CIA weathers cycle of accusation - fair or not

George Tenet officially resigns as director of the Central Intelligence Agency this Sunday. Mr. Tenet is to be temporarily replaced by his deputy, John McLaughlin, as the agency squares off for one of its periodic trials by fire for intelligence failures, fairly or unfairly attributed to it.

Under Allen Dulles, the CIA was blamed for the disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles, ordered by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.

Richard Helms, CIA director from 1966 to 1973, took the heat for a variety of misdeeds, from drug experiments with unsuspecting subjects to plots to assassinate third-world leftist leaders, starting with Fidel Castro.

Under President Reagan's friend, William Casey, the agency got some of the blame for the Iran-contra scandal.

Now the storm signals are going up once again as the agency prepares to face up to stinging criticism in a pending report of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a later report of the nonpartisan 9/11 Commission. Tenet, a Clinton appointee, signaled the coming storm when he addressed the agency's staff at its Langley, Va., headquarters a month ago.

"The world of intelligence is a uniquely human endeavor," he said, "and as in all human endeavors, we all understand the need to always do better."

The current criticism of the CIA comes under two principal headings: first, that it should have foreseen the Al Qaeda assault on American soil; second, it should not have encouraged the White House to assert that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction - the principal justification for the invasion of Iraq. Anticipating the coming controversy, Mr. McLaughlin recently told a conference of business executives that the CIA was already on its way to addressing the shortcomings, which were the result of specific problems. He said that the critical findings were based on information three years old and might already be out of date.

Whenever President Bush plans to name a new permanent director of the CIA, that will mean confirmation hearings as another arena of debate. High on the list of candidates is US Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is a former CIA officer and has been critical of the CIA under Tenet's stewardship.

One veteran CIA professional told me, "When they're through chastising us, we'll dust ourselves off once again and go on collecting intelligence."

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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