More Changes Are Needed, Democrats Say
Critics Insist Tenet's Departure Is Not Enough to Account for Intelligence Failures
By Jim VandeHei and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page A14
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and other congressional Democrats said yesterday the resignation of CIA Director George J. Tenet was overdue, but argued that additional changes in U.S. intelligence gathering -- and White House personnel -- are needed to account for past failures and guard against future ones.
Although Tenet said he stepped down to spend more time with his family, several Democrats characterized the CIA director as a scapegoat and his resignation as a well-timed distraction from controversies, ranging from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to an alleged Pentagon leak of highly classified information regarding U.S. access to a secret Iranian communications code. Democrats were virtually unanimous in calling on President Bush and other officials to accept greater responsibility for intelligence lapses.
"I think there are many more people who are responsible for the mess," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. "The responsibility goes far beyond George Tenet."
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), former chairman of the intelligence committee, said that Tenet's resignation "is long overdue" and that the CIA director lacked "critical leadership necessary for our intelligence community to effectively operate."
Kerry, campaigning in Missouri, said in a statement: "There is no question . . . there have been significant intelligence failures, and the administration has to accept responsibility for those failures. Sometimes with change comes opportunity."
On the latter point, Republicans agree. With Bush's popularity waning and GOP anxiety rising, several Republicans said Tenet's resignation, coupled with recent progress creating an interim Iraqi government, presents Bush with an opportunity to put some of the recent crises and scandals behind him while implementing changes at the CIA.
"I do think this is a positive move, for him [Tenet] personally and for the agency," Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. "His resignation also will give the president the opportunity to implement other needed reforms in the intelligence community to improve its operation."
Republicans said Bush's recent decisions to internationalize the effort in Iraq and to offer to relinquish some U.S. authority over it are also helping position the president for a political surge. Some Republicans said Tenet's resignation shows that administration officials recognize they made mistakes, even if they are not publicly admitting them. Tenet did not cite mistakes under his watch as a reason for quitting.
"Some people believe [Bush] is turning the corner," said a House GOP leader, who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about the president. But, the leader warned, "Others are sitting here with a deer-in-the headlights stare wondering" if he can.
A Democratic strategist predicted Bush would get a short-term boost from recent events.
However, some Kerry advisers said the resignation might portend even larger problems for the president, with a federal grand jury investigating a possible White House leak of a CIA operative's name and the Sept. 11 commission set to release its report on intelligence failures leading up to the deadliest terrorist strikes on U.S. soil.
"I don't see how losing a top person in the administration so suddenly becomes an asset," a top adviser to Kerry said.
A few Republicans had called for Tenet's resignation, and they welcomed yesterday's news.
"It was a surprise, but I think that it is fine that he has finally decided to step down," said Rep. Mac Collins (R-Ga.), who is running for the Senate. He said Tenet had improved intelligence gathering in recent months, but "we had some shortfalls at times, and Tenet didn't address them like he should have."
Democrats were often more critical of Bush than Tenet, and openly questioned whether the president was sacrificing his director. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said: "Although George Tenet is a good man who served two administrations honorably, there clearly were errors in our country's intelligence gathering and handling. I hope he's not taking the fall as a sacrificial lamb."
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the intelligence committee, said he has disagreed with Tenet, "but I can tell you that George Tenet is not the problem."
"The problem is those in the Bush administration who are misinterpreting or ignoring intelligence, who are misusing intelligence and who are setting up their own intelligence-gathering agencies that actually compete with the CIA," Durbin said. "The problems we are seeing today rest farther up the chain of command."
Durbin particularly criticized the Pentagon's undersecretary for intelligence gathering, telling reporters the administration immediately should "close down the intelligence operation of Mr. Doug Feith in the Department of Defense."
Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist, said: "It's just too early to know if this one body will be enough to feed the jackals, or it just might whet their appetites."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company