Instant Analysis: Tenet Resigns
Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Thursday, June 3, 2004; 12:00 PM
CIA Director George Tenet offered his letter of resignation to President Bush last night citing personal reasons for his departure.
Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser took your questions and comments on Tenet's resignation.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Thanks for coming here on such short notice.
To us out here in flyover country, the resignation of Tenet at this time comes as a total shock. I mean, at this point in the election cycle, that means the CIA is gonna be leaderless until next year. Am I right about that, that it's impractical to think that a fulltime director can be vetted, announced, and confirmed (not to mention the pointlessness of the whole exercise given that Kerry may win and would want to pick his own man)?
Second, on a scale from 1 to 10, in terms of surprise, how do you rate this news?
Third, did people like you have any inkling this was coming?
Robert G. Kaiser : Hello to everyone. I have 45 minutes to do real Instant Analysis of something about which, to tell the truth, I have no more real facts than any of you. I'll try at least to put the surprise of today in context.
This is a good first question. I don't think shock is warranted; in my view Tenet has been hanging by a string for a long time. When Bob Woodward's new book came out, describing how he had reassured an uncertain President Bush that the intel on Iraqi WMD was "a slam dunk," I cringed for him. But he survived that revelation. But more are in the pipeline, particularly from the Senate Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 Commission, both of which I expect to be crtical of the CIA. So there is no shock here that Tenet is out.
On the 1-10 scale, a 5, maybe. And that just because of the timing. We have expected many of the senior Bush admniistration people to be leaving, but after the election not before. Of course, if Kerry wins, their departures will be of barely symbolic imporrtance.
What do you think are the chances that Bush will wait until after the election to name a permanent DCI replacement?
Robert G. Kaiser : Very good. I suspect the White House will want to avoid a confirmation hearing and fight over a new DCI in the election season.
Wow, this headline caught me by surprise. However, the first thing I wanted to know was how the "sides" lined up. We have read many things about the feuding between departments and staff but I am still confused; just where did Tenet fall in these "alliances"? Basically, who was on his team and who wasn't?
Robert G. Kaiser : You can't tell the players without a scorecard. Woodward's book is probably the best available scorecard. It shows that Tenet was a solo practitioner, not a member of the prominent (Pentagon and State Dept) factions of the administration. His willingness to give support to the Pentagon view of the imminent danger posed by Saddam was obviously important at the time. Remember how Colin Powell insisted Tenet sit behind him, right in the camera shot, when he spoke to the U.N. in February last year? Powell was sharing the responsibility for what he said that day. Will the world remember? I doubt it.
Tenet is not a captain int his administration, he's a player. He tried hard to be on Bush's team. I'd say he let Bush down, badly, more than once, but my opinion is irrelevant. Bush seemed genuinely to like him.
Salt Lake City, Utah:
How long will it take Director Tenet to write a book, joining the likes of Paul O'Neill and Richard Clarke? And considering O'Neill and Clarke weren't too kind in their assessments of Pres. Bush and the administration, how do you suspect Tenet will portray the Bush Administration?
Robert G. Kaiser : Many questions like this this morning. I don't think there is any chance that Tenet can write a book that could be out before the election. For one important thing, anything he writes will have to be cleared by the CIA, under an agreement he and all CIA employees have to sign. So don't expect a blockbuster from him any time soon.
If and when he does write a book, I suspect its purpose will be to defend himself. It could be a long book.
New York, N.Y.:
Any idea why Bush announced the resignation?
Is there a precendent for a President to announce a
Robert G. Kaiser : this is common. lots of precedents.
San Diego, Calif.:
Please assess the political consequences of the Tenant resignation.
Robert G. Kaiser : Many questions like this, too. And I am in no position right now to give a very good answer. I suspect the first impact could be bad for Bush, because it ends a period of a week or so in which there were no surprise stories implying disarray in Iraq, in the Administration, or in the White House.
But I don't expect ultimately that Tenet's presence in, or absence from, the Bush administration will sway many swing voters in November.
Are you struck by the timing of the announcement of Mr. Tenet's departure on the heels of President's disclosure that he has sought private counsel in the Plame scandal? The President could not have been unaware that the timing suggests there is a link. Do you think that the timing of Mr. Tenet's decision speaks more to his relationship with the President than any personal issue?
Thanks for taking my question.
Robert G. Kaiser : I just don't know. As my colleague Dana Priest indicated in her good chat earlier, we expect to hear something about the Plame inquiry from the prosecutor pretty soon. But we know nothing that would connect Tenet's resignation to it.
Do you think the resignation of Tenet, and the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, will drive a reorganization of the Intelligence Community around a DCI with real authority and budget control?
Robert G. Kaiser : Perhaps. I think the Agency is probably in for some substantial changes under its next director, be he/she a Bush or a Kerry appointee. A fair-minded Martian who visited us today and was given a good briefing on the record of American intellitence since, say, 2000, would have to conclude, I think, that the record is lousy. The CIA has not covered itself with glory, obviously. It may be time for lots of changes, including the one you suggest, though we could expect the Pentagon to fight it tooth and nail.
Who gains from this resignation?
Robert G. Kaiser : Mrs. Tenet, a very nice lady.
What is the actual reason for Tenet's resignation and was he made a scape goat for the various other department's short comings and wrong assumptions?
Robert G. Kaiser : I'm sorry, I'm not allowed to say...
JUST KIDDING!! We don't know any conspiratorial explanation, or any explanation at all really. We have heard that recent months have been really hard on Tenet personally, but we don't know any details. Imagine yourself being in his shoes--not easy!
Director Tenet has indicated it may take five years to significantly improve the CIA's inteliegence gathering capabilities. To your knowledge has the CIA initiated this upgrade effort, and how is that effort perceived by the Bush administration?
Robert G. Kaiser : Yes it has, with the help of a LOT of new money.
San Diego, Calif.:
It seems to me that the president could have canned Tenet several times since 9/11/01 but stuck with him anyway. Do you think Tenet will show similar loyalty to the president?
Robert G. Kaiser : Yes I do.
Was the resignation anticipated within Washington? Could Tenet have been motivated by more than personal reasons?
Robert G. Kaiser : Repeating what I said earlier, yes, many expected to see Tenet leave this year. Of course he could have been motivated by any number of kinds of reasons. But I don't know which to actually credit.
So who's next for Tenet's job? Douglas Feith, maybe?
Robert G. Kaiser : Or maybe Bono?
Do you think Tenet was too eager to please this administration? (Bob Woodward indicated in his recent book that Tenet refered to the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a "slam dunk".)
Robert G. Kaiser : Personally I think it is easy, analytically, to portray him as too eager to please, but I haven't been inside his head to discover what his real motivations might have been.
I do not believe in conspiracy theories, but as of late, things that were once dismissed as laughable, impossible or "unpatriotic" are turning out to be at least partially true e.g. Halliburton's White House ties, intra-agency turf wars, U.S. government knowingly releasing "untruths," etc. My question to you, do you easily dismiss conspiracists or do you at least consider the possibility they may be speaking truths? How does this affect as you as journalist (assuming if affects you at all)?
Robert G. Kaiser : Lots of questions like this, too, but this is a particularly thoughtful version that I would like to answer.
Let's begin with an old joke: Even hypochondriacs get sick. Conspiracies are very difficult to run inside the U.S. government, thankfully. But they happen. Watergate is really a collection of conspiracies that were kept secret for a long time, and might never have been revealed. The Iran-Contra affair is/was a conspiracy that has never been fully explained (for example, we have never been able to discover the real role of George H.W. Bush in that dark business).
To answer your specific questions, I do personally react against theories of vast conspiracies. This is just part of my skeptical makeup, I guess. But I try never to reject the possibility entirely.
So, for example, I do think there was what amounted to a kind of conspiracy to get the U.S. into a war against Iraq, if we define the term as a secretive plot involving a group within the government but excluding many important officials, who bent events and information to their undeclared purpose. Although you'd have to say it was a barely undeclared purpose.
Tenet is a people person. Will his leaving effect the moral at the Agency?
Robert G. Kaiser : It will devastate morale, I think, partly because he was so popular there himself, and partly because there is no prospect of a strong, effective successor coming on the scene any time soon.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Please give us a brief rundown on the person who will likely fill Tenet's shoes during the remainder of this administration.
Robert G. Kaiser : John E. McLaughlin, the current deputy to Tenet, will be acting director, and I expect his tenure to last until next year. He is an analyst, not a spy. He does not have Tenet's apparent energy, or his charm, or his hard-driving personality. I don't know him personally, but by reputation he is a rather ordinary government official with no particular flare or style. I frankly don't know what his reputation is with the intelligence committees on the Hill, something I hope tomorrow's Post will tell us all something about.
Virginia Beach, Va.:
Of the recent by failures involving the CIA, what would you say was the most harmful to the Agency's reputation and long-term credibility?
Robert G. Kaiser : The wrong intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq was, in my view, an intel failure of historic proportions, one that will reverberate for many years to come. The 9/11 intel failure was also huge, but as I have said here before, I find it hard to denounce the CIA for failing to forsee that attack. At the same time, thanks to the 9/11 Commission, we know now that there was better reason than I at least understood to be looking for the possibility of airplane hijackers conducting terrorist operations.
So there have been two big failures on Tenet's watch, more than I can think of for any of his predecessors.
Hello Mr. Kaiser. In your opinion, two years from now will history be kind, cruel or indifferent to Mr. Tenent's term as CIA Director?
Robert G. Kaiser : pretty cruel, I expect. See previous question.
Baton Rouge, La.:
Who would you appoint if you were President?
Robert G. Kaiser : Doug Feith, or Bono.
Mr Kaiser, simple question, who will be next to go?
Robert G. Kaiser : Bush? Possible. But of course, that's up to the voters.
Since I'm a cubicle rat, I couldn't watch the president's announcement of the Tenet resignation. Would you characterize Bush's attitude when he read it?
Robert G. Kaiser : Ahh, but you can: go to the video on washingtonpost.com, as I did just before coming on here, and you can see the whole statement.
Does this mean McLaughlin will have the support to change the CIA as proposed by Tenet? Or with a new person will there be a new vision for the CIA?
Robert G. Kaiser : Expect no new vision this year...
You just alluded to Tenet's popularity at
the agency. Does that still hold true...
It appears to a lot of "civilians" that his
"people person" qualities led him to
weaken the professionalism and
credibility of the agency in order to
facilitate a consensus within the
administration that wasn't supported by
the evidence. Don't a lot of CIA analsts
feel burned by Tenet ?
Robert G. Kaiser : I don't have enough personal contact with Agency analysts to answer your question. I'm sure some must feel burned by the WMD experience. But I do know that many agency people who don't always agree with Tenet thought he was a great boss, a stand-up guy, and a real defender of the Agency.
When you refuse to perjure yourself in the Plame inquiry and you out Chalabi, you get what you deserve. Tenet belongs in Guantanamo for undermining the President's reelection.
Robert G. Kaiser : Maybe the President will read this chat and take appropriate action!
Los Angeles, CA:
Do you see any connection to the emerging news that
Ahmad Chalabi told the Iranians that their code had been
Robert G. Kaiser : Maybe. To me this is a very big story. According to today's good story by Walter Pincus and Dana Priest, to which I hope we can LINK here, the U.S. has lost the ability to read Iran's coded messages because of a leak to Chalabi. Given the fact that we are deeply worried about Iran's secret program to develop nuclear weapons, the timing couldn't be worse. Unlike so many such "scandals," this one strikes me as all too real, and significant.
I can imagine Tenet is just livid to discover (if this is the case) that someone in or affiliated with the Pentagon had caused this disaster to happen. I can imagine him thinking this was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. But this is pure speculation on my part.
But wouldn't a confirmation hearing help politically if it was someone extremely popular, i.e. John McCain?
Robert G. Kaiser : What makes you think McCain would have the slightest interest? What serious person would accept a big job now from a president whose approval rating is around 45%, and whose re-election is far from certain?
What about the question of why didn't he quit earlier based on the performance of the CIA on his watch? I mean, how many second chances should government managers be given? I say this is a good thing for all of us if some new leadership comes in.
Robert G. Kaiser : This good question opens an historical can of worms. American officials do not resign. Cyrus Vance was the last cabinet member to do so on principle, I think -- that was in 1980. We have no tradition of accountability of this kind.
Please tell us more -- who is Doug Feith or Bono?
Robert G. Kaiser : I'm sorry, I'm kidding around, using a question posted earlier by someone who (also kidding, I think) asked if Feith, the number three man in the Pentagon, might be Tenet's successor. Feith has no chance of being Tenet's successor. Neither does Bono. Neither do I. End of kidding around...
Given the present administrations insistence on extreme secrecy, isn't trying to figure out what going on with Tenet's resignation very much like practicing Kremlinology?
Robert G. Kaiser : yes
New York, N.Y.:
The President did not appear very prepared in his remarks announcing Tenet's resignation -- they seemed off the cuff. Was the resignation a surprise to the President, too? (That would suggest to me that it was driven by unexpected events, rather than something that had been discussed for a few days or longer.)
Robert G. Kaiser : Literally, no, beause, as he said, he and Tenet discussed it last night. There wasplenty of time to prepare a statement, but Bush for whatever reason chose not to. I thought he looked very hesitant and uncertain myself. Why did he allow that impression to be created, I wonder? Baffling.
Your response to the McCain Q was very
reasonable and very scary...
Is there no chance that a "serious
person" will step up ? The politics
surrounding the CIA really do seem to
have put the country in a dangerous bind.
We need a "serious person" of the
highest caliber more than ever, and it
appears that it's not likely.
Robert G. Kaiser : Fair enough... But I don't expect it to happen.
You wrote: "What makes you think McCain would have the slightest interest? What serious person would accept a big job now from a president whose approval rating is around 45%, and whose re-election is far from certain?"
Someone who is close enough to John Kerry that he would expect to retain his job (or even get promoted to Sec Def) in the event that Bush lost the election.
Robert G. Kaiser : Whoops, my previous answer was meant to be a response to this question, so I repeat...
Fair enough, but I don't expect it to happen.
Is there any consensus about how the Bush Administration will now use Tenet as a scapegoat for the rush to war in 2002? Between Tenet and the disfavored Chalabi, this seems a great opportunity for Bush hawks to completely blame the misleading information they provided to the American people and the U.N. on third parties.
Robert G. Kaiser : Do you really think the President can usefully look for a scapegoat? I don't think so. This was his war; if there is a price to pay for it, he will have to pay himself, I think.
How will Tenet's resignation affect the country's
ability to respond to potential terror threats during
the remainder of the Bush administration? Will the
absence of clear and present leadership at the
CIA further cloud the already murky relationship
between Central Intelligence, Justice, and
Robert G. Kaiser : This excellent question will have to be the last. And I don't know the answer, but I do know it's the right question to be asking. Is our intelligence about terrorism getting any better? I hope so, but have no evidence that it is. Ashcroft's odd recent press conference, annoucning that Al Qaeda is "90 percent of the way" to launching an attack on the USA, really troubled me. What on Earth is he talking about? Does he have agents inside Al Qaeda providing such precise info? I doubt it strongly.
I wish I had more confidence that we have made real progress in penetrating terrorism. There have been important arrests, especially in Europe, but are we really any safer? I just don't know.
On that happy note I thank everyone for their participation. Great questions today, and a lot of them. See you soon.
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