Monday, February 2, 2004

Accusations that U.S. intelligence agencies were wrong about Iraq’s illegal weapons programs are fueling speculation that CIA Director George J. Tenet will step down in coming months.

“Director Tenet serves at the pleasure of the president,” said a U.S. intelligence official yesterday when asked whether the CIA chief would resign. The official declined further comment.

However, a U.S. official said Mr. Tenet has no immediate plans to leave the Virginia-based agency that has some 8,000 employees, most of them intelligence analysts.

Democratic presidential contender Sen. John Kerry’s recent demand that Mr. Tenet quit “makes it all the less likely he will,” the U.S. official said.

Officials said they do not expect Mr. Tenet, now in his ninth year at the CIA, to leave before the November elections, as such a resignation would provide political fuel to Democratic critics.

Mr. Tenet, a Democrat, is one of the longest-serving agency directors. He has held the post since 1997 and served two years before that as deputy CIA director and National Security Council intelligence director in the Clinton administration.

The CIA director has escaped criticism from the person who matters most: President Bush.

“He has great confidence in Director Tenet,” White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday.

Asked why former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was sacked over a weak economy but Mr. Tenet stays on despite charges of providing bad intelligence, Mr. McClellan answered: “The intelligence that you were talking about related to Iraq, was intelligence that was shared by agencies around the world. It was intelligence that was shared by the United Nations. It was Saddam Hussein’s choice to continue to defy the international community. He was given every opportunity, including one final opportunity, to come clean.”

The president has not directly backed Mr. Tenet since the latest charges of an intelligence failure on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Last week, Mr. Bush said he had “great confidence in our intelligence community,” but did not mention Mr. Tenet by name.

The latest intelligence failure was highlighted by David Kay, formerly the top CIA official for the Iraq Survey Group. Mr. Kay declared last week that Iraq had no large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, contrary to prewar assessments by the CIA.

The White House said Sunday it would support the creation of an independent commission to examine U.S. intelligence, an idea it had initially resisted.

Mr. Tenet has been CIA director through a string of intelligence failures, notably the September 11 attacks that killed about 3,000 people.

A congressional inquiry into September 11 concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies did not coordinate their findings on al Qaeda terrorists, and as a result missed signs of the plot by 19 hijackers to fly jets into buildings.

The CIA was also blamed for allowing tainted intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear program to be included in a presidential speech in 2003.

Mr. Tenet was also criticized for the terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998 and the 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen.

In 1999, the CIA provided the military with faulty targeting data that led to the mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

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