Terror Watch: Spooked?

CIA Director George Tenet's sudden resignation caps a turbulent tenure in which some of the spy agency's greatest triumphs--notably, its aggressive response to the September 11 terror attacks--were on the verge of being overshadowed by a series of new disclosures about the intelligence community's faulty warnings about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

CIA officials insisted today that Tenet had been planning to step down for some time and deliberately chose his departure date--July 11--to coincide with the seventh anniversary of his inauguration as CIA chief. The CIA director was resigning "for personal reasons" and to spend more time with his family, officials said. But even Tenet's friends and colleagues were caught off guard by the move. One said today that, until recently, Tenet had given consistent signals that he was planning to wait until after the November election before stepping down.

But congressional sources said the timing seemed to be influenced by the impending release of a massive Senate Intelligence Committee report that one official described as a "devastating indictment" of the agency's handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Another report expected next month from the national commission investigating the September 11 attacks is expected to roundly criticize the agency's failure to develop sources inside Al Qaeda and piece together evidence--including information in its files on two of the hijackers--that might have helped uncover the plot.

"This seems to have as much to do with the president's re-election as anything else," says one veteran intelligence community official who has long been close to Tenet. "George is a fighter and it's not in his character to walk away like this. I think he read the tea leaves" that the White House wanted him to leave, the official said.

Bush today praised Tenet, saying "he's done a superb job on behalf of the American people." But the intelligence community official said "the point is the president didn't stop him" from resigning by asking him to stay on.

The CIA had at first bitterly challenged some of the findings in the still-secret Senate report on Iraqi WMD and insisted that the committee hadn't heard the full story. But in recent days, sources tell NEWSWEEK, agency officials told congressional investigators that they were resigned to the report's findings and would no longer contest them. Tenet--who according to Bob Woodward's recent book, "Plan of Attack," once called the agency's case for Saddam's WMD a "slam dunk"--knew that his leadership of the CIA was about to be strongly criticized. "He didn't want to go through this," said one congressional source familiar with the panel's findings. "There was nowhere for [agency officials] to go and [Tenet] was in charge of the whole mess."

Tenet will be succeeded temporarily by his deputy, John McLaughlin, a 32-year veteran of the agency who specialized in European and Russian affairs.

Ironically, some intelligence community insiders say that McLaughlin shares much of the responsibility with Tenet for the Iraqi intelligence failures. According to one intelligence official, McLaughlin strongly supported controversial CIA findings alleging that Saddam Hussein had built a fleet of mobile biological-weapons labs and that Saddam was acquiring large quantities of special aluminum tubes to be used for nuclear weapons--two conclusions that have since been widely discredited.

Tenet has been pressed in recent weeks by Secretary of State Colin Powell to explain how the agency reached its pre-war conclusions. Before his presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, laying out the Bush administration's case against Saddam, Powell had spent days at the CIA reviewing its intelligence and insisted he only wanted to use evidence that was airtight and backed up by multiple sources. To bolster the credibility of the administration's case, Tenet conspicuously sat directly behind Powell during the presentation.

But the Senate report will document how major portions of the Powell's speech--vetted line by line with Tenet and other top CIA officials--turned out to be wrong and much more thinly sourced than the secretary of State had been led to believe, sources said. In the case of the mobile biological-weapons labs--one of the most graphic examples cited by Powell--investigators have found that the story most likely was fabricated by Iraqi defectors who were never adequately vetted by the CIA. The most important source cited by Powell, who was given the codename Curveball, was never even interviewed by the CIA before the speech; investigators only learned later that Curveball was a relative of a top associate of Ahmad Chalabi, controversial leader of the Iraqi National Congress. Chalabi's group also supplied a second informant cited by Powell; unbeknownst to CIA analysts, the Defense Intelligence Agency had already concluded this informant was a "fabricator."

A former congressional and White House aide, Tenet was widely popular on Capitol Hill for years and known for his consummate political skills and his lucid briefings. A Clinton appointee, he quickly ingratiated himself with George W. Bush by presiding over a fall 2000 ceremony renaming CIA headquarters after the president's father, a former CIA director during the Ford administration. The new president quickly bonded with the CIA director--both shared a passion for baseball and muscular talk--and Tenet became the only Clinton appointee who survived as a member of the new Republican president's inner circle.

Although he had been warning for months about an impending Al Qaeda attack, Tenet was at first criticized for failing to uncover the 9/11 plot. But the agency's aggressive response to the attacks--including its pivotal role in the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan--won him widespread praise and made him even more a favorite inside the White House.

Some intelligence community officials insisted today that Tenet has had some recent successes in the internal warfare of Washington. The agency had long supported an Iraqi dissident group called the Iraqi National Accord whose leader, Ayad Alawi, was last week appointed as Iraq's new interim prime minister. Meanwhile, Chalabi--whom the agency had been warring with for years--has found himself under investigation for allegedly supplying highly classified U.S. codebreaking secrets to the Iranian government.