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Tenet's Victories Outweighed by Failures

June 04, 2004|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When CIA Director George J. Tenet testified in mid-April before the commission investigating the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the keeper of America's secrets revealed a little secret of his own.

"I sit back at night and look at a war in Iraq, a war on terrorism, conflict in Afghanistan and all the things I have to do, and recognize, you know, no single human being can do all these things," Tenet said. "If I've failed or made a mistake, I've been evolutionary in terms of the [intelligence] community. Maybe I should have been more revolutionary."

With the announcement Thursday that Tenet will step down next month, seven years after he took the helm of the CIA and America's 14 other spy agencies, Tenet's account is a fair summation of his troubled tenure.

Even his supporters concede that Tenet's efforts were insufficient. He worked hard to rebuild and rejuvenate America's battered intelligence agencies after their resources were slashed following the end of the Cold War. But his achievements did not meet the new demands of a world riven by stateless groups and faceless enemies practicing terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 06, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Tenet's resignation -- A graphic in Friday's Section A on the resignation of CIA Director George J. Tenet misspelled the name of Lt. Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg as Vandenburg.

Tenet's undeniable successes -- including the CIA's role in the recent disarming of Libya and the dissolving of a nuclear trafficking network -- have been vastly overshadowed by two of the worst intelligence failures in U.S. history: the inability to prevent the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the gross misjudgments of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's illicit weapons.

The CIA now faces such intense criticism that Jami A. Miscik, the deputy director for intelligence, compares it with the worst intelligence scandals of the past. CIA veterans "say they haven't seen anything like it since Vietnam, or since the period in the mid-1970s when the Church committee was investigating the agency," she told agency analysts in February. The committee headed by then-Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) probed allegations that the agency had spied on Americans and had otherwise abused its authority.

Some blame Tenet's overconfident predictions that Hussein's regime had resumed production of chemical, biological and perhaps nuclear weapons. A devoted Georgetown University basketball fan, Tenet even assured President Bush -- twice -- that Iraq's possession of such forbidden arms was a "slam dunk."

" 'Slam dunk' is going to hang with him until the end of his days," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst on Iraq who now teaches at the National Defense University. "That's how people will remember him."

But other problems also have scarred Tenet's tenure.

The CIA failed to foresee India's underground tests of nuclear weapon designs in May 1998, learning about the tests on CNN. And the CIA was responsible a year later when U.S. bombers were given the wrong coordinates and mistakenly struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during NATO's air war against Yugoslavia.

The agency's record on battling terrorism was equally problematic. In the late 1990s, Tenet warned intelligence officials to consider themselves "at war" with Al Qaeda. But subsequent investigations found that few in the broader intelligence community heard the message or viewed the threat with the same urgency.

The CIA never had a spy inside Al Qaeda's high command. And Tenet never ordered a formal intelligence estimate -- a highly vetted, official judgment by the entire intelligence network -- of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Doing so might have exposed what critics have called the CIA's complacency.

"The problem is the failures on his watch were so devastating," Yaphe said. "You can't blame him personally, but it happened on his watch and it revealed endemic problems."

Aides fear that Tenet will face increasing blame after his departure. One longtime enemy, Ahmad Chalabi, is already gloating. CIA officials have accused the former Iraqi politician of leaking highly classified materials to Iran. Chalabi in turn charged Thursday that Tenet provided "erroneous information about weapons of mass destruction to President Bush, which caused the government much embarrassment at the United Nations and his own country," according to a statement released in Washington.

To some, Tenet's sheer survival as America's chief spy was a sign of success.

When President Clinton appointed him to the post in July 1997, Tenet was the fifth director of central intelligence in six years. That churning at the top reflected deeper problems: Budget cuts, outdated equipment and staff departures had left America's intelligence agencies in crisis.

Tenet responded. He expanded the CIA's corps of analysts and clandestine operatives, reopened stations overseas, increased support for foreign espionage and presided over major reforms at agencies that provide electronic intercepts, satellite photos and other forms of high-tech surveillance.

But his accomplishments go beyond budgets and hardware.

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