George Tenet Steps Down

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RESIGNING: Tenet testifying before the 9/11 commission in April

CIA Director George Tenet's resignation on Thursday may have preempted bipartisan calls for his head. As TIME reported last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee is preparing a report on the failures of the CIA's prewar intelligence on Iraq that will be so scathing as to undermine Tenet's credibility as an effective Director of Central Intelligence. So, although the second-longest-serving CIA director in history cited personal reasons for his resignation, and went with the blessing of President Bush, his job situation may have become untenable.

Secretary of State Colin Powell had been piling on the pressure in recent weeks, demanding that the CIA be held to account for a number of false statements vetted by the Agency that made it into Powell's United Nations Security Council speech indicting Iraq on Feb. 5, 2003. Tenet, a holdover from the Clinton administration had let it be known that he wanted out of the job after November, but his premature resignation marks him as the highest-profile political casualty thus far of the Iraq war.

According to Bob Woodward's insider account of the decision to go to war, when President Bush had questioned the paucity of hard intelligence on Iraq's unconventional weapons capability, Tenet had told his boss that the WMD case against Iraq was "a slam dunk." But failure to find any such weapons in Iraq after the war led David Kay, the CIA official who led the Iraq Survey Group assigned to find Saddam's banned weapons, to tell Congress that "We were almost all wrong." A bipartisan commission appointed by President Bush into WMD intelligence is due to report early next year.

Tenet also faced questions about his handling of intelligence about al-Qaeda in the months leading up to the 9/11 attacks. As Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a Republican, warned Tenet during the 9/11 commission hearings in April: "There is a train coming down the track. There are going to be very real changes made."

For now, Tenet will be replaced by his deputy, John McLaughlin, but if President Bush is to pick a new Director of Central Intelligence from outside the Agency in the coming months, a leading contender may be Florida Republican congressman Porter Goss. His credentials include service as a CIA operative and as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, where he has helped shield the Bush administration from harsh criticism over Iraq and al-Qaeda. And he has a longstanding friendship with Senator Bob Graham, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee which would have to endorse the nomination. But whether the administration seeks to replace Tenet before the election remains to be seen.

The political effects of Tenet's decision could be double-edged: By falling on his sword, the popular CIA director could insulate the White House from some of the heat generated by the failure to find the WMD evidence that formed the basis of its case for invading Iraq — it could be read as an implicit acceptance of responsibility for providing the President with bad information. On the other hand, his resignation may amplify the electorate's awareness of a major intelligence failure over Iraq, at a time when polls showing growing numbers of Americans beginning to question the administration's handling of the war. To the extent that Tenet is perceived as a political casualty of the decision to invade Iraq, he's unlikely to be the last.