The real surprise about CIA Director George Tenet is not that he resigned after “a personal decision,” he said, for “the well-being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less.” The real surprise is that he was not fired long ago for presiding over two of the biggest intelligence failures in American history.
His CIA first failed to uncover the al-Qaida plot to ram jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. Other Bush administration officials had the excuse that they were on the job only eight months. But Tenet has been in office since 1997, when President Clinton appointed him.
His CIA’s second failure was promoting the false intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. As Bob Woodward’s book “Plan of Attack” revealed, on Dec. 21, 2002, President Bush met with Tenet and top aide John McLaughlin to review the intelligence that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. The president was skeptical and asked, “This the best we’ve got?”
“It’s a slam-dunk case,” Tenet replied.
The result has been the misguided invasion of Iraq, leading to more than 800 American combat deaths so far and several thousand Iraqi casualties, a cost of nearly $200 billion so far, plummeting American prestige around the world and a quagmire from which the United States is having trouble extricating itself.
“When someone (in government) resigns for ‘personal reasons,’ it’s usually that he’s got to go,” said Ivan Eland, senior fellow and director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. The administration was under pressure to get rid of someone and Tenet “presided over several intelligence disasters. But it’s a bait and switch. People are out after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, but he’s central to the policy in Iraq,” Eland said. Bush administration members “don’t want to admit they’ve failed.”
What next? After Tenet leaves on July 11, McLaughlin will direct the agency until a successor is chosen by the president. A successor is unlikely to be chosen until after the November election.
We hope the Bush administration and Congress use the coming months to re-assess the role of not just the CIA, but the entire intelligence community. We long have called for the consolidation and re-organization of the U.S. government’s 15 intelligence agencies, the newest of which is the Department of Homeland Security, set up in panic after the 9/11 attacks.
“The basic problem with the intelligence community is that you have tremendous systems to collect intelligence, but don’t concentrate on human intelligence (agents in the field, a conspicuous failure in Iraq), or on analyzing and disseminating intelligence,” Eland said. “There needs to be structural reform.”
As to the character of the next CIA director, Eland pointed out that Tenet’s major defect was telling politicians what he thought they wanted to hear. Instead, the CIA director should be someone of “independent stature.” The CIA director’s real role is to collect intelligence and give it — straight — to the politicians, especially the president, then let them decide what to do with it.
Let’s hope the next CIA director tackles that task with the utmost seriousness.