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CIA Chief Tenet Has Some Explaining to Do

With doubts about the effectiveness of the spy agencies before 9/11, congressional investigators are due to quiz the director today.

October 17, 2002|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- A few months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year, CIA Director George J. Tenet offered some words of wisdom to the graduating class at Langley High School, a short distance from the agency's headquarters in Virginia.

"Bear down, persevere," he said. "I never had a plan in life beyond doing the best that I could do in the job that I had. Somehow, by doing that, the future took care of itself."

More than a year later, the questions are whether the best Tenet could do was good enough, and whether a man with such faith in the future can navigate an increasingly perilous present.

Tenet is due to appear on Capitol Hill today before congressional investigators increasingly convinced that Sept. 11 was a monumental intelligence failure.

He is being whipsawed by the politics of a looming war with Iraq, with some of his agency's assessments seemingly at odds with the White House's.

And after more than a year devoted to destroying Al Qaeda, the terrorist network is resurgent, linked to a flurry of deadly new strikes stretching from Yemen to Indonesia.

During his nearly six years on the job, Tenet has survived everything from an administration change to assassination plots, and there is reason to think he will survive these latest troubles.

He remains close to President Bush, popular with agency employees and on firm footing with key lawmakers, thanks to political savvy and a disheveled but direct style that even many of his critics find likable.

To be sure, Tenet and congressional investigators have battled over agency cooperation with the probe, and Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the panel's final report could contain criticism of Tenet.

But Graham and Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, both said one thing they won't do is call for Tenet's removal. Said Goss, "I think he's doing a fine job."

There have been persistent rumors in recent weeks on Capitol Hill and among agency employees that Tenet intends to step down early next year. But a senior CIA official brushed those rumors aside.

"People have been predicting he's going to be stepping down soon for the last four years," the official said. "I don't think he's going to pass Richard Helms or Allen Dulles, but I'm pretty confident he doesn't know when he'll move on."

That Tenet is even in position to approach the lengthy tenures of such CIA legends as Helms and Dulles--who held the job for seven and nine years, respectively--is a testament to his survival instincts.

It is all the more remarkable given that Tenet was never anyone's first choice to be CIA director in the first place, and was widely expected to be pushed aside by President Bush after the 2000 election.

But even with a five-year track record, intelligence experts say Tenet's legacy is very much a work in progress.

"It's impossible to judge him now," said Thomas Powers, a frequent writer on intelligence issues. "We don't know how [the war on terrorism] is going to turn out and we don't know much about what he's done until the present."

Tenet, 49, has had undisputed successes.

Well before Sept. 11, he brought stability and energy to a once-demoralized agency, rebuilding the CIA's depleted clandestine service and giving the agency renewed purpose after the end of the Cold War.

But Tenet's tenure has been marred by a series of intelligence breakdowns and seeming helplessness against Osama bin Laden.

The litany includes Al Qaeda's 1998 bombing of American embassies in Africa and the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in 2000. There was also the failure to predict India's nuclear tests in 1998, and the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

To critics, Sept. 11 was not an isolated catastrophe but the culmination of a string of failures for which Tenet should be held accountable.

"When a ship runs aground that many times, the captain should step down," said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Tenet declined interview requests. In his few public statements since the attacks, he has stressed that the agency has had successes against Al Qaeda that the public may never know about because of their clandestine nature.

In interviews, dozens of current and former colleagues portrayed Tenet as a gruff, garrulous man who is easy to underestimate and hard not to like.

With little concern for protocol, he will grab senators or foreign dignitaries by the elbow to emphasize a point. And he salts his briefings with swear words.

His easy manner and agile mind have impressed a string of powerful figures, including President Bush. Some see a preoccupation with pleasing his bosses and a reluctance to take uncomfortable stands.

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