A day before the release of a searing congressional report about intelligence failures in Iraq, departing Director George J. Tenet told CIA employees not to be distracted by the criticism.
In a rousing valedictory yesterday before cheering colleagues and friends at CIA headquarters, Tenet defended the embattled organization he has run for seven years. He is at the center of a fierce debate over prewar allegations about Saddam Hussein's forbidden weapons.
"The American people know about your honesty and integrity, of your commitment to truth," Tenet said. Predicting that the public will "recognize and honor" the CIA's overall record, Tenet added, "My only wish is that those whose job it is to help us do better show the same balance and care: in recognizing how far we have come; in recognizing how bold we have been; in recognizing what the full balance sheet says."
This morning, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is to release an extensive report about the intelligence failures preceding the war in Iraq and, according to officials who have seen the report, will portray prewar assertions about Iraq's weapons as almost entirely false. By all accounts, the report will harshly criticize the CIA and its prewar statements -- now largely discredited -- about Iraq's biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs.
Tenet said last month that he is resigning for personal reasons, but the timing is broadly seen as related to the intelligence debacle in Iraq and the campaign season debate about whether the Bush administration exaggerated the case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
By agreement between Republicans and Democrats, today's committee report will not deal with the highly charged subject of whether President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top officials distorted the intelligence while building the case for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This will allow Bush to distance himself from the specious intelligence. Democrats, with the election less than four months away, are determined not to let him off the hook.
Yesterday, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) released an unclassified version of a statement Tenet made in March at a committee hearing in which he dismissed an allegation that Cheney has promoted tying Iraq to al Qaeda.
Asked about the allegation that Sept.11, 2001, hijack leader Mohamed Atta met in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence officer, Tenet said that "we are increasingly skeptical" and that there is no "credible information" that such a meeting occurred. Cheney originally said the meeting was "pretty well confirmed"; as recently as last month, he said "we just don't know" if the meeting occurred.
A spokesman said Cheney's public statements "have reflected the evolving judgment of the intelligence community."
Today's committee report will fault Tenet and the CIA for relying too heavily on circumstantial, outdated intelligence and for the weakness of its human contacts in Iraq. The nearly 500-page document will also say there is no evidence to support the claim that CIA analysts colored their judgment because of perceived or actual political pressure from White House officials.
Tenet yesterday did not address the specifics of the Iraq intelligence. Instead, he spoke about how CIA analysts work "on complex subjects, against short deadlines, with bits and pieces of information." Near the end of a two-hour ceremony during which his tenure was hailed by senior colleagues for raising the agency from the doldrums when he took over in 1997, Tenet said: "We have rebuilt every aspect of our business."
"If people or leaders want to take you back in a different direction," Tenet told agency officials, "then it is your voices that must be heard to say -- we know better and we're not going to put up with it."
"History," Tenet said, "may bring additional perspective, additional clarity, to the current debate on intelligence. But this much is clear right now: Your work is far too important for distractions."
The agency released a transcript of the remarks at the farewell ceremony.
Although a Tenet successor is not expected to be named today, the White House continues to indicate it may propose a replacement in the next few days, which would give the Senate less than two weeks to act before Congress goes into recess.
Among those said to be under consideration is Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, who, as a friend of Tenet's, attended yesterday's ceremony. Armitage, according to two senior Democrats on the intelligence panel, is probably the only Bush appointee who could win bipartisan support at this late date.
According to a senior Bush official, others being considered are deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), a former CIA case officer and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was an early favorite, but Democrats objected to him. Another candidate mentioned in media accounts, former Navy secretary John F. Lehman, is not among those being actively considered, an official said.
At the sendoff, several top agency and administration officials praised Tenet for his work, including his efforts to restore morale at the CIA after the Iran-contra congressional investigations and the Aldrich H. Ames espionage scandal.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made a surprise appearance, telling the audience he wanted to pay his respects to Tenet's "skill, seriousness of purpose" and the job he had done in linking the Defense Department to the intelligence community. Rumsfeld, 72, said if he returns in 25 years to be defense secretary again, as he had done this time, he hopes Tenet "would come back to the CIA."
Staff writer Dana Priest contributed to this report.