State of the spy biz

Mark Follman
June 4, 2004 4:09AM (UTC)

From failing to anticipate 9/11 to making a bogus case for war against Iraq to recent charges that Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi passed secrets to Iran, the Bush administration has presided over what is arguably the greatest meltdown of U.S. intelligence operations in the nation's history. Yet according to President Bush, CIA Director George Tenet resigned for nothing other than personal reasons. (Tenet offered the same explanation in his farewell speech to the agency today.)

Whether or not Tenet was forced out, as many are speculating, the administration's politicization of intelligence -- and the issue of who should ultimately be held accountable for a series of blunders -- is a matter of bitter dispute between veterans of the U.S. intelligence community and the White House. But if Bush's benign framing of Tenet's departure today bordered on the absurd, it follows the Bush political playbook. Tenet takes a very gentle fall, and White House policy and policymakers get off the hook.


Interestingly, in their reaction to Tenet's departure, many Republicans were more critical of the departing spy chief than Democrats. The GOP line is to protect the White House at all costs, so Tenet and the CIA have to take the hit. Democrats, on the other hand, have been arguing that the White House is equally or more responsible for the failure of U.S. intelligence.

"History will tell what the implications of his tenure were," [and] "I think history will either vindicate him or say, 'Hey, there was a problem there.'" -- House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. (Associated Press)

"[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." -- Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-NY (Associated Press)


"Mr. Tenet is the head of the agency and he has to take responsibility for things that go on during his watch and I think he's made an appropriate step forward today." -- Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla. (CNN) (Foley also told Fox News that Tenet's resignation was "overdue.")

"I appreciate [Tenet's] service to our country, but too many things have happened in the last couple of years." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC (Fox News)

"I think there are many more people who are responsible for the mess that the Bush administration have gotten us into. But if Mr. Tenet thinks there should be a change of leadership at the CIA for whatever reason, including, you know, taking one for the administration, then so be it. But I think that the responsibility goes far beyond George Tenet." -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (CNN)


Reactions from the bipartisan leadership of the House Intelligence Committee were more nuanced. Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., the committee chairman, seemed to acknowledge a wider, systemic problem of leadership.

"Just boat loads of stuff have been dumped on him by all kinds of people," Goss told the AP. "I think George has done everything he possibly can, anybody could have done to rebuild the agency under the management program we have imposed on our own intelligence community. And I don't think you can fault the man. I stand by him.''


And his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., released a statement reiterating her call for a new Director of National Intelligence position to be created. "I have been critical of the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMD and ties to terror, as well as failures leading up to the attacks of 9-11. With Tenet's departure, the President has the opportunity to fix these problems by transforming the job that Tenet held. We need a true director of the entire Intelligence Community -- all 15 agencies -- who has the necessary authority, responsibility and accountability."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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