The CIA director, George Tenet, is resigning "for personal reasons" and "for the well-being of my wonderful family." And for several other reasons, no doubt.
The departure of Tenet is way, way overdue, but ill-timed nonetheless. Because of election-year politics, it is unlikely that the CIA will get a chief with full authority to take the U.S. intelligence establishment in a new direction until next year. Keep in mind that the director of central intelligence does more than run the big spy shop in Langley. He also, at least nominally, oversees the budgets secret of course of the entire U.S. spookery operation and helps set priorities and coordinate activities among the CIA, NSA, NRO, DIA and so on through the alphabet soup of spydom. Even in normal times, nine months or so is a very long time to leave this assemblage rudderless under a caretaker administration. In the unstable world we know today, it is an eon.
Tenet is widely viewed as both a consumate bureaucrat and a nice guy, but his record over the last four years is not one you'd want to add to a resume. Though it is unfair to blame all the failings of U.S. intelligence on him alone, he is the responsible official. On Tenet's watch:
-- The U.S. intelligence community was blindsided by al-Qaida's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. Among the problems: the CIA didnt share information on terror suspects with other agencies.
-- It's been widely reported that the Bush administration cooked intelligence to make the best possible case that Saddam Hussein was harboring stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the Iraq war. But they probably needn't have bothered. Tenet, according to Bob Woodward's new book, told Bush on the eve of war, "Don't worry, it's a slam dunk," that Saddam had the weapons. If he did, they've never been found.
-- Now there's the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse mess and the no doubt significant role intelligence agencies played in creating it.
The 9/11 attacks and the intelligence community's cluelessness on Saddam's WMDs are arguably the worst intelligence failures since Pearl Harbor. The bipartisan commission investigating 9/11 is going to be doing some finger-pointing in the CIA's direction when it releases its final report this summer. So is the Senate Intelligence Committee. And the Abu Ghraib and other investigations of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan no doubt will provide still further bad news for Tenet. So it was time for Tenet to go, even if the timing was, paradoxically, bad.
Who might be next? We have no idea, but let's read some tea leaves:
"He told me he's leaving for personal reasons. I told him I was sorry he was leaving. He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people."
-- President Bush, today, on Tenet's resignation
"You are doing a superb job. You are a strong secretary of defense, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude."
-- President Bush to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke
Rumsfeld likely will be around through election day, though. But I do have one small question: what does it take to do less than a superb job in this administration?
Note: Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser has been answering Tenet questions online.
The Post also has a collection of video clips of Tenet testimony before congressional committees and the 9/11 commission here.