Finally, a Wise Move from Tenet

By leaving before the worst of his missteps are dissected, the CIA chief saved himself and the Administration a lot of embarrassment

By Paul Magnusson

CIA Director George J. Tenet got a lot wrong during his seven years heading up the world's most expensive intelligence agency. He greatly exaggerated Iraq's military capabilities, particularly its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. He failed to anticipate the September 11 plot by al Qaeda to crash hijacked airplanes into buildings in Washington and New York. He missed Pakistan's development of nuclear weapons. But one thing he got right was the timing of his resignation.

Tenet, whose resignation "for personal reasons" was announced on June 3, will be out of his office at the CIA's Langley headquarters by mid-July. That's just before the 9/11 Commission is expected to issue a scathing report on multiple intelligence failures leading up to the 9/11 attacks. If Tenet, the longest-serving CIA director ever, had stayed around, he would have spent the rest of the summer and fall before congressional panels defending the Bush Administration's many missteps on intelligence. There's also another independent panel evaluating intelligence failures that's due to make its recommendations public early next year -- another distraction for whoever heads the CIA in the next six months.


  Consider how unpleasant the hot seat would have been for Tenet: It was the CIA's best guess under Tenet that post-war administration of Iraq would be relatively calm and painless, since Iraqis would greet U.S. forces as liberators rather than conquerors. He would have been pulled into the growing feud between Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge over who is responsible for warnings on terrorism.

Tenet might even have been drawn into the soon-to-conclude investigation of who at the White House leaked to the press that Valerie Plame, wife of former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Joseph Wilson, was a covert CIA officer -- this in an effort to discredit Wilson. Wilson, after all, blew the whistle on the fact that Iraq had not tried to buy uranium from Niger, as Bush had claimed in his 2003 State of the Union message.

Tenet might even have been called upon to explain the latest intelligence blunder: the initial deification, then abrupt turnabout on Ahmed Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi, who had the ear of the CIA and the Pentagon in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, persuaded gullible intelligence officials that the Iraqi army had the capability of deploying chemical weapons within 45 minutes of an attack. Chalabi went from being a trusted intelligence source to a betrayer of secrets -- and a CIA pariah -- almost overnight when, according to U.S. intelligence leaks, he told Iranian government officials that the U.S. had cracked the Iranian diplomatic code.


  Insisting his decision was based on "the well-being of my wonderful family," Tenet put the best face on his resignation. To his son, Michael, an upcoming high-school senior seated in the front row of the CIA auditorium, Tenet said, "You have been a great son, and now I'm going to be a great dad." Tenet said he was leaving office "with head held high," and he praised his dedicated employees: "One of our unique secrets is that we are very, very good," he said. It was an affecting performance at an agency that knows every mistake could be catastrophic.

He will be temporarily replaced by his deputy, John E. McLaughlin, who will likely stay in office well past the election, so that confirmation hearings on a successor won't bring up unpleasant reminders of past blunders. In that sense, Tenet's final timing couldn't be more exquisite.

Magnusson writes about the U.S. intelligence community from BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

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