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U.S.: Few Surprised By Resignation Of U.S. CIA Chief

  • Andrew Tully

The sudden resignation of George Tenet, the head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, has prompted speculation his departure might be tied to allegations that Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi passed U.S. secrets to Iran. But analysts say Tenet was already on shaky ground because of intelligence failures surrounding the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States and the war in Iraq.

Washington, 4 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- CIA Director George Tenet said in his farewell remarks yesterday, "This is the most difficult decision I've ever had to make, and while Washington and the media will put many different faces on the decision, it was a personal decision and had only one basis in fact -- the well-being of my wonderful family."

Observers are already speculating that family concerns have little to do with Tenet's sudden resignation. They say a likelier explanation lies with continued questions about intelligence failures regarding the 11 September attacks and Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

While admitting shortcomings in the CIA's intelligence-gathering, Tenet has repeatedly defended his agency against critics.

He blames poor coordination between the CIA and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for the failure to prevent the 11 September attacks.

He has also said the CIA never misled the White House on Hussein's weapons arsenal.

More recently, Tenet's agency has once again come under scrutiny in connection with allegations that Ahmad Chalabi passed highly sensitive U.S. information to the Iranian government. If true, the act represents a serious blow to U.S. security.

The Chalabi allegations coincide with Tenet's sudden departure, but some observers say the two things are only loosely related.

Edward Atkeson is a retired U.S. Army general who served in intelligence and at times was given temporary duty at CIA headquarters outside Washington. He said rather than the Chalabi allegations, it was Tenet's reported conviction of Hussein's weapons threat that did his career the most damage.

He cited the moment before the 2003 Iraq war when Tenet reportedly told George W. Bush the case against Hussein was a "slam dunk" -- or absolute certainty.

"The CIA, as an institution, has been anti-Chalabi for quite some time." Atkeson said. "But there are other things [that have damaged Tenet's effectiveness], such as the 'slam-dunk' remarks he made trying to persuade the president to get into the war, and so forth."

Atkeson said that he himself, as a retired intelligence officer, is not sorry to see Tenet go, but not because of intelligence failures, which he describes as an inevitable aspect of the craft of spying. Instead, he objects to what he considers Tenet's poor judgment in eliminating the CIA's "senior review panel."

According to Atkeson, this panel usually consisted of a retired diplomat, a retired general, and a retired scientist. It served much the same function at the CIA as an editorial board does at a newspaper: to ensure that all the material in the national intelligence estimates is well-sourced and therefore reliable.

National intelligence estimates are the documents that serve as the basis for the president's periodic intelligence briefings. The job of the senior review panel, Atkeson said, is to make sure the president's decisions are based on reliable information.

"They would catch things that you hadn't thought about," Atkeson said. "And then when you do away with a safety catch like that, the chances of getting misinformation and misdirected ideas into [intelligence] estimates is just a greater risk."

In fact, presidential decision-making is at the center of Tenet's departure, according to Kenneth Allard, a retired U.S. Army colonel who also served as an intelligence officer. He told RFE/RL that until now, no one in the Bush administration has, in his words, "paid the price" for 11 September or intelligence failures about Iraq.

Allard said he believes Tenet was sincere when he said the CIA did not mislead the White House about Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons. Instead, he said, the White House interpreted the intelligence in a way that suited its goals in Iraq.

"These decision-makers saw the intelligence that they wanted to see," said Allard. "I think that in some cases, the intelligence was bad, it was missing, it was contradictory, but they saw what they wanted to see."

Allard recalled 1968, when U.S. President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election because of growing opposition to the war in Vietnam -- a war that he decided to escalate. He said Johnson realized that even though that decision was based on bad advice, the decision was his alone.

According to Allard, Bush essentially fired Tenet. He said there is no one who can fire Bush, except the American people if they feel, as a growing number of Americans did with respect to Johnson in 1968, that he made the wrong decisions about the war.

"The basis on which [Bush] did it [went to war in Iraq] may have been imperfect; but it was his decision to make, and the people will ultimately hold him accountable for what he did," Allard said.
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