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 today.
Bush, who accepted the resignation during an hour-long meeting at the White House last night, lauded Tenet, 51, as a dedicated public servant who has fought hard in the war on terrorism.
"This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make," Tenet told employees today at the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters. "And while Washington and the media will put many different faces on the decision, it was a personal decision and had only one basis in fact: the well-being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less."
Greeted by prolonged applause in a CIA auditorium after an emotional introduction by his deputy, Tenet said he would step down effective July 11, the seventh anniversary of his swearing-in as director of central intelligence (DCI). The CIA released a transcript and videotape of Tenet's remarks.
"I did not make this decision quickly or easily," Tenet told employees. "But I know in my heart that the time is right to move on to the next phase of our lives. In an organization as vital as this one there is never a good time to leave. There will always be critical work to be done, threats to be dealt with, and challenges that demand every ounce of energy that a DCI can muster."
He said he was leaving "with sadness, but with my head held very, very high."
As he spoke of his desire to spend more time with his wife and teenaged son, who were in the audience, Tenet became emotional, choking back tears. He said his son, John Michael, is going to be a high school senior next year, "and I'm going to be a senior with him. . . ." Then he drew laughter when he said: "I'm going to learn how to instant-message all of his friends. That would be an achievement!"
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.
"He told me he was resigning for personal reasons," Bush said. "I told him I'm sorry he's leaving. He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people."
Speaking to reporters briefly before leaving on a trip to Europe, Bush said Tenet would give way in July to the current CIA deputy director, John E. McLaughlin, who will take over as acting director. Bush did not indicate who would be Tenet's permanent successor.
"George Tenet is the kind of public servant you like to work with," Bush said. "He's strong, he's resolute, he's served his nation as the director for seven years. . . . He's been a strong leader in the war on terror, and I will miss him."
Bush said he looks forward to working with Tenet until he leaves the agency. McLaughlin, a 32-year veteran of the CIA, has served as deputy director under Tenet since 2000.
Tenet has come under fire in recent months for having assured Bush before last year's invasion of Iraq that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction, a key justification for the decision to go to war.
According to a new book by Bob Woodward, "Plan of Attack," Tenet told Bush before the war that it was a "slam-dunk" that Hussein possessed the banned weapons.
The director also has been grilled on U.S. intelligence failures before the 2001 terrorist attacks by members of Congress and the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission. Some of his inquisitors have charged that clues to the plot could have, if acted upon, led to the disruption of the terrorist plan.
Last month, the Sept. 11 commission sharply criticized the CIA's assessments of the threat posed by al Qaeda, the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden that carried out the attacks. Tenet testified that it would take five years to correct the agency's shortcomings in intelligence gathering, a statement that alarmed some panel members.
In testimony before the commission on April 14, Tenet acknowledged that CIA "made mistakes" in failing to detect the terror plot that left 3,000 people dead. But he denied that the agency did not take the al Qaeda threat seriously.
"We all understood bin Laden's intent to strike the homeland but were unable to translate this knowledge into an effective defense of the country," Tenet testified.
In his remarks to employees today, Tenet also spoke of flaws, but he stressed that the CIA has undergone a major overhaul since the end of the Cold War, and he praised the agency's operatives for averting threats in anonymity. He also thanked Bush, calling him "a great champion for the men and women of U.S. intelligence."
Tenet said he has presided over "a massive transformation of our intelligence capabilities," including a rebuilding of the agency's clandestine service.
Praising the CIA's battle against terrorism, he said, "What you have achieved in this fight against a clever, fanatical enemy around the world -- the cells destroyed, the conspiracies defeated, the innocent lives saved -- will for most Americans be forever unknown and uncounted. But for those privileged to observe these often hidden successes, they will be an unforgettable testament to your dedication and your valor."
Tenet declared: "The Central Intelligence Agency and the American intelligence community are stronger now than they were when I became DCI seven years ago, and they will be stronger tomorrow than they are today. That is not my legacy. It is yours."
He added, "Our record is not without flaws. The world of intelligence is a uniquely human endeavor, and as in all human endeavors we all understand the need to always do better. We are not perfect, but one of our best kept secrets is that we are very, very, very good."
The timing of Tenet's resignation came as a surprise in Washington, and its rationale was greeted with a measure of skepticism.
Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, who served as CIA director during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, said on CNN that he believes Tenet was "pushed out and made a scapegoat." Turner said, "I don't think he [Tenet] would have pulled the plug on President Bush in an election cycle without having been told to do that."
Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to run against Bush in November, said Tenet "has worked extremely hard on behalf of our nation, and we are grateful for his effort."
In a statement, Kerry added: "There is no question, however, that there have been significant intelligence failures, and the administration has to accept responsibility for those failures. Sometimes with change comes opportunity. This is an opportunity for the president to lead. As I've said for some time, we must reshape our intelligence community for the 21st century and create a new position of 'Director of National Intelligence' with real control of all intelligence personnel and budgets."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Tenet "an honorable and decent man who has served his country well in difficult times, and no one should make him a fall guy for anything," the Associated Press reported.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) was noncommittal on Tenet's performance, saying, "History will tell what the implications of his tenure were." He said, "I think history will either vindicate him or say, 'Hey, there was a problem there,'" AP reported.
Before the resignation was announced, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, voiced criticism of the U.S. intelligence community at a meeting with Republican legislators on Capitol Hill this morning.
Roberts said the community is "somewhat in denial" over the full extent of its shortcomings on Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks. "We need fresh thinking within the community, especially within the Congress, to enable the intelligence community to change and adapt to the dangerous world in which we live, and for all of us -- all of us -- to look in the mirror and honestly examine our collective performance over the last decade."
After Tenet's resignation was announced, Roberts and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.V.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a joint statement praising Tenet's "will and tenacity" in modernizing the CIA.
"His tenure at the Central Intelligence Agency provided much-needed stability and leadership to an agency largely adrift," the statement said. "While he steps down during a period of controversy over events leading up [to] the attacks of 9/11 and the quality of intelligence prior to the Iraq War, we should not lose sight of a simple truth: George Tenet has served his country with distinction and honor during difficult and demanding times." The statement said Tenet "will be sorely missed."
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, whose agency has also come under criticism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, praised Tenet for helping "to bridge the gap between the CIA and FBI" to provide greater security to Americans. He said Tenet's efforts have made the United States "better able to predict the actions of our adversaries and to protect Americans form evolving transnational threats."
Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), the Senate minority leader, said he was surprised by the announcement. "I don't think anyone saw it coming," he said, according to AP. "I think we need to know more about the reasons why this surprise announcement came today." Tenet has "been under very harsh criticism" and "great pressure," Daschle said, adding, "Whether or not that's a factor is not something I can comment on."
Tenet was appointed by President Bill Clinton and has served as CIA director since July 1997. He previously was acting director and deputy director of the agency. Before joining the CIA, the Georgetown University graduate worked as staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1988 to 1993, and served on Clinton's National Security Council staff from 1993 to 1995.
Staff writers Dana Priest, Mark Stencel and Fred Barbash contributed to this report.