When three hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing thousands, no one took the fall in the Bush administration.

When the nation went to war in Iraq on the basis of intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be wildly wrong, no one took the fall, either.

So when George J. Tenet resigned as CIA director yesterday, it was no surprise that his departure was choreographed to demonstrate he was not being blamed for any of the intelligence failures that occurred on his watch. The administration line was that he was leaving on his own accord to spend time with his family.

But in official Washington, where every departure of any senior official is searched for hidden meaning and ulterior motives, the question lingered yesterday in the corridors of power and over expense-account meals: Was Tenet finally being served up as a sacrificial lamb by an administration that loathes to admit a mistake?

As with much news that has had Tenet at the center, there was no shortage of spin -- and many competing answers. While defenders accepted the official explanation, those eager to tarnish the administration saw the departure as proof that somebody was finally paying the price for the assorted intelligence failures. Republicans who sensed tension between Tenet and the White House believed his resignation was not unwanted.

Fueling much of the speculation was the fact that Tenet had sought to leave at several points last year, but President Bush had persuaded him to stay, as administration officials told it. Now, when the White House is under severe political pressure and Bush's reelection may be imperiled, the president finally accepted Tenet's resignation.

"To some degree, the White House may be making a craven calculation," said Flynt Leverett, a former CIA and Bush White House official who is now at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "You have calls for accountability, that someone has to lose a job. In a sense, you have an easy way to have someone lose his job -- he wants to quit."

Others noted that Tenet is leaving before reports are issued on intelligence failures that led to the Sept. 11 attacks and the gathering of intelligence about weapons in Iraq. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said that it was "no secret" that Tenet was tired and wanted to leave but that Tenet was also well aware that the reports would soon be issued. But, he added, "I don't think George Tenet should be held responsible or blamed for the intelligence failures of the past two years."

Former CIA director Stansfield Turner told CNN that he was very surprised by the resignation because he thought "the president was not going to acknowledge that there were problems in his own inner circle. I certainly thought that Tenet, being a very loyal type of civil servant, would not walk out on the president in the middle of an election campaign."

Those closest to Tenet tended to discount the more conspiratorial explanations.

"I'm probably the only person in Washington who takes George at face value," said former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, who said he had many phone conversations yesterday speculating on the motives and political impact of Tenet's departure. Berger, who worked closely with Tenet in the Clinton White House, noted that Tenet has been at the center of intelligence decision making for nearly 12 years, either at the CIA or Clinton's National Security Council.

Mark Mansfield, a CIA spokesman, said the critical reports -- by the Senate intelligence panel and by the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks -- had nothing to do with his departure. "It was a personal decision, nothing more, nothing less," he said.

To be sure, many of the CIA's successes are hidden from view, while its failures generate big headlines. Tenet earlier this year offered a firm defense of the agency making exactly that point, focusing in particular on its role in cracking a nuclear smuggling ring operating out of Pakistan.

Tenet's resignation came, moreover, just as the CIA's critical assessment of Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi seemed to be borne out with allegations that Chalabi told Iran that the United States had broken its code for secret communication.

Tenet by all accounts had also forged an unusually close relationship with the president. He was a holdover from the previous administration, but -- unusual in an administration stocked with officials deeply suspicious of anything associated with former president Bill Clinton -- he won Bush's trust and appreciation.

"It's quite extraordinary that George was able to serve two presidents of two parties with such distinct personalities and earn the trust of both of them," said Berger, Clinton's second-term security adviser.

In terms of policy, a new CIA director is not likely to make much difference, since the director's role is to provide information and analysis for policymakers, not to try to influence policy. The interim replacement, Deputy Director John E. McLaughlin, is almost a Tenet clone, a self-effacing career civil servant.

Still, Tenet's resignation signals the beginning of the breakup of a foreign policy team that has taken the country through the Sept. 11 crisis and two wars over the past 31/2 years. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice have made it clear they will depart at the end of the current term, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld appears unlikely to remain in the wake of the prison scandal in Iraq and the many calls for his resignation.

Thus, even if Bush wins reelection, the foreign policy slate largely could be wiped clean in six months.

Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.