Tenet Leaves Legacy of Big Successes, but Also Big Failures
Director's Record Has Been Mixed
By R. Jeffrey Smith and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page A12
When CIA Director George J. Tenet issued a warning in December 1998 that "we are at war" with al Qaeda, one of his colleagues faxed it to the heads of other major intelligence agencies. But none of them acted on it, and several did not remember seeing it until after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In 2000, as part of his effort to bring more resources to bear on the al Qaeda threat, Tenet asked an official in the agency's counterterrorism center to figure out how to improve al Qaeda analyses. But the center never anticipated an attack by aircraft, and the specialist it hired at Tenet's urging reported for work one day before the attack occurred.
These two anecdotes, both divulged by the presidential commission investigating the Sept. 11 assaults, illustrate what some experts depict as the mixed record of Tenet's tenure as director of the CIA, a job he said yesterday he will quit in July.
On one hand, Tenet is credited with sounding the alarm about the most critical threat to U.S. security in the post-Cold War era: Osama bin Laden and his adherents and allies. But he was unable to convince others in the administration of its urgency, and he was unable -- in time to catch the terrorists -- to forge links between intelligence agencies that would have put critical information in investigators' hands.
"We made mistakes," he told the commission on April 14, in one of the few such public remarks by any senior administration official.
At the same time, Tenet has told friends that he is proud of his agency's collection of intelligence on Libya's weapons programs, which persuaded that nation's leader, Moammar Gaddafi, to dismantle his nuclear, chemical and biological programs. He also oversaw a worldwide probe of international sales of nuclear equipment that enabled the United States to persuade Pakistan to stop exports by its leading scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Recently, Tenet has been in the thick of controversy over the quality of his agency's prewar intelligence on Iraq, particularly on its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. Three months ago, he said "we may have overestimated the progress Saddam [Hussein] was making" on nuclear weapons, and acknowledged that his prediction that Iraq had chemical arms remains unproved.
Tenet, who was appointed in 1997 to one of Washington's most sensitive jobs, at a place where secrecy shrouds most successes but notoriety attends every mistake, survived longer than all of his predecessors in the job except one, Allen W. Dulles, who was fired in 1961 after the CIA's abortive incursion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba.
The job is a lightning rod for criticism, whenever foreign policy goes awry or mistakes are made by intelligence officials outside of the CIA's control. Capitol Hill "typically holds George responsible" even though the Pentagon actually controls the bulk of the U.S. intelligence community, said Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a former vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee who now sits on the Sept. 11 commission.
"George is being scapegoated as the guy who had bad intelligence," Kerrey said, because the administration was determined -- in Kerrey's opinion -- to wage war with Iraq no matter what.
For the past year, Tenet has kept a football helmet on his desk, a gift from University of Oklahoma Coach Bob Stoops as the U.S. conflict in Iraq wound down and controversy began to swirl around Tenet -- principally because of the government's inability to find expected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Tenet told friends last year the job was wearing him down, and they said yesterday that his decision came as no surprise.
The agency Tenet is leaving is far different from the one he took over. At that time, only a few dozen officers were training to join its clandestine service, which has the difficult task of recruiting agents in hostile countries. The foreign-language expertise of many of its employees lay mostly in languages pivotal to the Cold War, rather than the developing or failed states that now give rise to most modern conflicts. A scandal involving the agency's links to thugs in Guatemala had forced the ouster of some senior spies.
But Tenet built up the CIA's clandestine service, sharpened its scientific capabilities, changed its schools and training programs, paid some of its Cold War veterans to retire, and sent hundreds of new operatives overseas without the benefit of traditional diplomatic cover. "People are no longer operating just out of embassies, but out of all the back alleys in the world where we need to operate," said former CIA general counsel Jeffrey H. Smith.
The agency's budget expanded slowly in the late 1990s, to reach about $3 billion before the 2001 attacks, but Tenet was able to secure at least $1.5 billion more in the aftermath, in an implicit endorsement of the new path on which he immediately set the agency. The entire national foreign intelligence budget, which Tenet divulged in 1998 was $26.7 billion, has evidently grown to about $40 billion since then, said Steven Aftergood, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
In March 1997, President Bill Clinton announces that he will nominate acting CIA Director George J. Tenet, center, to head the agency. With Tenet are wife, Stephanie, and son John Michael.
(Greg Gibson -- AP)
_____The New Director_____
The CIA's 'Anonymous' No. 2: CIA Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin, Tenet's longtime deputy, will become interim director.
Tenet Resigns: The Post's Walter Pincus narrates a gallery of images from the CIA director's tenure and resignation.
_____Complete Post Coverage_____
Tenet Resigns as CIA Director (The Washington Post, Jun 4, 2004)
For Personal Reasons, Or Is He the Fall Guy? (The Washington Post, Jun 4, 2004)
More Changes Are Needed, Democrats Say (The Washington Post, Jun 4, 2004)
CIA's New Acting Director Is Known for Analytical -- and Magic -- Skills (The Washington Post, Jun 4, 2004)
George Tenet's 'Slam-Dunk' Into the History Books (The Washington Post, Jun 4, 2004)