GEORGE J. TENET, who will be remembered in part for his skill in the tradecraft of Washington, made a relatively artful departure yesterday from the position of CIA director. For months, Mr. Tenet has faced mounting demands that he accept accountability for the agency's failures in assessing the threat of al Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001, and in estimating Iraq's capacity in weapons of mass destruction. Calls for his resignation seemed sure to escalate in the coming weeks, with the release of reports by the Sept. 11 commission and the Senate intelligence committee that are expected to be highly critical.
Mr. Tenet partly preempted the brewing storm by announcing that he was resigning, and only for personal reasons. In a stroke, he deflected some of the heat from himself, the agency to which he has been so dedicated and President Bush, who himself is refusing to acknowledge mistakes on al Qaeda and Iraq. Predictably, Mr. Bush gave no hint that he has anything to regret about the intelligence chief who told him the case on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was "a slam dunk"; instead, the president praised Mr. Tenet for "a superb job on behalf of the American people." It's doubtful that historians will render the same verdict, but Mr. Tenet has at least mitigated the appearance of a departure under fire.
It's not that a shamed resignation was entirely called for. In the course of seven years at the head of the CIA -- the second-longest tenure in history -- Mr. Tenet did much to improve the agency and the overall capacity of U.S. intelligence. He inherited an underfunded, directionless and demoralized organization; by most accounts, he greatly improved training and recruitment, obtained new resources, and refocused on fighting terrorism. Mr. Tenet recognized the threat posed by Osama bin Laden before Sept. 11, although the CIA, like the rest of the bureaucracy, did not respond with sufficient aggressiveness. Agency operatives played a major role in the successful campaign to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and in the exposure of the rogue nuclear programs of Libya and Pakistan.
Yet Mr. Tenet's agency mishandled Iraq in ways that undoubtedly will shadow his legacy and may undo some of his success. While there is no proof that CIA reports on Saddam Hussein's weapons were falsified to please Bush administration hawks, the available facts suggest that crucial parts of them were, as postwar arms inspector David Kay put it, "almost all wrong." After months of prickly defensiveness, Mr. Tenet barely acknowledged that reality in a single speech last February; like the administration he serves, he has never fully accepted responsibility for what will surely be remembered as one of the most significant intelligence failures in U.S. history. The ongoing damage of that failure is only compounded by the conspicuous absence of accountability. Yes, Mr. Tenet is going, but Mr. Bush has yet to face up to the reasons why his departure was inevitable.