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Tenet Resignation

Steve Coll
Washington Post Managing Editor
Friday, June 4, 2004; 10:00 AM

CIA Director George J. Tenet, dogged by controversies over a string of U.S. intelligence setbacks, has decided to resign for personal reasons and will leave the agency in July, President Bush announced Thursday. CIA officials denied that Tenet quit or was pressured to leave because of criticism of U.S. intelligence over the failed search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or missed clues to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist plot.

Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll, author of "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001," was online Friday, June 4 at 10 a.m. ET, to discuss Tenet's resignation and implications for the CIA and Bush administration.


Coll, winner of a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism, has been managing editor of The Washington Post since 1998 and covered Afghanistan as The Post's South Asia bureau chief between 1989 and 1992.

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.

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Essington, Pa.: Mr. Coll,

Thanks for chatting. Do you have even a minute sense that the White House recommended or suggested Tenet's resignation?

Steve Coll: Good morning. We did not pick up signs in our reporting yesterday that the White House recommended or suggested Tenet's resignation, no. At most the White House, presented with Tenet's decision, did not resist it, as apparently President Bush has done in the past.

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Washington, D.C.: When do you think we'll hear more from Tenet? Will he be popping up on Larry King or 60 Minutes anytime soon?

Steve Coll: I seriously doubt it. I presume that when he sets himself up in private life -- probably based at least in part in academia, maybe with a few feet in the corporate world, too -- he will eventually write a book. And when that is published a couple of years or so from now (I'm guessing) we'll hear his full take on all these questions swirling around him.

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Bend, Ore.: Hi Steve,
Great work in "Ghost Wars." It's the best book on the subject. Who do the career civil servants at the CIA want to be the new CIA director? If Bush selects someone overtly political (eg. Porter Goss), whom might Kerry nominate for CIA director if Kerry wins in November?

Thanks.

Steve Coll: Many thanks. I only spoke with a few people yesterday and can't presume to speak for the rank and file. But my sense is that they will want a director who will emphasize professional continuity; who will keep the CIA's growth trajectory on track; who will have clout with the president, the agency's most important client; and who will be able to manage the braying hounds of Congress. A tough billet, really. It seems unlikely that Bush will try to nominate someone like Goss before the election, although it's possible. In a second term it's hard to say who Bush would look to; Goss would certainly be on the list, but I suspect it would be a long list. As for Kerry, there are a number of Democrats with the right credentials -- some with military backgrounds (although ex-military commanders have a mixed record as DCIs) and some, such as Roemer and Bob Kerrey, with congressional backgrounds now burnished by service on the 9/11 commission.

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Rockville, Md.: The BBC reported last night that the CIA DDO is going to announce his retirement today. I have a friend who says that has been buzzing around the agency for a few weeks (also, the DCI resignation was a shock not a surprise). If the DDO retirement is true, what does this say?

Steve Coll: We also reported in our pages this morning that James Pavitt, the DDO, has told associates that he intends to step down this summer, and that he will be succeeded by his current deputy, Stephen Kappes. It means that there will be a significant transition in CIA leadership during a summer when some analysts are forecasting a heightened threat of terrorist attacks. At the same time, the new leaders -- acting director McLaughlin and Kappes -- have been in place as number twos for some time, so there is also some continuity.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the time frame going to be for replacing Tenet? Can the agency operate with an interim director until next year, or will Bush be shepherding a new DCIA nominee through the confirmation process in an election year?

Steve Coll: See earlier. Most of the comment by Republicans yesterday was that the president would wait until after the election to appoint Tenet's successor. Besides avoiding a confirmation process during the campaign, this would likely afford Bush a wider choice of DCIs, as the politics of confirmation would be easier after an election win. Plus, if reform or restructuring of the intelligence community is on the cards, the selection could be pointed toward those changes. Only if Bush is fundamentally uncomfortable with the acting director would he move faster, I would guess.

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Bethesda, Md.: What kind of relationship, if any, do Bush and/or Cheney have with new CIA director John McLaughlin? I know McLaughlin has briefed Bush a few times in the past. Do the two get along well?

washingtonpost.com: The CIA's 'Anonymous' No. 2, (Post, Jan. 9, 2004)

Steve Coll: I think Bush and McLaughlin have spent quite a lot of time together in crisis environments and must have a pretty good feel for each other by now. They are somewhat different personalities -- McLaughlin is more careful and reserved a personality than either Tenet or Bush -- but they have worked together extensively by now. As to Cheney, I don't know.

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Silver Spring, Md.: If the 9/11 report pours blame on the CIA, hasn't Tenet now given himself the freedom to try to protect his reputation by criticizing the report for being unbalanced? Do you think he will point out vigorously, as Dick Clark has done, that the political leaders are ultimately responsible for decisions that were taken or not taken?

Steve Coll: It will be interesting to see if Tenet says anything publicly when the 9/11 report is published. He might feel tempted to repeat some of the defenses of himself and his colleagues that he has mounted at public hearings, but I suspect he will also try to keep a pretty low profile for a while yet.

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Malvern, Pa.: Steve,

Ghost Wars is an awesome book.

With all of the talk about fundamentally restructuring the role of the DCI and the many intelligence organizations and who controls them, should the DCI job be made more like the Federal Reserve chairman, a more independent, long-term appointment that is less influenced by the politics of the day?

Steve Coll: Thanks. Interesting question. It's related to the question of whether the DCI's authority should be changed and expanded so that he/she becomes a true national intelligence officer for the White House, able to control budgets, collection and analytical priorities not just at CIA but as the National Security Agency, DIA, etc. The trouble with the Fed analogy is that intelligence is so intimately connected to the presidency, and to the most important issues of war and peace. To be effective a DCI must have the president's true confidence. It might be difficult to establish such trust if the DCI is not a presidential appointment. But I know the idea in your question is being debated and will be part of the reform discussion that unfolds after the 9/11 report is published.

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Richmond, Va.: Steve, I'm wondering about some tangential buzz I've been hearing about the "why" aspect of the resignation, which basically says Tenet insisted that heads roll (for the Plame affair, the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, the intel angle on the Iraq WMD, etc. -- all linked to the CIA and DoD to some degree) and Bush demurred to hold an administration higher up that accountable. Thus, the argument goes, Tenet resigned on principle.

It's an interesting spin, but I'm wondering if it resonates with anything you're hearing.

Steve Coll: I haven't heard that myself. It's doubtful that Tenet would be in a position to "insist" that anyone else's heads roll. I did wonder yesterday if he chose the timing of his planned resignation with an eye on the headlines this week about the Chalabi-Iran matter. The timing allowed at least some of his constituents in Langley to see his decision as a silent protest against their adversaries at the Pentagon and elsewhere who supported Chalabi in the runup to the Iraq war and beyond. But I'm speculating.

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Washington, D.C.: The White House seems to be blaming Tenet for supplying false intelligence which it pressured him to provide. Why doesn't Tenet defend himself more vigorously and refuse to be the fall guy? Is he very scared of the administration?

washingtonpost.com: Analysis: For Personal Reasons, Or Is He the Fall Guy?, (Post, June 4)

Steve Coll: I doubt he's scared of the administration. But in seven years as DCI in two administrations, he has been pretty loyal and discreet through multiple crises. Presumably he figures that the time to tell his own story his way will come later. Richard Helms only published his memoir posthumously, and his defense of himself in light of the controversies of his day was restrained. As a reader I hope Tenet doesn't wait that long and that when he writes, he let's it rip, as has been his style.

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FPO Military Overseas: Steve: Read your book. Just back from Gardez Fire Base, Pakitia Province, Southeastern Afghanistan.

Question: Do you think Tenet is the first of more who will "voluntarily" depart the Bush administration?

Steve Coll: Thanks for writing. What is your sense of Paktia? Will it be possible to stage a decent election in the southeast?

Anyway, it's an interesting question. I suppose you could say that politically, by going first Tenet makes it easier for others who intended to leave after the first term to go earlier, too. If the Chalabi matter, coupled with the prisoner abuse issues, churns and churns into the summer, I suspect Rumsfeld will reconsider, as he has said publicly, how effective he can continue to be as secretary. But Rumsfeld has given much less indication than Tenet had done that he has a personal desire to get back to private life.

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Washington, D.C.: In your first answer, you write: "We did not pick up signs in our reporting yesterday that the White House recommended or suggested Tenet's resignation, no." Then why the highly speculative no. 1 story on washingtonpost.com that asks if Tenet is the fall guy? Is that authoritative reporting.

washingtonpost.com: For Personal Reasons, Or Is He the Fall Guy?, (Post, June 4)

Steve Coll: My reading of Glenn's good analysis was that it captured the multiple interpretations being voiced around Washington yesterday about Tenet's resignation -- and how many of these interpretations reflected the political outlook of their sponsors. Some took Tenet's explanations at face value; these tended to be people close to him, like Sandy Berger and David Boren. Others tended to say he had been made the fall guy -- these tended to be opponents of the Bush Administration. Others still tended to say good riddance -- these tended to be Bush supporters who saw Tenet as ineffective and a political liability to boot.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Since Tenet is resigning now, and it is widely speculated that Colin Powell and Condeleeza Rice will leave at the end of this term, what impact to do you think these departures will have on Bush foreign policy in the future "war on terror?"

Steve Coll: Good question. The conventional wisdom around town is that Powell will not be around in a second term, but that "wisdom" does not generally expect that Rice would also leave. There is no doubt that Powell, Armitage and Tenet often had different views on foreign and national security issues from, say, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz. If the first trio departs, would Bush in a second term attempt to find other cabinet-level appointees who would represent that side of his first term's foreign policy arguments? Or would he turn mainly to the neoconservative wing? An important question, impossible to answer. I suppose it depends on what lessons the president himself has learned from the foreign policy crises of his first term.

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Venice, Calif.: Can you speculate on what, if any, significant changes may happen within the CIA now that Tenet won't be running things? What are the short-term and long-term implications on intelligence gathering with a new CIA director?

Steve Coll: For the short term I suspect there will be more continuity than change. In the longer term -- after November -- the first question is whether there are structural reforms that change the DCI's role, and if so, how quickly they are enacted. Assuming a future DCI has the same authority as past DCIs, then everything will hinge on the election and the next president's sense of whether he wants a DCI who will shake the CIA up or continue Tenet's style of evolutionary change rooted in the CIA's professional traditions.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Dear Mr. Coll,

One important aspect of the CIA that I think everyone overlooks, is the successes they've had. While abysmal failures are often the subject of congressional hearings, their successes, due to the nature of the work involved, must remain secret. Do you think this leads to the unfair castigation of the CIA and it's leadership?

Steve Coll: It's certainly true that the CIA's failures are more likely to become public than its successes. On the other hand the failures sometimes involve momentous national crises, such as Cuba (a long time ago) or Iraq.

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Plano, Tex.: Do you think George Tenet has knowledge of who "leaked" the name of Wilson's wife to the media?

Steve Coll: I have no idea.

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Takoma Park, Md.: One thing I couldn't help thinking back to when I was following this extremely abrupt resignation: Richard Clarke saying that when the President asked him to put a nice face on what was essentially a bad situation, he had two options -- he could do it or he could resign.

Any possibility the White House asked Tenet to do something he just couldn't do, and decided as a result to pack it in as a matter of conscience?

Steve Coll: When it comes to the world of espionage, there are always what Rumsfeld would call known unknowns -- great layers of secrets that we all know are there, but we have no idea what they are. But everything our reporters learned yesterday we put into today's paper, and they didn't learn anything like that.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: To your knowledge, has anyone internally within the CIA ever been fired, demoted, punished, disciplined, reassigned, etc. as a result of some of the big failures under Tenet's watch? Perhaps such internal management issues are not made public. If they aren't, maybe they should be to show the public some accountability.

Steve Coll: To my knowledge there have been no firings, demotions, etc. over either 9/11 or Iraq WMD. This is becoming a theme in Congress, where both Republicans and Democrats voice rising frustration about a system that, to them, appears to hold no one accountable even when things go very badly wrong. Of course, the political issue is, as soon as you hold the CIA accountable for its share of the failures, it's hard to avoid questions about the Pentagon, White House, etc. I'm just finishing Robert Dallek's terrific one-volume biography of Kennedy. In re-reading for the nth time the Bay of Pigs narrative, I was struck by the echoes of today's controversies. In that case Dulles resigned appropriately, after many years of distinguished service, for getting the invasion so badly wrong. Yet history does not judge him solely or even mainly responsible -- this was the president's mess, through and through, as well as that of his cabinet and closest advisers.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for your time Steve,
Do you think that Tenet's resignation will have that immediate an effect on the intelligence community's day-to-day functioning? By this I mean, does Tenet direct the particulars, or is he more of a policy and overall focus director?

Steve Coll: While the DCI does sit atop a very big and self-managing bureaucracy, he is meaningfully responsible for a lot of dicey day-to-day operations in the field. Whether to break into this embassy or recruit that agent is sometimes a question that goes to the DCI for final sign-off. So, yes, it will have an effect on day-to-day operations. But the new acting director, John McLaughlin, has been in the chair for a lot of those decisions as deputy for several years now and so in that respect there will be a lot of continuity.

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Washington, D.C.: Steve,

Given the many intel failures documented in "Ghost Wars," as well as a few triumphs, what should the American people expect in an age of so many terrorist threats? Is the model of the Cold War valid, or should we toss it out completely, and replace it with what?

Steve Coll: Those are good questions largely beyond my ability to answer. One observation, hardly original but nonetheless important: The modern intelligence community was built after World War II during the nuclear standoff of the Cold War to defend the United States against surprise attacks mounted by standing armies controlled by coherent states. Now the biggest threats come from transnational terrorist and other networks that not only are not states, they are often not even hierarchical stateless groups. So there is no doubt that the intelligence bureaucracies -- as well as the outlooks of the people who run them -- have to change radically. And the trick is that adversarial states are still out there, too.

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Firing's at CIA under Tenet: I believe that the analyst who targeted the Chinese embassy by mistake was fired.

Steve Coll: True. There were other disciplinary actions when he was deputy during the Ames business. I was thinking about 9/11 and Iraq. I don't see anyone to single out on 9/11 based on the evidence that's been presented so far. The Iraq investigations are far from over.

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Lakeland, Fla.: George Tenet is resigning with some successes and some well known failures at the CIA. But just how good can intelligence be? I wonder if we've seen too many James Bond movies, and have an unrealistic view of what intelligence can accomplish. How much improvement should we expect from our intelligence services?

Steve Coll: Thanks for all the good questions. Got to run. Yeah, not only is not like James Bond, it's not even like "24," much as I enjoyed it.

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