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The Nation | THE CIA DIRECTOR RESIGNS

Some See Calculation in Timing of Tenet Decision

His announcement comes before the release of two reports expected to criticize the Bush administration on 9/11, the war in Iraq.

June 04, 2004|Maura Reynolds and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In the nation's capital, scandals often end with a top-ranking resignation. But many say George J. Tenet's decision to step down as CIA director on Thursday is unlikely to quell public rancor over intelligence failures.

Instead, Tenet's resignation intensifies focus on the upcoming release of two reports, one by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the other by the independent Sept. 11 commission, which were expected to be critical of the administration's handling of intelligence in advance of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.

Some said it was no coincidence that Tenet decided to resign shortly before the two reports were to be made public.

"The timing is certainly interesting," said John W. Dean III, former counsel to President Nixon who himself resigned during the Watergate scandal.

Whether President Bush will be damaged by the allegations of shoddy intelligence will depend less on who is CIA director and more on what those reports say.

If they concluded that Tenet was the problem, then his resignation in advance of their release would soften the blow to Bush. But if they were critical of the entire intelligence system and especially of White House leadership, then Tenet's resignation might do little to shelter the president.

"Overall, it probably helps Bush, because it looks like there's change. But it's a change at the margin," said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. "I don't think this will have a big impact on public opinion."

It will be weeks before the full effect of the intelligence reports is felt. Bush loyalists expressed optimism that by that time Tenet may be too obscure a figure to the American public for his downfall to dent Bush's standing.

"There are times when a tree falls that it contributes to a mudslide, which contributes to a calamity," said Rich Bond, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a former aide to President George H.W. Bush. "And another time a tree falls and nobody hears it. This is more the latter."

But Suzanne Garment, author of a book on Washington scandals, said she doubted the issue would dissipate. Instead, she said Tenet's resignation may have served as "blood in the water" to Democrats and other administration critics.

"There will be some people who say the faulty intelligence was a result of pressure from the White House. And for them, it will have more of a blood in the water effect," said Garment, whose husband, Leonard Garment, was a counselor to Nixon.

Jim Jordan, a former presidential campaign manager for John F. Kerry who is spokesman for America Coming Together, a Democratic advocacy group, agreed the resignation could "whet the appetite of critics."

"The one thing we know for sure is that the president himself still refuses to take any personal responsibility for the failures of his administration," Jordan said. "He obviously would be extremely happy to have the buck stop across the river [at the CIA's Virginia headquarters] in Langley."

Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin, who worked for retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark in the presidential primaries, suggested that the longer the questions about shoddy intelligence persisted, the worse it was for Bush.

"For the short term at least, the message that comes across to voters is that things in the Bush administration are unsettled on matters of national security and intelligence," Garin said. "And an area that was supposed to be the strong suit, politically, of this administration is in fact an area where there is turmoil and change and uncertainty."

Bush failed to reap maximum benefit from the way he handled the resignation, Garin said. Instead of acknowledging problems at the CIA when he announced the resignation, he said, Bush lauded the former director.

"Whatever potential there may have been for this to kind of serve as a clean break and a point of demarcation was squandered when the president heaped all sorts of praise on Tenet today," Garin said. "The last impression of Tenet as part of the Bush administration was one of kind of a warm and full embrace."

The question of whether Tenet's resignation will benefit or damage the president also hinges on what Tenet does once he is out of office. Conservatives expressed concern that he might become an administration critic in the pattern of former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke, whose book "Against All Enemies" has fueled the scandal over pre-Sept. 11 intelligence.

"If he's talking, if he's going to be an active critic, it's going to be very bad for the president," said John Fortier, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "If not, [Tenet's resignation] allows Bush to have some benefit, to ease some of the criticism that will come out in the 9/11 report."

Fortier said Tenet's decision to resign suggested that the two reports would contain stiff criticism. If Tenet and Bush thought he could weather the storm, he wouldn't have resigned.

"Doing it ahead of time is better than doing it under duress," Fortier explained. "That would make Bush seem weak, simply bending to public opinion. And for Tenet it would be more humiliating to leave when there are people calling for your head."

In the end, the best news for Bush about Tenet's resignation may be that it came five months before the election. That gives him time to repair whatever damage he may suffer.

"I would tend to think that this would have at best a minimal effect on the election," Bond said. "I don't think people are going to vote against Bush or for Kerry because of George Tenet."

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