The White House-sanctioned photos said it all: George Tenet with President Bush at Camp David as the Afghanistan war began. George Tenet seated behind Secretary of State Colin L. Powell at the U.N. briefing on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. George Tenet leaning across the president's desk addressing Vice President Cheney the day the Iraq war kicked off.
The message: After years of obscurity, the CIA was back, and at the center of the major White House decisions on foreign operations.
Of all the challenges that face Tenet's successor, John E. McLaughlin, when he steps into the job July 11, preserving the CIA's status at the White House and among world leaders will be among the toughest.
McLaughlin's tricky political task will be "to hold on" to the agency's voice at the White House during a tenure expected to last at least through the fall election, said one senior U.S. intelligence official.
His understated personality and his career as an analyst signal to many administration officials and current and former intelligence personnel that the CIA's role is in danger of being marginalized within the context of such domineering personalities as Cheney, Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "He'll be seen as a colonel analyst" rather than a combat general, predicted one former senior intelligence official.
"George Tenet was one of those very few individuals in Washington who could sit at a table with Condi Rice and Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld and be viewed as a peer," a former senior administration official said. "No disrespect to Mr. McLaughlin, but that's a very small list of people who can do that, and he's not on it."
Complicating McLaughlin's prospects as the new acting director of central intelligence is another factor:
Although he keeps a low profile, McLaughlin was more substantively involved than Tenet in the problems that led to the writing of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq -- the official prewar assessment of the Iraq threat -- that was based on faulty, outdated and poorly sourced intelligence.
One former official said that McLaughlin is blamed in the West Wing for having signed off on the allegation in Bush's State of the Union address that Iraq had sought to acquire "yellowcake" uranium from Africa. Tenet said he had not approved the passage, but White House officials said McLaughlin did.
"That is going to color the relationship, not with the president, but with Condi and [Rice's deputy, Stephen J.] Hadley and Andy Card and the vice president's office," said the former official who, like several other current and former officials, would share candid views of McLaughlin's prospects only anonymously.
McLaughlin also has done much of the classified briefing for Congress that Tenet otherwise would have done, aides said. Members of Congress have not forgotten that.
"There is no way he can say, 'I'm not part of the problem,' " said the former senior intelligence official, who knows McLaughlin well.
Aside from the Washington calculations that shape foreign policy and direct billions of dollars toward one program or another are the worldly demands that ultimately so stressed Tenet that he finally decided to leave.
McLaughlin will take over in the middle of a year that counterterrorism experts believe could prove one of the most dangerous for U.S. interests, as intelligence reporting shows al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are preparing to launch attacks against large, symbolic gatherings of Americans, such as the Democratic and Republican party conventions, this week's Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Ga., and the Olympics in Greece.
McLaughlin, who has helped Tenet make life-and-death decisions about operations during the daily 5 p.m. Counterterrorism Center meetings, is known as unflappable under stress, even though he is relatively new to the clandestine operations side of the agency.
Part of the agency's success in foreign counterterrorism operations has come from its newly robust relationship with foreign intelligence services. The CIA has lavished top-level attention and hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment and cash to win the foreign services' cooperation. Tenet was part of the campaign, and over the years, he developed close ties with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.
To pave the road for McLaughlin, who has met many of these same men, Tenet made a round of calls after his announced resignation Thursday, touting his confidence in McLaughlin, whom he described as his "alter ego," according to a senior intelligence official with knowledge of the calls.
Within the intelligence community, McLaughlin will also be responsible for continuing to strengthen the clandestine and analytical departments and to help facilitate the still-bumpy, but newly invigorated working relationship with the FBI. Unlike Tenet, who had trouble before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, persuading the White House and Congress to give the intelligence community more funds, McLaughlin's task will be to make sure the subsequent huge increases are spent effectively.
And at a time of unprecedented recruiting for new CIA case officers and analysts, McLaughlin will be expected to defend the agency's reputation and morale during the coming onslaught of criticism from two congressional reports and the Sept. 11 commission. "He will have to go down and defend it," the former senior intelligence official said. "John is so nice, I worry about him. You've got to be able to push back, make people unhappy. He needs a sharper edge."
At the heart of Tenet's power was his relationship with Bush, who cottoned immediately to the CIA director and his charismatic personality.
McLaughlin -- with his calm, controlled style -- has a professional and somewhat more conventional relationship with Bush. According to White House records, Bush had never uttered McLaughlin's name in public until he announced him as Tenet's successor Thursday morning .
A senior administration official who has attended classified briefings with both Tenet and McLaughlin said the stylistic differences will mean a different morning experience for Bush, who sees the CIA director after Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.
The change may be jarring in such a stressful period. "Tenet is ethnic, charming, a hail fellow well met," said a senior administration official. "This guy is inward, self-contained, analytical."
But this official pointed out that Bush has developed bonds with aides whose style is very different from his own, citing the academic mien of his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and the scholarly reserve of his chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson.
"The president may have less fun, but that doesn't mean he can't develop a different but prosperous relationship," the official said.
McLaughlin has spent considerable time with Bush discussing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and often briefs the president when Tenet is out of town.
Other former intelligence officials who have worked with McLaughlin said he will carve out his own place within the administration, and it will be as valuable as Tenet's. "John has a seductive quality in his relationship with other people," said Winston P. Wiley, former chief of the CIA's counterterrorism center and deputy director of intelligence. "In some ways it's equally compelling," but different from Tenet's charisma.
"He's more cerebral, it's easier for him to listen," Wiley added. "He's a performing magician, which takes a lot of discipline, and he knows how to read crowds."
In wondering last week whether McLaughlin will maintain Tenet's influential relationship with the White House, former and current intelligence officials lamented the days when then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey was able to wrangle only two semi-private meetings with President Bill Clinton during his two-year tenure.
When a Cessna airplane crashed into the South Lawn in 1994, White House staff members joked that it must be Woolsey trying to get an appointment.
The story has been retold countless times since Tenet announced his resignation Thursday.
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.