Retiring CIA Director George J. Tenet had a mixed record of failure and success during his nine years at the agency, including the major intelligence failure surrounding the September 11 attacks and lapses in assessing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Tenet, who resigned yesterday, has been a target of critics both in and out of government who say that he was in the post too long and that a new CIA chief could lead the Bush administration’s global war on terrorism better.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican and former chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said yesterday that Mr. Tenet’s departure was “long overdue.”
“There were more failures of intelligence on his watch as director of the CIA than any other [director of central intelligence] in our history,” Mr. Shelby said.
Mr. Shelby said the resignation is an opportunity to appoint new leadership that can carry out needed structural reforms within the 14-agency intelligence community and to improve intelligence-sharing.
An intelligence official said Mr. Tenet’s key successes were the CIA’s support for the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dismantling of Libya’s weapons programs and his role as negotiator of the Middle East peace process from 1998 to 2001.
“Tenet has much to be proud of. … He restored morale and provided stability and continuity at a crucial time,” said California Rep. Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Mr. Tenet, the highest-ranking holdover from President Clinton’s administration, came under sharp criticism in recent months over the CIA’s inaccurate assessments of Iraq’s hidden stocks of chemical, biological and nuclear arms and equipment. The assessments were a key factor in going to war in Iraq.
Asked in March whether he planned to resign, Mr. Tenet quipped as he left a contentious Senate hearing, “And miss all this fun?”
Mr. Tenet cited his desire to spend more time with his family when announcing his resignation yesterday.
Bush administration officials said President Bush had grown close to Mr. Tenet during the past four years and kept him on, in part, at the suggestion of his father, former President George Bush. The elder Mr. Bush was a former CIA director and a supporter of Mr. Tenet.
Mr. Tenet’s stewardship of the CIA has been marked by numerous intelligence failures. They include:
The CIA’s failure to track and stop the al Qaeda terrorists who carried out the September 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. The airline-missile strikes killed about 3,000 people.
Investigations into the attacks found that the CIA failed to share information with other agencies and was unable to piece together a comprehensive picture of al Qaeda and penetrate its operations. No U.S. intelligence or law-enforcement official was disciplined or fired as a result of the September 11 attacks.
CIA assessments of Iraq’s hidden stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and equipment were wrong. Since U.S. military forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime in March 2003, no large stockpiles of weapons have been uncovered.
A congressional staff report on the September 11 attacks revealed that the CIA had not dispatched any officers to Afghanistan before September 11, 2001, despite the fact that al Qaeda was running nearly two dozen terrorist training camps there and Osama bin Laden, the group’s leader, was operating freely.
CIA covert action paramilitary operations declined under Mr. Tenet before the September 11 attacks. The capability had to be rapidly rebuilt using U.S. military special operations commandos and contractor employees.
The CIA failed to foil terrorist attacks against a U.S. military residence in Saudi Arabia in 1996, U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the destroyer USS Cole in 2000, despite setting up a CIA station in 1997 dedicated to battling bin Laden and his group.
Within the agency, critics opposed Mr. Tenet’s appointment as director in 1997 after two years as the deputy director. A group of intelligence officers stated anonymously in a letter obtained by The Washington Times that Mr. Tenet was risk-averse and was the wrong man to head the agency.
The officers stated that while deputy CIA director, Mr. Tenet had halted a secret intelligence operation at the request of a U.S. ambassador. The officers stated that if Iranian intelligence operatives “kill someone in Europe, [Mr. Tenet] will be to blame.”
The officers also said Mr. Tenet withheld terrorism threat information from military commanders and diplomats.
A former congressional staff member with no professional intelligence training, Mr. Tenet got his start in the spy business as the staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee from 1988 to 1993.
The post gave him access to the most secret U.S. intelligence operations program and allowed Mr. Tenet, the son of a Greek-American restaurateur, to make the switch from Congress to the cloistered world of the intelligence community.
Mr. Tenet said in a speech to agency employees yesterday that he is proud of leading “a massive transformation” of U.S. intelligence capabilities while director.
“We have expanded and empowered our corps of analysts,” he said. “We have restructured and streamlined our support operations. We have developed and acquired the technologies on which intelligence and espionage depend.”
Other officials have said the agency has made little progress in revamping its analytic arm or its operational components. The CIA today remains fundamentally the same as it did during the Cold War, when the focus was on the Soviet Union and its clients.
Mr. Tenet also took credit for Libya’s agreement in December to dismantle its nuclear program. However, that operation was initiated by British intelligence, with the support of the CIA, U.S. officials said.