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Spy Whose Time Was Over

June 04, 2004

CIA Director George J. Tenet's seven-year tenure spanned sudden geopolitical shifts of the West's enemies even as the agency largely remained in Cold War mode. To his credit, he spoke out about growing terrorist threats from groups rather than states and prodded the Clinton administration to attack Al Qaeda directly. Politics and, some say, budget issues curbed the agency's effectiveness.

Even so, the surprising thing about Tenet's resignation Thursday is that it didn't happen sooner. As Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, observed Thursday: "His resignation was long overdue. There were more failures of intelligence on his watch" than with any other CIA director.

From uncoordinated anti-terror efforts before the Sept. 11 attacks to overconfident estimates of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the CIA flailed. Tenet bowed to White House pressure at the cost of ignoring many of his own analysts. With the federal 9/11 commission's report due out in July, a reportedly scathing Senate report even sooner and a nasty fight over Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi's alleged intelligence giveaway, Tenet wisely chose to avoid another public battering.

Tenet's resignation will not lead automatically to a more effective CIA. In an agency buffeted by politics in the last few years, it's hard to have much confidence that Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, can effectively run it on autopilot for months. He's a veteran operative but lacks experience outside the CIA. However, CIA director is a post requiring Senate confirmation, and even fictional hero George Smiley wouldn't pass muster this close to a presidential election.

President Bush can demand one obvious change -- that Defense Department hawks, including Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, end their poisonous competition with the CIA. Under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon created a separate intelligence unit that bypassed the CIA to give Vice President Dick Cheney the darkest possible portrait of Saddam Hussein's capabilities and intentions.

A less-certain proposal would create a new national intelligence director with budgetary power over all intelligence agencies, including those inside the Pentagon. Such a director might boost cooperation among agencies or simply create another bulky and expensive bureaucracy.

Congress must increase its own oversight. Unfortunately, experienced Intelligence Committee members, including Shelby and Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), have had to step down because of the Senate's internal committee term limits. Extending those limits would increase lawmakers' expertise.

Maybe a staggered term that runs from one presidency to the next, like the Federal Reserve chairman's, would help insulate the next CIA director. But, in the end, it's the president's job to encourage alternative points of view, not embrace only those who believe as he does.

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