CIA Director George J. Tenet, who presided over a string of intelligence failures that included the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, announced Thursday that he would resign the post he has held for seven years.
Tenet submitted his letter of resignation -- effective next month -- to President Bush, who said he had accepted it reluctantly.
“I met with George last night in the White House,” Bush said in brief remarks before departing on a trip to Europe. “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.”
Tenet’s departure was welcomed by Democrats in Congress who have been increasingly critical of his leadership, Republicans who saw him as a potential political liability for Bush and members of both parties who believed his resignation was necessary to make way for reforms in the intelligence community.
While Tenet cited personal reasons for his decision, his exit comes at a time when the CIA is confronting an avalanche of fresh criticism.
The Senate Intelligence Committee recently delivered to the agency a still-classified draft report that sources said offered a scathing assessment of the CIA’s prewar intelligence on Iraq. The agency’s belief that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons provided the basis for the Bush administration’s case for war.
An investigation by the committee has uncovered deep problems with the intelligence on Iraq, including evidence that the CIA and other agencies were duped by defectors, had misinterpreted intercepts and satellite photographs, and had disregarded dissenting voices.
A congressional official familiar with the inquiry described it as “extremely critical across the board.” Asked whether Tenet was singled out in the committee’s report, the official said: “He’s in charge.”
When Tenet formally steps down July 11, it will be just weeks before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is scheduled to deliver its final report. The panel has found deep faults with the CIA’s counterterrorism efforts, and singled out Tenet for serious criticism.
The timing of the Tenet announcement, coming when the CIA is being stretched to its limits by the war on terrorism and the Iraq insurgency, caught many in Washington off-guard. Even those close to the 51-year-old director had expected him to stay until this fall’s presidential election.
The White House must decide not only whether Bush should nominate a new director before November, but also whether the structure of the intelligence community -- and the position of the person who oversees it -- should be overhauled.
Bush did not address those questions Thursday, saying only that the deputy director of the CIA, John E. McLaughlin, would serve as acting chief after Tenet steps down.
White House officials insisted that Tenet was not forced or encouraged to resign.
Jim Pavitt, who leads the CIA’s clandestine service, also will be leaving the agency this summer, a CIA official said. Pavitt has been the deputy director of operations for the last five years. He is a 31-year veteran of the agency who made his decision to retire several weeks ago, the official said.
Tenet is expected to name Pavitt’s successor today. A CIA official said that Tenet had selected Stephen R. Kappes, a former Marine and 23-year agency official who has served as the associate deputy director of operations since June 2002.
Speaking to employees at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., on Thursday morning, Tenet pointed to the agency’s accomplishments during his tenure and portrayed his decision to leave as personal. In particular, he said, he intended to spend more time with his son, who will be a senior in high school next year.
“While Washington and the media will put many different faces on the decision,” Tenet said, “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 acknowledged that the CIA’s record on his watch was “not without flaws,” but stressed that the CIA and other spy agencies were “stronger now” than they were when he took over. And many of the intelligence community’s successes, Tenet said, would “for most Americans be forever unknown and uncounted.”
The July 11 resignation date falls on the seventh anniversary of his swearing in as CIA director. Only Allen Dulles had a longer tenure, serving more than eight years in the administrations of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.
Tenet is widely credited with providing direction and stability to an agency that was demoralized by budget cuts after the Cold War and that seemed to have a revolving door on its top office, with three directors coming and going in three years.
Tenet, the son of Greek immigrants and a native of Queens, N.Y., took an unusual path to the job. He had never worked at the agency as a spy or analyst. Instead, his career started on Capitol Hill, where he worked as an aide before becoming staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1989. He worked on the National Security Council in the Democratic Clinton White House, and was named deputy director of the CIA in 1995.
He was picked for the top job in 1997 after it became clear that President Clinton’s first choice, former national security advisor Anthony Lake, faced deep opposition from Senate Republicans and was unlikely to survive a confirmation fight.
Tenet made his first priority the rebuilding of a clandestine service that had shrunk by as much as 20% during the 1990s. Even critics agree he has made substantial progress. When he arrived at the agency, about 25 officers were graduating from its academy in southern Virginia. This year, that number is said to be closer to 300.
“We are recruiting the finest men and women in our history in record numbers,” Tenet said Thursday.
Along the way Tenet -- a garrulous man with strong political instincts -- established himself as one of the most popular directors in agency history. And while many expected he would be replaced when Clinton left office, he established a rapport with Bush and become the highest-ranking holdover in the new Republican administration.
Tenet had extraordinary access to Bush, personally delivering the president’s briefing almost every day. But their relationship was strained after Bush blamed Tenet for failing to strike from last year’s State of the Union address a dubious claim about Iraq’s alleged attempt to procure uranium from Africa.
White House officials said they did not learn of Tenet’s plan to resign until late Wednesday, after Bush had returned from delivering a commencement speech at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.
Tenet requested a meeting with White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and then with the president, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. Tenet was at the White House when Bush and Card arrived about 7 p.m.
Tenet meet briefly with Card, “and then Director Tenet went over to the residence and met with the president for approximately 45 minutes,” McClellan said. “And that’s when Director Tenet informed him that ... he would be leaving.”
Tenet “is the kind of public ... servant you like to work with,” Bush said Thursday. “He’s been a strong and able leader at the agency. He’s been a strong leader in the war on terror, and I will miss him.”
But the director’s tenure also was marked by intelligence breakdowns, from the failure to anticipate Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests to the agency’s role in providing coordinates that led to the mistaken U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
The agency also struggled to adapt to the emerging threat of Al Qaeda, which in 1998 began a series of attacks on U.S. targets that culminated in the 2001 strikes on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center that killed about 3,000 people.
Investigations into the attacks have found that the CIA never managed to penetrate the ranks of Al Qaeda and missed opportunities to detect the Sept. 11 plot. Critics have said that the best chance to prevent the attacks slipped away when the CIA tracked two of the would-be hijackers into the United States but failed to inform the FBI or other domestic agencies until it was too late.
The Sept. 11 commission has portrayed Tenet as being focused on the Al Qaeda threat. He spent the summer preceding the attacks issuing so many warnings that he was described as having his “hair on fire.”
But the commission’s findings indicated Tenet was not always an effective leader. In December 1998, Tenet wrote a memo declaring “war” on Al Qaeda, telling other agency chiefs that he wanted “no resources or people spared in this effort.” But as the commission said in a recent report: “We found the memorandum had little overall effect on mobilizing the CIA or the intelligence community.”
The failure to find banned weapons in Iraq has in some ways been more devastating to the agency’s reputation: While the Sept. 11 plot caught U.S. intelligence off-guard, Iraq’s weapons programs had been the focus of intensive intelligence efforts for more than a decade.
Many lawmakers based their vote to support the war on the CIA’s assessments that Iraq had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and was likely seeking to reconstitute its nuclear program.
According to a recent book by Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bob Woodward, when Bush pressed Tenet in a prewar meeting on the quality of the intelligence on Iraq, Tenet leaped to his feet and declared the case against Iraq a “slam dunk.”
Largely because of the string of intelligence failures uncovered by the Senate Intelligence Committee, many lawmakers issued statements Thursday praising Tenet for his years of service but noting that it was time for new leadership.
Tenet’s “tenure at the CIA provided much-needed stability and leadership to an agency largely adrift,” said a statement issued by the ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Vice Chairman John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). “While he steps down during a period of controversy over events leading up to the attacks of 9/11 and the quality of intelligence prior to the Iraq war, we should not lose sight of a simple truth: George Tenet has served his country with distinction and honor during difficult and demanding times.”
Tenet’s most outspoken critic on Capitol Hill, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), said the resignation was “long overdue. There were more failures of intelligence on his watch ... than any other [CIA director] in our history.”
Several congressional officials speculated that Tenet had decided to resign largely to circumvent looming criticism of him and the agency.
“If he were still there [when the 9/11 commission report is released publicly], his status would become part of the debate,” said a former intelligence official. “A lot of members would be demanding his resignation.”
Many Republicans on Capitol Hill wanted Tenet out “because they don’t want to see him defend the intelligence community; they want to blame the intelligence community for serving the president poorly,” the official said.
A CIA spokesman dismissed such suggestions, saying Tenet’s resignation had “absolutely nothing to do with” the ongoing investigations.
Congressional officials said Tenet still may be called to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in hearings, tentatively scheduled for this month.
Tenet’s departure unleashed rumors about who might succeed him. Perhaps the most widely circulated name is that of Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former CIA case officer.
Other potential nominees include Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who was considered for the CIA post when Bush took office; and Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence.
Administration and congressional officials said the Bush White House might wait until after the election, or at least until after the panels investigating intelligence failures have offered their final reports and recommendations.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the likely Democratic presidential nominee, called Tenet’s resignation “an opportunity for the president to lead,” and called for reform and consolidation of U.S. intelligence efforts.
Bush recently signaled his willingness to consider sweeping reforms. Among the ideas with broad backing on Capitol Hill is the creation of a new Cabinet-level post with authority over all 15 agencies in the intelligence community.
The CIA director is supposed to coordinate the activities of the various agencies, but in reality has limited leverage because the Pentagon controls 80% of the intelligence community’s $40-billion annual budget.