WASHINGTON — CIA Director George Tenet has resigned as director of central intelligence for “personal reasons,” President Bush said in a surprise announcement Thursday. A government source told NBC News that the agency’s director of operations, James Pavitt, would also announce his resignation Friday.
Although the resignations were said to be unrelated, the changes will bring a significant new look at the top of the CIA, which has been under fire for the way the agency monitored terrorist activity before Sept. 11, 2001, and for intelligence failures leading up to the war in Iraq.
Tenet went to the White House to inform Bush about his decision Wednesday night.
Bush said Tenet’s deputy, John McLaughlin, would temporarily lead America’s premier spy agency after Tenet left on July 11. McLaughlin was said to be a possible choice for the permanent position, along with Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., a former CIA agent who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
‘I will miss him’
The White House strongly denied that Tenet had been forced out, saying his decision came as a surprise to Bush. Tenet told CIA personnel afterward that his resignation “had only one basis in fact: the well-being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less.”
The government source insisted that Pavitt, who been deputy director for operations for five years, in charge of the agency’s heavily criticized clandestine service abroad, was also leaving for personal reasons unrelated to recent investigations of the CIA’s performance before and after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
The source characterized Pavitt’s resignation as a long-planned retirement whose timing was a coincidence.
Bush, speaking to reporters shortly before he left the White House for a trip to Europe, made no reference to the controversy surrounding the CIA.
“I told him I’m sorry he’s leaving,” Bush said. “... George Tenet is the kind of public servant you like to work with.”
Tenet, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in the CIA auditorium, also did not directly address criticisms that the agency failed to pre-empt the hijackers who killed almost 3,000 people on Sept. 11. But he did allude to the need for “a massive transformation of our intelligence capabilities” and for “rebuilding the clandestine service.”
“As I look back on how the intelligence community has evolved over the past decade, there is much to be proud of,” Tenet said, adding: “The CIA and the American intelligence community are stronger now than when I became [director of central intelligence] seven years ago, and they will be stronger tomorrow than they are today.”
‘A lot of ups and downs’
In April, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States released statements harshly criticizing the CIA for failing to fully appreciate the threat posed by the al-Qaida terrorist network before the hijackings. Tenet told the panel that the intelligence-gathering flaws exposed by the attacks would take five years to correct.
A senior aide to Tenet told NBC News that Tenet, who made his final decision to leave over the holiday weekend and informed his senior staff Tuesday, had wanted to resign last summer or fall but that with the intelligence investigations coming up, Bush persuaded him to stay.
“He was talked into staying and then did the responsible thing by doing the heavy lifting — testifying, suffering all manner of fools,” the aide said. “Then, within the last month, he started thinking about it again.”
During his seven years at the CIA, speculation at times has swirled around whether Tenet, 51, would retire or be forced out.
Even when his political capital appeared to be tanking, Tenet managed to hang on with what some said was a fierce loyalty to CIA personnel and to Bush, whose father was a predecessor in the post. A likable, chummy personality also helped him become the second longest-serving CIA director in history — only Allen Dulles stayed longer, from 1953 to 1961.
Tenet and Bush had a close relationship. Tenet went to the White House most mornings to personally brief the president on intelligence matters.American intelligence
At one of those sessions in December 2002, the CIA listed evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Unsure that Americans would find the information compelling, Bush turned to Tenet. “It’s a slam-dunk case,” Tenet replied, according to a recent book by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. No weapons have ever been found.
Tenet also accepted responsibility for the CIA’s approval of Bush’s assertion, since disproven, that Iraq had sought to obtain weapons-grade uranium from Africa.
Tenet has been through “a lot of ups and downs in seven years,” a senior intelligence official told NBC News, saying Tenet sought to deflect political criticism from distracting agents.
“I do believe he thinks part of his job is to protect us and let us do our jobs,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “We’ve all watched what he’s gone through, and he still shows up for the game every day.”
Swirl of controversy
Tenet’s resignation comes amid new storms over intelligence issues, including allegations that Defense Department personnel leaked highly classified intelligence to Iraqi exile leader Ahmad Chalabi .
Congressional sources told Newsweek that the timing appeared to have been influenced by the coming release of a massive report by the Senate Intelligence Committee that one official described as a “devastating indictment” of the agency’s handling of pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Another report expected next month from the 9/11 commission is also expected to criticize the agency’s failure to develop sources inside al-Qaida.
At the same time, a federal grand jury is pressing its investigation of the leak of a CIA operative’s name , and Bush acknowledged that he might be questioned.
The decision was met with a range of reaction in Washington, from lavish praise to harsh criticism.
“George has sought at every turn to bridge the gap between the CIA and FBI with one goal in mind — the security of the American public,” FBI Director Robert Mueller said. “Due to his constant efforts to bring the intelligence agencies closer together, we are better able to predict the actions of our adversaries and to protect Americans from evolving transnational threats.”
Tenet “has worked extremely hard on behalf of our nation,” said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bush’s presumed Democratic opponent in the fall presidential election. “There is no question, however, that there have been significant intelligence failures, and the administration has to accept responsibility for those failures.”
Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee was one of tenet’s principal overseers, said: “Simply put, I think the [intelligence] community is somewhat in denial over the full extent ... of the shortcoming of its work on Iraq and also on 9/11.”
But Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called Tenet “an honorable and decent man who has served his country well in difficult times,” adding, “No one should make him a fall guy for anything.”
NBC’s Norah O’Donnell, Tamara Kupperman and Robert Windrem and The Associated Press contributed to this report.