WASHINGTON - CIA Director George Tenet, buffeted by controversies over intelligence lapses about suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has resigned. President Bush said Thursday that Tenet was leaving for personal reasons and "I will miss him."
Tenet, 51, informed Bush of his decision in an hour-long White House meeting Wednesday night, and the president announced the news in a hurriedly arranged appearance before television cameras before leaving on a trip to Europe.
Tenet's move came amid new storms over intelligence issues, including an alleged Pentagon leak of highly classified intelligence to Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi politician. At the same time, a federal grand jury is pressing its investigation of the leak of a CIA operative's name, and Bush acknowledged he might be questioned in the case.
The CIA denied that Tenet's resignation was connected with any of the those issues. "Absolutely not," said Mark Mansfield, CIA spokesman.
Tenet addressed CIA employees and said, "It was a personal decision, and had only one basis in fact: the well being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less."
The news caught Washington by surprise. Bush informed his senior staff Thursday morning at an Oval Office meeting that included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. The president told his staff he did not want anyone speculating that Tenet was leaving for anything other than personal reasons, a White House official said.
"He told me he was resigning for personal reasons. I told him I'm sorry he's leaving. He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people," the president said at a hurriedly arranged announcement before boarding a helicopter to begin a trip to Europe. Cheney stood outside the Oval Office to watch Bush's announcement and issued a statement later expressing regret that Tenet was leaving. "I have enjoyed working closely with him and believe he's done a superb job on behalf of the nation," Cheney said.
Tenet and Bush had a close relationship. The CIA director came to the White House most mornings to personally brief the president on intelligence matters. At one of those sessions in December, 2002, the CIA listed evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Unsure that Americans would find the information compelling, Bush turned to Tenet. "It's a slam-dunk case," Tenet replied. No weapons have ever been found.
Sen. John Kerry, Bush's likely Democratic opponent in this fall's elections, said Tenet "has worked extremely hard on behalf of our nation."
"There is no question, however, that there have been significant intelligence failures, and the administration has to accept responsibility for those failures," he said.
Tenet will serve until mid-July. Bush said that deputy, John McLaughlin, will temporarily lead America's premier spy agency until a successor is found. Among possible successors is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., a former CIA agent, and McLaughlin.
Tenet had given some consideration to leaving last summer, but decided to stay on. Some close to him believe he wanted to catch al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who remains at large and is believed to be on the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Like many who resign from government, Tenet plans to take time off with his family, and eventually pursue public speaking, teaching, writing or working in the private sector, according to the officials close to him.
"He's been a strong and able leader at the agency. and I will miss him," Bush said of Tenet as he got ready to board Marine One for a trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and on to Europe.
"George Tenet is the kind of public servant you like to work with," the president added. "He's strong, he's resolute. He's served his nation as the director for seven years. He has been a strong and able leader at the agency. He's been a strong leader in the war on terror."
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III praised Tenet. "George has sought at every turn to bridge the gap between the CIA and FBI with one goal in mind - the security of the American public," Mueller said. "Due to his constant efforts to bring the intelligence agencies closer together, we are better able to predict the actions of our adversaries and to protect Americans from evolving transnational threats."
But Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the intelligence community had to be held accountable for its failings.
"Simply put, I think the community is somewhat in denial over the full extent ... of the shortcoming of its work on Iraq and also on 9/11," Roberts, unaware of Tenet's decision, said at a breakfast Thursday, "We need fresh thinking within the community, especially within the Congress, to enable the intelligence community to change and adapt to the dangerous world in which we live."
Tenet had been under fire for months in connection with intelligence failures related to the U.S.-led war against Iraq, specifically assertions the United States made about Saddam Hussein's purported possession of weapons of mass destruction, and with respect to the threat from al-Qaida.
In April, a panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks released statements harshly criticizing the CIA for failing to fully appreciate the threat posed by al-Qaida before the terrorist hijackings. Tenet told the panel the intelligence-gathering flaws exposed by the attacks will take five years to correct.
"I'm surprised," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "I don't think anyone saw it coming. I think we need to know more about the reasons why this surprise announcement came today," the South Dakota Democrat said.
"Mr. Tenet's been under very harsh criticism. I think clearly he's been under great pressure and some criticism. Whether or not that's a factor is not something I can comment on," Daschle said.
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Tenet "restored morale and provided stability and continuity at a crucial time."
"I have been critical of the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMD and ties to terror, as well as failures leading up to the attacks of 9-11," she noted. "With Tenet's departure, the president has the opportunity to fix these problems by transforming the job that Tenet held."
Said Goss: "Just boat loads of stuff have been dumped on him by all kinds of people. He was given the job of rebuilding an agency that had been depleted."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said: "He served his country a long time. History will tell what the implications of his tenure were."
"I think history will tell," the Illinois Republican said when asked how Tenet's performance would be judged. "It's too early to make that snap judgment."
"I think history will either vindicate him or say, 'Hey there was a problem there'," Hastert said.
Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner said he thought Tenet was pushed out.
"I think the president feels he's in enough trouble that he's got to begin to cast some of the blame for the morass that we are in in Iraq to somebody else, and this was one subtle way to do it," said Turner, himself a former CIA director.