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CIA Director George Tenet’s Resignation

June 3, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: CIA Director George Tenet’s resignation came as a surprise to official Washington this morning. President Bush said that Tenet told him of his decision only last night.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I told him I’m sorry he’s leaving. He’s done a superb job on behalf of the American people. I accepted his letter. George Tenet is the… is the kind of public service you like… servant you like to work with. He’s strong, he’s resolute. He’s served his nation as the director for seven years. He has been a strong and able leader at the agency. He’s been a…he’s been a strong leader in the war on terror, and I will miss him.

MARGARET WARNER: Tenet’s seven years at the CIA have been tumultuous ones for the agency. They’ve also seen two of the country’s most massive intelligence failures: Not anticipating the 9/11 terrorist attacks and assuring the president and the world that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But under mounting criticism from members of Congress and the commission looking into pre-9/11 intelligence failures, Tenet has vigorously defended himself and his agency. He did so last month after a blistering 9/11 commission staff report on his role as DCI, Director of Central Intelligence.

GEORGE TENET: When the staff statement says the DCI had no strategic plan to manage the war on terrorism, that’s flat wrong. When the staff statement says I had no program, strategic direction in place to integrate, correlate data and move data across the community, that’s wrong.

MARGARET WARNER: In remarks to CIA employees this morning, Tenet applauded their work and explained his reasons for leaving.

GEORGE TENET: For many years now, we have been at war with a deadly threat to the United States and its values: The threat of terrorism. Like other wars, it has been a struggle of battles won, and tragically, battles lost.

You have acted with focus and courage through it all, before and after 9/11. This I say with exceptional pride: The central intelligence agency and the American intelligence community are stronger now than they were when I became DCI seven years ago, and they will be stronger tomorrow than they are today. Our record is not without flaws. The world of intelligence is a uniquely human endeavor and as in all human endeavors we all understand the need to always do better. We are not perfect, but one of our best kept secrets is that we are very, very, very good.

This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make, and while Washington and the media will put many different faces on the decision it was a personal decision and had only one basis in fact: The well-being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less. Nine years ago when I became the deputy director, a wonderful young man sitting in the front row was in the second grade. He came right up to my belt. I just saw a picture of the day that Judge Freeh swore me in and he’s grown up to be… anyway, the point is, John Michael is going to be a senior next year. I’m going to be a senior with him in high school. We’re going to go to class together. We’re going to party together. (Laughter) I’m going to learn how to instant message all of his friends; that would be an achievement. You’ve just been a great son, and I’m now going to be a great dad.

MARGARET WARNER: Tenet will stay at the CIA until July 11, his seven-year anniversary in the job.

MARGARET WARNER: For more, we go to a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Bob Graham of Florida, and he called for Director Tenet’s resignation months ago and a current Republican member, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Joining them is Evan Thomas of Newsweek. He has written frequently about the CIA in books and for the magazine.

Welcome to you all.

EVAN THOMAS: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: So Evan, why is George Tenet leaving now? I mean, is he stepping off the ship voluntarily, or was he pushed?

EVAN THOMAS: I think it’s voluntary. I think you have to take him at his word that he wants to go to high school with his son. I believe that, but it is also true that he faces — faced a really rough summer when there was going to be a staff report from the Senate Intelligence Committee. There was going — it was going to be very rough on the CIA, and he was going to be sitting there on the griddle all summer long unable to get out of his job until at least until after the election. This is his last chance to get out before the heat really got hot.

MARGARET WARNER: And the 9/11 Commission report was also due next month, correct?

EVAN THOMAS: Look, there are about five investigations going on into the CIA. None of them are going to say good things about the CIA, so he was facing a series of bad moments for the CIA. This is his last chance to get out before it got miserable.

MARGARET WARNER: Now is the prisoner abuse scandal also beginning to reach up into the CIA?

EVAN THOMAS: I don’t know, but it has to. It just has to, because the CIA is involved in those interrogations, and they were around that prison. It was not just military intelligence but CIA there as well. You can be sure that we will find out that the CIA was involved in some way in the prisoner abuse scandal.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Hagel, what’s your theory or what’s your knowledge of why he’s leaving?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I think Evan framed it up rather well. I take Director Tenet at his word. Obviously just as Evan said he was well aware of what was coming. We’ve got to remember this is a man who held this job for almost eight years, the second longest serving CIA Director in the CIA’s history. He served at a very difficult time.

To blame George Tenet for intelligence failures is just a piece of the story here. He was caught in a down draft of being held accountable for directing a 20th century intelligence community agency infrastructure to meet 21st century threats, and it couldn’t be done. He didn’t have the power to make those changes. Now is he accountable? Yes, he’s accountable. Were there mistakes made? He’s admitted there were mistakes made, but this is bigger than George Tenet.

One of the things that we will find, and I hope we will do as a high priority that the president and the Congress puts on this issue after the reports are issued by our Intelligence Committee and the 9/11 Commission, is to fix the problem, is to completely restructure our community of intelligence agencies into a viable, relevant, realistic institution and community to deal with the new threats of the 21st century.

MARGARET WARNER: Sticking with Tenet for a minute, is Evan right, Evan Thomas right that this intelligence committee report that’s about to come out from your committee really looking at the WMD failures was going to be very, very hard on him and the agency?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I’ll let that report speak for itself, and I don’t want to get out ahead of the report. Parts of that report have been leaked, but I will just say that it’s I think a fair assessment of many of the problems and challenges that we’ve had, mistakes made, but, again, focusing on what we must do to correct those problems.

MARGARET WARNER: Senator Graham, you as we said earlier have called for Director Tenet’s resignation some months ago. Fair to say you think this was long overdue?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: Yes. I think that George has served the second longest term in the history of the CIA in a very difficult time. He served well early in his term when the principal problem of intelligence community was instability. They had had two or three heads of the agency in less than a six-year period. He brought some order, but as we’ve moved into the 21st century, we have had two massive failures of intelligence, the failure to detect the plot that led to 9/11, and then the misinformation about the reason we were going to war in Iraq and what we would find once we went to war in Iraq. I think it is time that the director spend more time with his family.

MARGARET WARNER: And Senator Graham, to what degree do you hold George Tenet and the agency responsible for the mis-intelligence about WMD and Iraq?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: Well, we’re going to learn more about that when we get the report from the Intelligence Committee that Sen. Hagel was just discussing. I think we’ll probably find that it is a mixture. There were some errors made in the gathering of intelligence, relying too much on old information which we assumed was correct in the future, relying too much on exile community that clearly didn’t know as much about contemporary status in Iraq as it purported to do.

I think there are also going to be mistakes at the user level, the decision-makers in the White House, in the Defense Department, maybe also in the State Department, who used the intelligence in a selective way not to better inform their judgment, but to validate a previously reached judgment.

MARGARET WARNER: Evan Thomas, in the Bob Woodward book that just came out, Tenet is certainly portrayed as a firm believer that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction.

EVAN THOMAS: Well, sure, he famously said it’s a slam dunk case.

MARGARET WARNER: To the president.

EVAN THOMAS: To the president, so, sure. You know, if you talk to agency insiders, they say that Tenet was great as a morale officer. He came in when the morale at the CIA was just rock bottom, the end of the Cold War. He did improve it. He was great at PR, which the agency needed, but what he didn’t do, what he chose not to do was to tear up the bureaucracy, be a kind of Rumsfeld character, blowing in there, blowing everything up. He just chose not to do that, and, unfortunately, maybe that is what’s called for. Maybe the bureaucracy was a little too passive, a little too complacent and is going to have to be shaken up in some serious way.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Hagel, what’s your view on that on his greater legacy? He said today he felt he’s leaving the CIA much stronger than when we took over seven years ago and that there has been a major revamping of the agency. What’s your thought on that?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I think the agency is stronger and better than it was when he took over for some of the same reasons that Evan Thomas mentioned, and there are many others. How history records his tenure I do not know.

But, again, the reality is, as Bob Graham knows so well, because he dealt with this when he was chairman of the Intelligence Committee, there are 15 intelligence agencies in our government. The director of the CIA, even though nominally he is the man in charge, he’s not in charge the DIA, that’s Defense Intelligence Agency. The Pentagon has a huge amount of say and control over our intelligence budgets, over our intelligence capabilities, so, again, Tenet was locked in to a situation at a time when it called for imagination and a lot of changes. He couldn’t do it. Now does he have to take some responsibility for not pushing it and not forcing it, maybe even threatening a resignation? Sure. He was there. He had the corner office, so accountability and responsibility go with the job.

MARGARET WARNER: And Sen. Graham, let’s go back to the pre-9/11 intelligence failures there. According to the books that have been written by people who were on the inside and on the outside, Tenet in fact was very exercised about al-Qaida before the attacks. Do you think he is deserving of blame in that?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: Well, it’s a little bit like the ship captain. If it hits the rocks, you’re responsible whether you actually were at the wheel at the time it occurred or not. I think as Sen. Hagel has just said, George Tenet was the head of our intelligence agencies. He had the responsibility to evaluate how well prepared we were to meet the new challenges. We needed to be more nimble, more flexible. We were no longer looking at the Soviet Union. We were looking at a whole array of smaller rogue nation states and this emerging group of non-nation states.

Now in fairness to Director Tenet, he alone could not accomplish that. The only person who can lead in fundamental reform is the president of the United States, and so it’s going to be his responsibility when he returns from Europe to select a new director, to empower that new director with the capability to make the reforms that are called for and then to give him full political support to see if that’s accomplished.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Hagel, former CIA Director Stansfield Turner said today that he thought and I quote that Tenet “had been pushed out and mid a scapegoat.” Are you aware of anyone in the Republican leadership or any Republican member saying to the White House essentially, look, someone has to take the fall for these intelligence failures, you can’t just stonewall and keep going forward with the same team?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Oh, I’m not aware of any conversation that was ever held, any implication of what you’re saying that would give credibility to what you’re talking about. Was there a political dynamic to this? Of course there is. This town is about politics. Every job is about politics. Politics is woven into the fabric of everything, including the intelligence agencies around here, but I think it is a significant overreach to say that it was a political deal and he was pushed out. Now maybe we’re going to find out later that that’s what happened. I don’t think it is what happened.

MARGARET WARNER: And Sen. Graham, do you think having George Tenet leaves takes any of the heat off the administration?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: No, I think the administration is still going to be called upon to assign some responsibility and accountability for these two massive intelligence failures. It’s hard to believe that we’re now almost at the third anniversary of Sept. 11, and not one person has been held accountable for that egregious intelligence failure. It’s also going to be the president’s responsibility to take the lead in reforming the intelligence agencies. I’ve described 9/11 as being the wake-up call.

The war in Iraq was the report card as to how much we had learned after that wake-up call and I’m afraid it’s a report card that has a lot of “D’s” and “F’s” within it because we’ve not made the substantial restructuring and reprioritization, particularly a personnel policy that would be required for our intelligence communities to effectively protect the interest of the citizens of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: That leaves us with this question that I’d like you all to comment briefly on. Where does this resignation leave the CIA, in some sort of limbo under a temporary number two? Evan Thomas, what are people saying inside the agency about the impact that this will have?

EVAN THOMAS: I think that they are going to be limping, the word is that McLaughlin is a nice guy, a good guy, but he’s not the guy that will go in and blow it up and make the kind of massive reforms they were talking about, but one other point about this. Intelligence is really hard. The American people forget how hard it is to do and that underlies all of this. It’s really hard to do, especially human intelligence.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly to both senators, Sen. Hagel, do you think the president in this election season could appoint a new director, or do you think really it’s going to await the election?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: I don’t know. I suspect that he’s dealing with that right now. He must deal with it. It may well be he could make a case either way that it’s better to just let this move through the system and wait until after November, rather than try to get a new director in place in the middle of the reports, in the middle of the assessments. I don’t know what he’ll do, and — but, again, either way I think the CIA can — and our intelligence community can work their way through this until a decision is made.

MARGARET WARNER: And what’s your judgment on that issue, Sen. Graham, about whether the president could get a new person confirmed, whether he ought to move quickly to put in a new permanent head?

SEN. BOB GRAHAM: He should move quickly to put in a new permanent head. We can’t afford to have seven months of drift in our intelligence community. We’re in enough trouble as it is today. It will become deeper if we are leaderless for the rest of this year.

MARGARET WARNER: Sen. Graham, Sen. Hagel, Evan Thomas, thank you all.