Preserving CIA Status Will Test New Chief
By Dana Priest and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 7, 2004; Page A01
The White House-sanctioned photos said it all: George Tenet with President Bush at Camp David as the Afghanistan war began. George Tenet seated behind Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at the U.N. briefing on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. George Tenet leaning across the president's desk addressing Vice President Cheney the day the Iraq war kicked off.
The message: After years of obscurity, the CIA was back, and at the center of the major White House decisions on foreign operations.
Of all the challenges that face Tenet's successor, John E. McLaughlin, when he steps into the job July 11, preserving the CIA's status at the White House and among world leaders will be among the toughest.
McLaughlin's tricky political task will be "to hold on" to the agency's voice at the White House during a tenure expected to last at least through the fall election, said one senior U.S. intelligence official.
His understated personality and his career as an analyst signal to many administration officials and current and former intelligence personnel that the CIA's role is in danger of being marginalized within the context of such domineering personalities as Cheney, Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "He'll be seen as a colonel analyst" rather than a combat general, predicted one former senior intelligence official.
"George Tenet was one of those very few individuals in Washington who could sit at a table with Condi Rice and Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld and be viewed as a peer," a former senior administration official said. "No disrespect to Mr. McLaughlin, but that's a very small list of people who can do that, and he's not on it."
Complicating McLaughlin's prospects as the new acting director of central intelligence is another factor:
Although he keeps a low profile, McLaughlin was more substantively involved than Tenet in the problems that led to the writing of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq -- the official prewar assessment of the Iraq threat -- that was based on faulty, outdated and poorly sourced intelligence.
One former official said that McLaughlin is blamed in the West Wing for having signed off on the allegation in Bush's State of the Union address that Iraq had sought to acquire "yellowcake" uranium from Africa. Tenet said he had not approved the passage, but White House officials said McLaughlin did.
"That is going to color the relationship, not with the president, but with Condi and [Rice's deputy, Stephen J.] Hadley and Andy Card and the vice president's office," said the former official who, like several other current and former officials, would share candid views of McLaughlin's prospects only anonymously.
McLaughlin also has done much of the classified briefing for Congress that Tenet otherwise would have done, aides said. Members of Congress have not forgotten that.
"There is no way he can say, 'I'm not part of the problem,' " said the former senior intelligence official, who knows McLaughlin well.
Aside from the Washington calculations that shape foreign policy and direct billions of dollars toward one program or another are the worldly demands that ultimately so stressed Tenet that he finally decided to leave.
McLaughlin will take over in the middle of a year that counterterrorism experts believe could prove one of the most dangerous for U.S. interests, as intelligence reporting shows al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are preparing to launch attacks against large, symbolic gatherings of Americans, such as the Democratic and Republican party conventions, this week's Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., and the Olympics in Greece.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company