Dispatches > The Buzz

Lonely at Langley

Embattled CIA chief Tenet has one thing going for him: the loyalty of the president

Issue: "Public-school reform," July 26, 2003

Texas hold 'em is a popular form of poker based on simple math. Players calculate their odds by dividing the number of unseen cards by those laid on the table. President Bush, always inclined to uncomplicated strategies, should find this one useful in the ongoing round over whether he relied on phony intelligence in taking the United States to war. Democrats would like to blame discredited reports that Saddam Hussein sought uranium from Niger on the president; Republicans are loading that burden on CIA Director George Tenet.

In this case of political poker, bluff hands are in play on both sides and stakes are high. Behind the rerun queries about Saddam's quest for uranium is a backroom issue dear to both Democrats and Republicans: Who will run a newly refurbished Central Intelligence Agency? House members have already passed and the Senate will vote this month on a bill to overhaul intelligence gathering, giving the CIA renewed clout and increased funding to direct those operations.

On the block is CIA Director Tenet, a son of Greek immigrants who among Mr. Bush's top advisers is the lone holdover from the Clinton era. Mr. Tenet's style is plainspoken and hardworking, traits that have earned admiration and respect from Langley's loyal bureaucracy, but more importantly, from the president. Mr. Bush rejected a standard offer of resignation from Mr. Tenet after his 2001 inauguration, and again asked Mr. Tenet to remain after midterm elections, when the intelligence chief had indicated he might wish to step down. Early on, the president surprised the 50-year-old Tenet by requesting daily face-to-face briefings-something Mr. Tenet's former boss rarely sought. Mr. Bush also supported the director's push to increase human intelligence-spies-after resources for training them were slashed under Mr. Clinton. About a dozen were in training when Mr. Tenet took over the CIA in 1997; he increased the number 10-fold by 2001.

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After 9/11 the mutual trust grew. Mr. Tenet's tenure under Democrats (first on the Senate Intelligence Committee before jumping to the CIA as assistant director, then acting director, then director) mattered less to Mr. Bush than courage under fire. Mr. Tenet had a nonpartisan track record, issuing hawkish-sounding warnings about the al-Qaeda threat even as he forged close ties to Arab leaders, including a longstanding friendship with Jordan's King Hussein. Along with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Colin Powell, he became one of the intimates in charting the war on terror.

But with the 2004 election season in sight, war is now a campaign issue. Many Republicans see the Iraq-Niger-uranium controversy as prime time to bench Mr. Tenet in favor of a Republican director of central intelligence. Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary and a key proponent of a preemptive strike against Iraq, is one possible replacement. The former intelligence committee chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, repeatedly called for Mr. Tenet's ouster after Sept. 11, some insiders say because he wanted to elevate one of his own staff members. The current chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts from Kansas, went out of his way to condemn Mr. Tenet's "extremely sloppy handling" of the Niger data.

Democrats, meanwhile, will gladly sacrifice a Clinton appointee in order to throw doubt on Mr. Bush's credibility over Iraq. Winning the war, in their calculation, equals losing the election, and they would relish post-Tenet confirmation hearings to dissect a new GOP appointee. For now the president and some in the House GOP leadership are standing by Mr. Tenet. White House officials said last week there is "absolutely no chance" the director will resign. But it is the president who holds the deciding hand.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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