Exit Tenet - Bush ally, lightning rod
President Bush loses a trusted adviser but also a symbol of high-profile intelligence failures.
WASHINGTON — For the White House, there's bad news and good news in CIA Director George Tenet's sudden resignation.
The bad news is that it deprives President Bush of someone he insists has been a trusted adviser. The personal chemistry between the backslapping Mr. Bush and his gregarious chief of intelligence has always been good.
The good news is that an official who attracted criticism as surely as if he were a lightning rod on top of the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters is now gone.
The upcoming 9/11 commission report is almost certain to hit the CIA, among others, for its failures prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. That's on top of recent controversies concerning various intelligence leaks, and the mistaken US predictions about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction.
"You can understand why he might resign under those circumstances," says Jim Walsh, a security expert at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
Bush, not Mr. Tenet himself, announced the resignation. Just prior to leaving for Europe, where he will celebrate the 60th anniversary of D-Day and confer with various world leaders, Bush told reporters that his CIA chief had resigned for "personal reasons."
Tenet told the president of his decision Wednesday night. He will stay on at Langley until mid-July. After he leaves, the CIA's deputy director, John McLaughlin, will serve as acting director.
Bush said that Tenet had done a superb job and was "the kind of public servant you like to work with."
"He has been a strong leader in the war on terror, and I will miss him," Bush said.
A former staff director of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, Tenet had run the CIA for seven years. In the Bush White House, he was a rarity - a Clinton-era official kept on and accepted into the inner circle of administration power.
On the plus side, Tenet brought stability to an agency that was in some turmoil when he arrived. He had access to, and was trusted by, two US chief executives of different parties who were themselves very different personalities.
That "tells you something about the man's skills and endurance," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University and a intelligence analyst at the CIA.
But fairly or not, Tenet will also have to bear responsibility for things that happened on his watch. Most important, the intelligence community failed to detect the work of the 9/11 plotters. And it insisted that Iraq continued to work on weapons of mass destruction.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq, Tenet reportedly insisted that the case for Iraqi WMD was a "slam-dunk." That has demonstrably not been the case.
"WMD and 9/11 will always haunt the agency," says Ms. Yaphe.
At the CIA, Tenet was well liked, but not wildly so. He was not an intelligence lifer who had come up through the ranks - but neither was he a knife-wielding cost-cutter ousting veteran agents.
"He was seen as doing a job and tackling something that needed to be done - complete reformation of the intelligence community," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst in the CIA's counterterrorist center.
Outside the agency, however, Tenet was becoming a symbol of faulty intelligence to the administration's critics. The failures with the 9/11 plotters and Iraq's purported WMD were just part of it. Tenet was reportedly responsible for the inclusion of the assertion in a State of the Union address that Iraq was seeking uranium in Niger - an assertion later deemed false by US intelligence.
Tenet has also been tarred by the Wilson affair.
A retired US ambassador, Joseph Wilson, had looked into the Niger connection and debunked it even before the president asserted its truth in a speech. After Mr. Wilson's role became public, the fact that his wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA covert operative was leaked to the press.
The Justice Department is currently conducting an inquiry into who might have done that leaking.
More recently, federal investigators have begun looking into which US government official might have leaked the fact that the US had broken Iranian codes to Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile who has long been a favorite of some in the Pentagon.
"Maybe [the Chalabi investigation] was the one that broke the camel's back" and convinced Tenet to leave, says Mr. Walsh of the JFK School.
Speaking to CIA employees in the agency's auditorium Thursday, Tenet said that the decision to resign was the most difficult one he had ever had to make.
He said that the reasons were personal - "the well-being of my wonderful family and nothing less."
His son was in second grade when he started at the CIA, noted Tenet. Now that son will be a senior in high school this fall.
"He said he's had a wonderful son. Now he wants to be a wonderful father," says a CIA official who heard the talk.