By Way of Hill and NSC Staff, Tenet Is Unconventional Choice for CIA
By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 1997; Page A06
At the CIA, Deputy Director George John Tenet has frequently spoken about the need to recruit or promote a new generation of young officers who are focused on such modern problems as terrorism, narcotics, arms proliferation and spying on radical states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea.
Yesterday, at age 44, the former congressional staff aide and White House intelligence adviser found himself nominated by President Clinton for the spy agency's top job in part because his strenuous efforts to pursue this post-Cold War agenda have garnered respect inside the Langley headquarters and admiration outside it.
Tenet is an unconventional choice as director. He is not a career employee of the CIA, and is not a prominent businessman, lawyer, military professional, or well-known expert on national security affairs, as were such predecessors as Allen Dulles, Richard M. Helms, William E. Colby, George Bush, Stansfield Turner, William H. Webster and Robert M. Gates. Only James R. Schlesinger was younger when he became director, by a week.
Tenet's nomination culminates a swift rise through the ranks of Washington staff jobs, beginning as an energy association employee and a legislative assistant to the late Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), and progressing to staff director of the Senate intelligence committee and then senior intelligence adviser on the National Security Council staff. It is also a long way from Queens, N.Y., where he grew up as the son of a Greek immigrant who owned a diner.
After a bruising fight with Senate Republicans over the failed nomination of Anthony Lake, Tenet's support from key lawmakers in both parties was probably the decisive factor in Clinton's choice. Senate intelligence Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said yesterday that Tenet is "a man of integrity and professionalism," while Vice Chairman Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) said he has the "highest confidence" in Tenet's ability to take the CIA's helm.
A former staff director of the Senate committee, Tenet had pledged when he became deputy director to work at improving the CIA's relations with Congress, which had become badly frayed during the tenure of Clinton's first CIA director, R. James Woolsey. By all accounts, Tenet and his former boss, CIA director John M. Deutch, shared considerably more information with Congress about the agency's failures as well as its achievements, including details of its past ties to informants who had undertaken criminal acts or human rights abuses overseas.
At his confirmation hearing in June 1995, Tenet also had cited four other personal priorities for his tenure at the agency: providing "actionable" intelligence that cannot be obtained elsewhere, implementing the "reengineering" of the intelligence community, revitalizing its troubled Directorate of Operations, or clandestine service, and upgrading its counterintelligence capabilities.
"Protecting the status quo and adhering to convention inhibit the innovation, creativity and dynamism that are essential to keep U.S. intelligence the best in the world," Tenet said, embracing of the process of reform begun under Woolsey and drastically accelerated under Deutch.
As deputy director for 18 months and acting director since December, Tenet has already traveled to many of the CIA's stations overseas. He has discussed intelligence matters with visiting heads of state and met in Gaza with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to discuss suicide bombings of Israelis. He experienced a perilous moment last year when a bird struck and cracked the windshield of a CIA plane returning from Dubrovnik, in the former Yugoslavia, and the pilot was forced to make a difficult landing in Newfoundland.
A senior administration official who has worked closely with Tenet said he is known to many CIA officers as a manager who "will drop in anywhere on anybody, outside the chain of command . . . to check on them, a real hands-on kind of person." A colleague said that "he's regarded as a real person" who, dressed in sweat pants and wearing head phones, jogs every morning around the CIA grounds before picking up food in the cafeteria.
Tenet's trademark is probably an unlit cigar, which he often clenches in his teeth. He does not smoke it because of a heart problem he experienced while working as the special assistant to the president for national security affairs from 1993 to 1995. It was in that job that he wrote four major presidential directives that set new intelligence priorities, revised the government's declassification policies, established a policy on the sharing of information collected by satellites and revamped the government's counterintelligence efforts.
According to colleagues, Tenet shares many of Deutch's interests and personal qualities, including a voluble temperament, an animated style of speaking and an extraordinary ability to focus intently on the subject at hand. As Deutch said yesterday, "it is fortunate that we were not often emotional at the same time on the same subject, because it would have changed North American weather patterns."
Deutch said he was "spectacularly pleased" by Tenet's nomination and predicted that Tenet "will go down as one of the really great directors." He described his former deputy as a man with "warm good humor" who had "been the single most important guiding light for the Directorate of Operations" in the past two years, and had repeatedly emphasized "high standards of tradecraft," the term for conducting spy operations without detection.
Deutch also recounted an incident in which Tenet approached him quietly in his office during a meeting with some foreign dignitaries and asked if the guests could be ushered out so he could pass along an important secret message. The message, Tenet said once the room was cleared, was that Deutch had forgotten to raise the fly on his trousers. "It was at that moment that I knew I had a uniquely loyal deputy," Deutch said.
While Deutch chose on several occasions to criticize the performance of CIA officers -- in effect flogging them publicly to mend their ways -- Tenet's style has been to level his criticism in private and make only supportive remarks in public. "The job . . . involves leading wonderful people," he told reporters yesterday after Clinton introduced him at the White House. "If confirmed, I will do my level best to provide leadership, stability, and strength of purpose to the fine men and women who serve our nation with such devotion."
But one colleague of Tenet's from his tenure on the Senate intelligence committee from 1987 to 1993 said he "doesn't mind getting in someone's face if they screw up. . . . He won't have difficulty firing people." A former committee chairman, David R. Boren (D-Okla.), agreed yesterday that Tenet has never shied away from passing along bad news that needs to be heard.
"Probably a hundred conversations he had with me started . . . with him saying, `You're not going to want to hear this, but . . .' " Boren said. "Sometimes he would would start with, `I can tell this isn't a good day to tell you this,' and then he'd go ahead. We laughed because he probably got my blood pressure up more than any other staff member." Tenet's devotion to candor is ideal for the top job at the CIA, Boren said.
At the committee, Tenet was responsible for reviewing the budgets of all U.S. intelligence agencies, which together employ roughly 80,000 people. At Boren's request, he was also responsible in 1991 for shepherding the nomination of Gates as CIA director past a gantlet of fierce critics who alleged that Gates had failed to prevent the politicization of intelligence.
At the White House, Tenet was a principal author of PDD-35, a classified presidential directive that set out new priorities for the intelligence community, including providing support to military operations; stopping counterterrorism, counternarcotics and organized crime; and penetrating radical countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"He wrote the intelligence priorities and then went to the agency to see that they were implemented," a White House official said.
As the recipient of a master's degree in international relations from Columbia University and a graduate of Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside, N.Y., Tenet enjoys visiting Manhattan frequently to go to bookstores and delis. He is a passionate fan of basketball at Georgetown University, his undergraduate alma mater. He is also a music fan, and knows the words to songs by Barry White, among other contemporary artists.
When Tenet grew a beard in 1995, he amiably suffered the gibes of senior colleagues who called him "Abdul" or "Carlos," but he also agreed to shave it off at Deutch's request before making a trip to the Middle East. He is married to A. Stephanie Glakas-Tenet and has a son, John Michael. His brother, a fraternal twin, is a cardiologist in Manhasset, N.Y.
© 1997 The Washington Post Company