WASHINGTON – CIA Director George Tenet, buffeted by controversies over intelligence lapses about suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has resigned. President Bush said Thursday that Tenet was leaving for personal reasons and “I will miss him.”
Tenet, 51, came to the White House to inform Bush about his decision Wednesday night. “He told me he was resigning for personal reasons. I told him I’m sorry he’s leaving. He’s done a superb job on behalf of the American people,” the president said.
Tenet will serve until mid-July. Bush said that deputy, John McLaughlin, will temporarily lead America’s premier spy agency until a successor is found. Among possible successors is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., a former CIA agent and McLaughlin.
“He’s been a strong and able leader at the agency. and I will miss him,” Bush said of Tenet as he got ready to board Marine One for a trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and on to Europe.
“George Tenet is the kind of public servant you like to work with,” the president added. “He’s strong, he’s resolute. He’s served his nation as the director for seven years. He has been a strong and able leader at the agency. He’s been a strong leader in the war on terror.”
“I send my blessings to George and his family and look forward to working with him until he leaves the agency,” Bush said.
Tenet had been under fire for months in connection with intelligence failures related to the U.S.-led war against Iraq, specifically assertions the United States made about Saddam Hussein’s purported possession of weapons of mass destruction, and with respect to the threat from the al-Qaida terrorist network.
In May, a panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks released statements harshly criticizing the CIA for failing to fully appreciate the threat posed by al-Qaida before the terrorist hijackings. Tenet told the panel the intelligence-gathering flaws exposed by the attacks will take five years to correct.
Notwithstanding his controversial place in the life of Washington, Tenet’s resignation seemed to catch the city off guard.
“I’m surprised,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. “I don’t think anyone saw it coming. I think we need to know more about the reasons why this surprise announcement came today,” the South Dakota Democrat said.
“Mr. Tenet’s been under very harsh criticism. I think clearly he’s been under great pressure and some criticism. Whether or not that’s a factor is not something I can comment on,” Daschle said.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Tenet “restored morale and provided stability and continuity at a crucial time.”
“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,” she noted. “With Tenet’s departure, the president has the opportunity to fix these problems by transforming the job that Tenet held.”
Said Rep Porter Goss, R-Fla., chairman of House Intelligence Committee: “Just boat loads of stuff have been dumped on him by all kinds of people. He was given the job of rebuilding an agency that had been depleted.”
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said: “He served his country a long time. History will tell what the implications of his tenure were.”
“I think history will tell,” the Illinois Republican said when asked how Tenet’s performance would be judged. “It’s too early to make that snap judgment.”
“I think history will either vindicate him or say, ‘Hey there was a problem there’,” Hastert said.
Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner said he thought Tenet had been “pushed out and made a scapegoat.”
“I don’t think he would have pulled the plug on President Bush in an election cycle without having been told to do that,” Turner, a former CIA director, told CNN.
Tenet spoke to CIA personnel at a late-morning gathering at the CIA auditorium. “It was a personal decision, and had only one basis in fact: the well being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less,” he said, according to a CIA official who was willing to describe the session but only on grounds of anonymity because Tenet’s had spoken for himself in the session.
“This is say with exceptional pride: The CIA and the American intelligence community are stronger now than when I became DCI (director of central intelligence) seven years ago, and they will be stronger tomorrow than they are today. That is not my legacy. It yours,” the official quoted Tenet as telling the standing-room-only crowd.
As director of the CIA, Tenet drew one particularly unusual assignment: trying to ease tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. He tried to curb the violence and prompt talks on strengthening security arrangements. Like virtually all special U.S. mediators, his efforts had mixed results.
During his seven years at the CIA, speculation at times has swirled around whether Tenet would retire or be forced out, peaking after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and surging again after the flawed intelligence estimates about Iraq’s fighting capability.
Even when his political capital appeared to be tanking, Tenet managed to hang on with what some say was a fierce loyalty to Bush and the CIA personnel. A likable, chummy personality, also helped keep him above water.
Conventional wisdom had been that Tenet, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, did not plan to stay on next year, no matter who won the White House. Tenet has been on the job since July 1997, an unusually lengthy tenure in a particularly taxing era for the intelligence community that he heads.
Tenet is the son of Greek immigrants who grew up in Queens, N.Y.
Some close to Tenet have said the job overseeing more than a dozen agencies that make up the intelligence community has been taxing for him. He suffered heart problems while at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, although a CIA official said his resignation was not health related.
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