A Tenet of resilience at the CIA
As he moves to the fore of public flap, his ties to White House may help him survive.
WASHINGTON — Despite being appointed by Democrat Bill Clinton, CIA Director George Tenet has forged a close relationship with President Bush.
He has run the agency during a period when intelligence-gathering has taken on a dramatically expanded role since 9/11, making him a key member of the White House foreign-policy team, both by necessity and personal chutzpah. Mr. Tenet also does those occasional things that would presumably endear him to his boss: By several accounts, for instance, he has forged a bond with Mr. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush.
All these dynamics may now be crucial in determining Tenet's longevity and effectiveness as head of one of the world's largest intelligence apparatuses. As the CIA director testifies Wednesday before a Senate committee, one of Washington's favorite parlor games is in full force: Will he survive or won't he?
Since Tenet accepted responsibility for those now-infamous 16 words in the president's State of the Union speech, speculation has been rife that he might be pushed aside by the White House, particularly if the intelligence brouhaha continues to grow.
But many in the intelligence community think that if anyone can survive the current tempest - and probably should - it's Tenet, who has become something of an administration insider. "I don't think the president is going to push him to resign," says Fred Hitz, a former CIA inspector general. "But the thing you can't be absolutely sure of is the pressure from Congress and the leverage they can generate."
But the leverage could, of course, come from the White House, too. The charges and countercharges about who is responsible for the hyped or mendacious intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs continue to swirl in Washington.
The media are rife with stories pinning the blame on either administration or intelligence officials. As the 2004 election nears, the White House could decide it wants to clean house at the agency to help still the criticism, particularly if the postwar phase in Iraq continues to deteriorate.
"There is an under-the-surface battle" bubbling, says a former high-level intelligence official with ties to the administration. "The perception on the part of the White House is that Tenet is undercutting the president, and the White House is privately undercutting Tenet."
On Friday, the CIA director issued a (qualified) statement accepting blame for the 16 words about Iraq's procurement of uranium in Niger appearing in the president's speech in January. Since then, the president has backed up his intelligence chief. But he has also said that Tenet's qualifications about the statement - the CIA's criticisms of the claim - came after the speech, not before.
Tenet, to be sure, is a political professional who has considerable experience in the ways of Washington. According to inside accounts, he was first approached about staying on in his current position by Bush's father, himself a former director of the CIA. Bush senior, according to one official who was part of the transition team, subscribed to the theory that intelligence directors should be both apolitical and able to transcend administrations.
Moreover, Bush senior was much taken with Tenet at the 1999 opening of the George Bush Center for Intelligence - the renaming of the CIA compound in Langley, Va. "I was at the opening," says the official. "Bush was in tears. Then [Tenet] ran a big symposium at the Bush Center in Texas."
It wasn't long after that, the former intelligence official says, that "Tenet and young Bush bonded.... It was [Tenet's] stature: He has a very warm personality."
Tenet began his rise in the intelligence community with strategic jobs on Capitol Hill. Born to immigrant Greek parents, the native New Yorker began working in the early 1980s for Sen. John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania as legal director on arms control.
From there he went to work for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He rose - at a young age - from an expert on arms control, especially on negotiations between the US and the former Soviet Union, to become staff director.
In the 1990s, he served as deputy director of the CIA and was a member of Mr. Clinton's National Security Council. Clinton appointed him CIA director in 1997.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, sources say Tenet was the first to come up with a viable plan to deal with the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Since then, the president has relied heavily on both Tenet's intelligence assessments and foreign-policy advice, insiders say.
While that has helped cement his position as a member of the White House team, it can also be a risky approach. Experts say that in the past many CIA chiefs have tried to focus on intelligence and analysis and not involve themselves as much in shaping policy - unlike some of their counterparts in other countries. But that distinction often gets blurred.
"The CIA has from its very beginning been involved in affecting policy," says Stansfield Turner, a former CIA director. "We have in the CIA always appreciated this was a distortion of the ethic. But you wanted to be cautious that it didn't affect your analysis."
It's ironic, some say, that this latest controversy will play out in part on Capitol Hill - in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence where Tenet once served, by most accounts, with some distinction. Wednesday's session will be held behind closed doors, but the subject of the meeting is focused on Iraq and its alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. Questions about who knew what and when are expected to be thoroughly probed.
Former and current intelligence officials, however, believe Tenet will retain his job.