ahmed Chalabi passed sensitive U.S. intelligence to Iran.

In recent days Bush has hired a private lawyer to represent him in a federal grand jury investigation into who at the White House may have leaked the name of undercover CIA agent Valerie Plame to conservative columnist Robert Novak. Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, claims the apparently illegal leak — which blew Plame’s cover and ended her work on weapons proliferation issues — was made in retaliation for his decision last summer to publicly expose the Iraq/uranium claim as a lie. The CIA had hired Wilson, who has served in Africa, to travel to Niger to investigate the information; he reported back that there was no evidence to support the story. Wilson, currently promoting his new book about the affair, “The Politics of Truth,” declined through his publishing agent to comment on Tenet.

Then there is the issue of Chalabi’s fall from grace. Iraqi and American forces recently raided the Baghdad home and office of the would-be leader of a free Iraq after the CIA said Chalabi tipped Iranian intelligence that the United States had broken their secret communications code. Chalabi has accused the CIA of conducting a “smear campaign” against him, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation is taking polygraph tests of senior Pentagon civilians to discover who may have passed the secret to the Iraqi National Congress founder.

Meanwhile, on May 22, two Chalabi allies — Richard Perle, an influential neoconservative architect of the Iraq war; and James Woolsey, director of central intelligence under Clinton — met at the White House with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to protest the administration’s change of heart about Chalabi, the New York Times reported. All this adds up to more political and operational headaches for Tenet.

In a brief phone interview, Woolsey said he would not comment on Chalabi and insisted he took Tenet’s explanation for his departure “at face value.” Tenet, Woolsey said, “has been in the job seven years. That’s a long time in that job. If he’s going to leave before it gets into the election, it will have to be now.” On Thursday Chalabi hailed Tenet’s departure, blaming the director for the false intelligence about Saddam’s WMD — intelligence that the Iraqi exile himself is widely accused of providing.

Clearly the CIA director was coming under fire from many directions. The Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing to release a massive, negative report on the agency’s mishandling of prewar intelligence. “There’s nothing good in there for them,” said a congressional aide who has read the report. At the same time, the independent 9/11 commission is finishing its own report, also expected to be an indictment of the intelligence community. Meanwhile, there are reports that Secretary of State Colin Powell, his legacy tarnished after making the case for war to the United Nations using similarly flawed intelligence, is looking to blame Tenet for the debacle.

But Tenet could never have survived in such a grueling job for seven years without well-honed political instincts. The second-longest serving intelligence director is a former White House and congressional aide who knows the importance of cultivating powerful friends: In 2000, he renamed CIA headquarters after Bush’s father, the former president who served as CIA director in the Ford administration. Later, Tenet would become the only Clinton-era holdover to be admitted to Bush’s inner circle, briefing the president almost daily on intelligence developments.

During his tenure, the CIA has had its successes. Its agents have broken up terror cells worldwide and have helped capture Saddam Hussein and top al-Qaida operatives Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Abu Zubaydah. However, Osama bin Laden remains at large and the Justice Department is looking into the deaths in CIA custody of detainees in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, American soldiers continue to die daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the armed forces are increasingly anxious about the quality of intelligence in those theaters.

“For too long the search for blame over WMD has really clouded over a much, much larger issue of American intelligence in general,” said former Army Maj. Gen. Bob Scales. “To my mind, soldiers getting ambushed and killed on roadways or in back alleys because of a misunderstanding of a particular Iraqi’s affiliation or a misunderstanding of tribal relationships is just as much a failure as WMD, which is more of a political question.”

Tenet’s deputy, 32-year CIA veteran John McLaughlin, will become acting director after July 11. A Soviet and European specialist, McLaughlin is unlikely to be nominated as Tenet’s successor. Senate members of the intelligence committee say he is part of the problem with the agency, which has failed to adapt quickly enough to the new realities of terrorism. Other names mentioned to succeed Tenet are former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., a former CIA officer.

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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