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Director of CIA Tenet Leaves Agency for Personal Reasons

By David E. Sanger

The New York Times -- George J. Tenet’s surprise departure as director of central intelligence removes from President Bush’s inner circle one of the lightning rods for the criticism that America went to war based on faulty intelligence. But it also keeps Bush exposed to the election-year charge that his White House politicized the work of the intelligence agencies, stretching the data to justify its decision to topple Saddam Hussein and perhaps paying insufficient attention to other threats.

Bush now enters the crucial month leading to the handover of sovereignty in Iraq -- and an election year when fear of a terror strike is already heightened -- without the director of central intelligence with whom he clearly bonded, despite clear tensions. Bush’s decision to elevate Tenet’s deputy for the remainder of the year also means that the big issues of how to reorganize America’s intelligence operations and diagnose what went wrong in the past few years will not be seriously addressed until next year, either by Bush or his successor.

In some ways there was no other solution: White House officials acknowledged Thursday that they did not want a confirmation fight over a new director in such a charged political atmosphere.

But even though the president may be spared the spectacle of more contentious hearings, Thursday’s resignation is unlikely to remove the issue from the campaign, or from voters’ assessments of whether the administration twisted and squeezed imperfect intelligence to sell the war in Iraq as a immediate necessity.

Bush’s presumed opponent, John Kerry, has begun to make that a theme of his campaign, and he called for Tenet’s resignation months ago, along with that of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. The calls for a wider purge are unlikely to be abated. The widespread assumption in Washington was that Bush had persuaded Tenet to stay around until the election. But regardless of whether his reasons for leaving were truly personal, there was little doubt that the next few months were going to be ugly ones for the intelligence director. Three reports are in the pipeline that are expected to be highly critical of the agency’s work before Sept. 11 and before the war in Iraq.

David Boren, an old friend of Tenet’s, said that while Tenet left for personal reasons, “I don’t think he had any desire to see the agency be a political football, either.”

In part that is because Tenet, while well-respected and certainly well-liked, is being increasingly judged as a man who was ultimately overwhelmed by the task of remaking the operations and the culture of the intelligence community. Even Republicans who have backed Bush and his Iraq strategy say that big changes are needed.

“What happened to the weapons of mass destruction is a mystery,” said George Shultz, the former secretary of state and a veteran of past Washington battles over intelligence and how it should be used. “Something happened. Something was missed. And it happened in an agency that clearly has a lot of deep problems.”

At the core of the criticism of Tenet -- and by extension Bush -- are two central arguments. One is that Tenet failed to exercise the proper skepticism about what capabilities Saddam had in hand. But the second, perhaps more damaging one, is that he acquiesced to a White House that wanted a certain type of evidence about Iraq and was surprisingly less concerned about evidence that North Korea and Iran were making far more progress toward nuclear weapons than Saddam was.