The abrupt resignation of Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet adds new grist to Washington's rumor mills,
already churning at warp speed due to the ongoing prisoner-abuse scandal in
Iraq and reports that the Bush administration's favorite in Baghdad turned over
critical information to Iran.
Tenet, who also served for seven years as the director of central intelligence
(DCI) – a post that theoretically oversees all of Washington's 16 intelligence
agencies – was pushed or decided to resign of his own accord is the question
of the day. And, if he was pushed, why now, just five months before the presidential
In a speech to CIA employees at the agency's headquarters outside Washington,
Tenet insisted Thursday his decision was based exclusively on the "well-being
of my wonderful family – nothing more, nothing less."
That was echoed by Bush himself, albeit in rather curious circumstances. Just
a few minutes after a routine photo opportunity on the White House lawn with
visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the president reappeared before
reporters to say Tenet had informed him of his decision to leave "for personal
reasons" Wednesday evening.
"I told him I'm sorry he's leaving," Bush, who appears to have had an unusually
warm relationship with Tenet and had long resisted right-wing pressure to fire
him, said haltingly. "He's been a strong leader in the war on terror, and I
will miss him." As has become customary, Bush took no questions and simply walked
But, as Tenet himself anticipated in his farewell, some observers suggested
his decision may not have been entirely voluntary and could, in fact, mark the
first of a series of high-level administration departures over the coming weeks
as Bush's re-election campaign struggles to persuade voters to forget about
setbacks in Iraq.
"I think he's being pushed out," said former CIA Director Stansfield Turner
in an interview on CNN. "The president feels he has to have someone to blame."
"They want to use him as a scapegoat for everything that's gone wrong," one
congressional aide told IPS. "But I don't think that's going to work. While
the CIA obviously fell down in major ways, everyone knows by now that the Pentagon
has been at the heart of this whole mess."
Even as Tenet was bidding good-bye, reports that the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) has begun interviewing – in some cases with lie detectors – senior Pentagon
civilians close to former Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi to determine who told him
that U.S. intelligence had broken the codes Tehran uses to communicate with
its spies dominated newspaper headlines.
Those reports came in the wake of a New York Times article Wednesday
that said Chalabi had informed Iran's top operative in Baghdad the codes had
What with the administration deeply concerned about Iran's nuclear program,
as well as its ability to disrupt Washington's efforts to stabilize neighboring
Iraq, the information is considered a major security breach. Two weeks ago,
Chalabi's own residence and headquarters were raided by Iraqi police and U.S.
agents and a $340,000 monthly stipend that his group, the Iraqi National Congress
(INC), had been receiving from the Pentagon for intelligence-gathering was cut
Chalabi, who has heatedly denied the allegations, has blamed the report on
the CIA which, after backing the INC with millions of dollars in covert assistance
in the early 1990s, broke with him after an aborted coup d'etat launched by
a rival exile group headed by Iyad Allawi, who last weekend was selected as
Iraq's new prime minister.
Allawi's emergence at the top was seen as a decisive victory of the CIA and
State Department over their neoconservative rivals at the Pentagon and Vice
President Dick Cheney's office, who have championed Chalabi since 1998.
In recent days, Chalabi has lashed out against Tenet personally, accusing him
of concocting the charges against him.
Asked about Tenet's sudden resignation, Chalabi repeated those accusations,
telling reporters that the CIA director's role in developing U.S.-Iraq policy
has "not been helpful to say the least." Tenet, he added, had provided "erroneous
information about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to President Bush, which
caused the government much embarrassment at the United Nations and his own country."
The latter charge appeared particularly ironic in view of the growing consensus,
both in the administration and in Congress, that "defectors" provided by Chalabi's
INC were the most important source of faulty – and, in some cases, apparently
fabricated – reports of Baghdad's pre-war WMD programs.
While the CIA and other intelligence agencies were skeptical of many of these
reports, they were fed directly into the White House via Chalabi's backers in
the Pentagon and Cheney's office, according to numerous published reports.
Nonetheless, in at least one case, Chalabi's charge about Tenet's own role
in faulty WMD evidence appears to have been correct. According to journalist
Bob Woodward's new book, Plan
of Attack, a critical moment in the run-up to the war occurred when
Bush himself expressed doubt that the public would be persuaded by the CIA's
evidence of the threat posed by Iraq's WMD.
"From the end of one of the couches in the Oval office, Tenet rose up, threw
his arms in the air. 'It's a slam-dunk case!' the DCI said," Woodward reported,
adding that Tenet repeated the phrase a second time when Bush asked whether
he was confident about the evidence.
That account, on which Tenet has not commented, has proved very damaging to
his position among war critics, particularly moderate Republican and Democratic
lawmakers, who until then had seen him as a restraining influence on Bush during
the run-up to the war.
Indeed, Tenet's loss of support from the war skeptics, as well as ongoing scandals
around the performance of the CIA and even its use of interrogation techniques
that amounted to torture and resulted in at least one death during the "war
on terrorism," may have played a decisive role in his decision to resign now.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are very angry at recent CIA delays in
clearing a pending report on the intelligence community's performance before
the war, which is itself expected to be strongly critical of Tenet. The commission
established to investigate the causes of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York
and Washington is expected to be similarly critical.
In addition, Tenet, who has talked to friends about wanting to leave the agency
for at least two years, had become a lightning rod for anger by Republican right-wingers
in Congress and neoconservatives, who have long agitated for his removal in
part because of his status as the highest-ranking holdover from the administration
of former President Bill Clinton.
"By leaving now, Tenet will be depriving them of a highly visible target,"
said the Capitol Hill aide. "I'm sure people at the CIA appreciate that, because
they don't like being in the middle of a highly-charged political debate."
Another hint that it was Tenet himself who decided to leave now was suggested
by the fact that his resignation will not take effect until July 11, the seventh
anniversary of his swearing in. The timing bolsters the notion that he is leaving
on his own terms, while Bush's failure to announce a successor, in the eyes
of some analysts, indicates the White House was caught unawares by Tenet's departure.
For now his successor will be John McLaughlin, the current deputy director
of the CIA and a career intelligence officer who is generally well respected
Whether Bush will retain McLaughlin through the November elections or make
a political appointment will be a critical decision. It was widely rumored six
months ago, when Tenet last indicated he wanted to leave, that Deputy Defense
Secretary Paul Wolfowitz would be moved to CIA, but Washington insiders now
say that Wolfowitz, the administration's highest-ranking neoconservative and
Chalabi's most effective champion, would not survive Senate confirmation hearings.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has also expressed interest in the
job in the past, but, as an unconditional ally and friend of Secretary of State
Colin Powell, he would be a major target of right-wing Republican hawks and
neoconservatives, to the extent the latter retain much influence in the White
If Bush were to decide not to stick with McLaughlin, the likeliest candidate
is the head of the Intelligence Committee in the House of Representatives, Porter
Goss of Florida. While a Republican loyalist, Goss, a former CIA officer himself,
has had generally good relations with Democratic colleagues and is not considered