Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet, who presided over intelligence failures and successes of historic proportions, said yesterday that he will leave the job, telling CIA employees in a tearful speech that his decision had "only one basis in fact," a desire to spend time with his wife and teenage son.
President Bush named deputy director John E. McLaughlin, a mild-mannered, professorial analyst, as acting director and is not expected to name a successor before the election. James L. Pavitt, the CIA's deputy director of operations, told associates recently that he will leave his position in midsummer, leaving the agency with new leaders at a time of a heightened threat of terrorist attacks during political conventions and the Summer Olympics in Greece.
Current and former intelligence officials described Tenet, a gregarious schmoozer who has held the job for seven years, as being psychologically worn down by the pace of clandestine counterterrorism operations and by the barrage of public criticism over the CIA's inability to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and accurately characterize the threat from Iraq's prewar weapons programs.
Tenet told CIA employees yesterday that he will step down on July 11; he wanted to leave the job more than a year ago, but Bush asked him to stay. Bush has maintained a close, almost chummy working relationship with the director. Yesterday, the president said that Tenet had "done a superb job on behalf of the American people."
"He's been a strong leader in the war on terror, and I will miss him," Bush said.
A senior administration official with firsthand knowledge, however, said that although no one at the White House asked Tenet to leave, nobody asked him to stay, either.
"Relations haven't been good for some time," one former White House official said. "But the friction had achieved an equilibrium where it was a sustainable working relationship, even though it was tense."
White House officials have sought to blame Tenet for leading the president into war based on bad intelligence. But even before the intelligence community had produced its definitive reports on Iraq, Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials were describing the threat from Saddam Hussein in more dramatic and unequivocal terms than the intelligence ever supported.
Tenet's relationship with White House staff members grew tense when he refused to take sole blame for an inaccurate statement about Iraq in the president's State of the Union address in 2003. It worsened after a speech by Tenet at Georgetown University in February, in which he pointed out that the agency had never used the word "imminent" to characterize the threat from Hussein's weapons.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One that Bush met with Tenet in the White House residence for about 45 minutes on Wednesday evening and that Bush had received no notice of Tenet's decision.
Asked if Bush tried to talk Tenet out of his decision, McClellan said, "I think the president understood his reasons for leaving." McClellan replied with a firm "no" when asked if Bush had at any time sent a signal to Tenet that he should spend more time with his family.
The Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), said Tenet had worked "extremely hard on behalf of our nation." Kerry added: "There is no question, however, that there have been significant intelligence failures, and the administration has to accept responsibility for those failures."
Some critics said they believe Tenet was being made the scapegoat for Bush's decision to go to war with Iraq and for the Defense Department's mishandling of the war's aftermath.
"There were clearly errors in our country's intelligence gathering and handling," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). "I hope that he's not taking the fall as a sacrificial lamb."
The criticism of Tenet is only expected to get worse when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence releases its report in mid-June on prewar intelligence on Iraq, said officials who have seen the report.
The report accuses Tenet of failing the president by providing poor analysis and relying on outdated and thinly sourced information to prepare its National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons have been found in Iraq.
The Sept. 11 commission's report is due in mid-July and is expected to be equally harsh on the CIA director.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said yesterday morning that he is disappointed that "almost three years after 9/11, no one has been fired or disciplined." Likewise, "nearly two years after the NIE on Iraq" was written, "no one in intelligence has been fired or disciplined."
Tenet read the Senate report last week, telling an acquaintance, "I'm not going to be chased out by a piece of paper."
But neither did he want to become a focus of the presidential campaign -- either as a target of Democrats' attacks or as a defender of the Bush White House.
Former senator David Boren (D-Okla.), a longtime friend, said Democrats in the campaign will surely bring up a passage in Bob Woodward's new book, "Plan of Attack," in which Tenet is quoted as telling Bush that the evidence that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction amounted to a "slam-dunk case."
Tenet "was not going to talk about conversations with the president, and he did not want to see the agency as a political football," said Boren, who was chairman of the Senate intelligence panel when Tenet was a Senate staff member.
Boren said Tenet had been looking for a time when he could step down. "Each time he started to resign, they would be in the middle of something and the president wanted him to stay on," Boren said. More than avoiding the coming criticism, Boren said, Tenet "wanted to get on with the rest of his life."
The recent crush of criticism of the CIA has virtually drowned out public talk of the agency's successes. They include the assassination or capture of two-thirds of al Qaeda's leadership, the dismantling of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan's black-market nuclear supply network, and pushing Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to end his nuclear weapons programs. There have also been no terrorist attacks in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
Tenet signaled his intention to leave last week, in a meeting with the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Questioned on how he would handle criticism from the Senate inquiry and the Sept. 11 commission, he said: "It's just not going to happen. I'm not worried about it."
Pressed about whether he was about to resign, he quipped, "You must be talking to my wife."
Tenet told associates he had made his decision after vacationing in New Jersey recently with his family. He said he wanted to take his son, John Michael, on college visits, and he choked up in front of CIA employees yesterday when talking about his son, who was in the audience.
His son was in second grade when Tenet was sworn in as deputy director, he told employees, "and he's grown up to be" -- but Tenet got too emotional to finish the sentence. Then he added:
"Anyway, the point is, John Michael is going to be a senior next year. I'm going to be a senior with him in high school. We're going to class together. We're going to party together. I'm going to learn how to instant-message his friends."
On a more serious note, Tenet only briefly acknowledged the agency's troubles.
"Our record is not without flaws," he said. "The world of intelligence is a uniquely human endeavor . . . and 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."
Pavitt, who directs the agency's clandestine operations, has said he will leave his job in the summer as well. He is to be replaced by Stephen Kappes, who spent his career in covert operations before becoming Pavitt's deputy two years ago.
Several Florida lawmakers suggested Bush replace Tenet with Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House intelligence committee and a former CIA case officer, who would have a good chance confirmation. Goss, 65, is retiring after 16 years in the House and said he had not ruled out such an appointment.
Bush kept the secret overnight even from some of his closest aides. No word of the news leaked out until moments before the president made his comments on the South Lawn at 10:26 a.m. as he headed toward his chopper, Marine One.
Bush had conducted a 17-minute media appearance in the Rose Garden with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, and no rumor about Tenet's decision got around the White House until the networks were told to set up microphones because Bush was going to talk on his way to the helicopter.
Tenet has said he would like to go into business, as well as write, lecture and teach at a university after he leaves the CIA job.
Staff writer Mike Allen contributed to this report.