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George Tenet Nominated for top CIA Position

March 19, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: We go first tonight to the CIA story, President Clinton’s nomination of George Tenet to be director of Central Intelligence. Tenet is the current deputy director. His nomination follows the withdrawal yesterday of Anthony Lake. Tenet is 44 years old, a former congressional staffer who served as staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He was the staff director of intelligence on the National Security Council at the beginning of the Clinton administration. He became deputy CIA director in July 1995. President Clinton made the Tenet announcement late this afternoon at the White House.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I want to announce my intention to nominate George Tenet, who is standing here with me with his family, currently the acting director of the CIA, as the director of Central Intelligence. He brings the wealth of experience and skill and the challenge of leading our intelligence community into the 21st century. He knows that I must have the unvarnished truth. He knows how critical timely, reliable intelligence is to our nation’s security. I’m proud to nominate him for this vital job. I’m very grateful for the service that he has rendered to our administration and to our country. George.

GEORGE TENET, CIA Director-Designate: Mr. President, thank you very much. I just would like to take a moment just to read a brief statement. I’m deeply honored that you’ve nominated me to be director of Central Intelligence. In many ways, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President, it’s a bittersweet moment for me. I had hoped to serve with my good friend, Tony Lake, as his deputy. And as you said yesterday, he has made an enormous contribution to our country.

Throughout my career, Mr. President, in the Senate, here at the National Security Council, and at the intelligence community as John Deutch’s deputy, I have believed that you have to, and the Vice President must be provided with complete and–complete and objective intelligence. I’ve always believed that there’s no room for partisanship in the conduct of our intelligence community. We must always be straight and tell you the facts as we know them. Mr. President, the job of DCI also involves leading wonderful people. You and our nation are blessed with every day the hard work of the men and women of our intelligence community. They thrive on the challenge. They and their families learn to live without positive public recognition. They understand the dangers that must be confronted and our national interests that must be protected by them every day around the globe.

Mr. President, if confirmed, I will do my level best to provide leadership, stability, and strength of purpose to the fine men and women who serve our nation with such devotion. And, if confirmed, I pledge that I will provide you and the Vice President and our national security adviser with the best, most objective intelligence we can provide. Finally, Mr. President, I’d like to say that on a personal note over 50 years ago my father came to this country from Greece. He’s not here with me today, but on behalf of him and my family I’d like to thank you for the honor that you’ve bestowed upon me. Thank you very, very much. Thank you.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Congratulations.

REPORTER: Do you think he will be confirmed?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I do.

REPORTER: Why?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, because he’s well known to the Senate and well respected by Republicans, as well as Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: Three views of this development now. James Woolsey was director of Central Intelligence from 1993 to ’95. He’s now a partner in a Washington law firm. Warren Rudman is a former Republican Senator from New Hampshire who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He’s currently vice chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. David Wise is an author. He has written extensively about the CIA, spies, and espionage. His most recently book is “Night Mover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million.” Sen. Rudman, what is the most important thing we should know about George Tenet?

WARREN RUDMAN, Former Republican Senator: That he’s very independent and very bright.

JIM LEHRER: What would you say, Mr. Woolsey?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY, Former CIA Director: I think he has the personal integrity to call it straight, to be the skunk at the garden party in a sense, the director of Central Intelligence often has to be.

JIM LEHRER: Why is that? Why does he have to be the skunk at the garden party?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: Because often the intelligence doesn’t comport with what the policy makers would like for it to say. You are always telling people when you’re director of Central Intelligence things that they don’t want to hear. I think George has the integrity to do that. Sometimes it’s good news, but often it’s not.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Senator, that he can be a skunk at the garden party?

WARREN RUDMAN: If Jim means by that that he will call the President and the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, and whoever else he has to brief, the intelligence as he assesses it, as that agency has distilled it, irrespective of whether or not that’s the kind of news they’re expecting, I have no doubt that George Tenet will do that.

JIM LEHRER: Now, why? What do you base this on? Explain your relationship with him, how long you’ve known him, in what capacities, et cetera.

WARREN RUDMAN: I first met George when I was on the Intelligence Committee of the United States Senate. David Boren of Oklahoma was the chairman of that committee. He was the staff director. Although we have Republican and Democratic staffs on that committee, they tended to be more of an integrated staff. It was very integrated under George Tenet. It was a bipartisan committee. He was very, very careful in dealing with members, irrespective of party. He brought people together. He was reasonable, and he was a team player. I saw someone who cared about the job and cared about the intelligence community and got great respect not only I must say just from the CIA but from the entire community. And that’s something that’s overlooked. He will not only be the head of the CIA. He is essentially the director of Central Intelligence with broad jurisdiction over a number of agencies. And he is respected by them, and, of course, probably from President Clinton’s point of view today, equally important, as he’s stated, someone who has the confidence, I believe, of people in the Senate and who can be quickly confirmed.

JIM LEHRER: There’s no question about that in your mind. Yeah. Now, explain your relationship with him. What do you base your opinion on?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: Well, I’ve known him since he was staff director as well, and I worked very close with him in the two years I was DCI when he was the chief intelligence staffer for the National Security Council. And I’ve kept up with him over the course of the last several years while he’s been–two years while he’s been out at Langley. I think George also has–he has an excellent sense of humor, and he has–

JIM LEHRER: Does that help being DCI?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: It’s essential in any senior job in Washington these days. It is absolutely essential. He once let me spend an entire rather expensive lunch trying to recruit him to be general counsel of the Smithsonian when I was chairman of the Committee of the Board of Regents. Before telling me at the end of the lunch that he was not, in fact, a lawyer I–

JIM LEHRER: So he wasn’t even qualified–couldn’t be–

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: That’s right. And I think that shows a certain deft capacity for deception which really suits him very well for the job.

JIM LEHRER: David Wise, you have a lot of contacts within the CIA, at the working level. What is–how is George Tenet regarded there?

DAVID WISE, Author: Well, I’m not going to join my colleagues here at night in calling the new head of the CIA a skunk. I may have to deal with them, but he is–I think he is well regarded both on the Hill and in the CIA. And I think he has a keen sense of the fact that his top priority is going to have to be to try to rebuild–revitalize an agency that has been hit by a series of disasters and problems which can’t help but have affected the morale.

JIM LEHRER: Well, now, morale, everybody says the CIA has a very serious morale problem. Explain what that morale problem is exactly.

DAVID WISE: Well, they’ve been battered in the press, and sometimes for good reason. It turns out that there were two high level moles–Aldrich Ames, who is serving a life sentence in prison for causing the death of ten Soviets who were working for the CIA, and now more recently, Harold Nicholson, who has also pleaded guilty to similar charges. And that, of course, is bound to reflect badly on morale because people in an agency that is supposed to be secure don’t like to think that one of their own–two of their own have engaged in this.

JIM LEHRER: So when morale is used in this case–in the CIA case–that means the people who work there feel what, that there may be a mole sitting next to them; that they’re not being supported; that their job is not being supported; their job is not being valued, what is it?

DAVID WISE: Well, I think that they may not feel there’s another mole sitting next to them, although certainly that’s a concern. I think what they feel is that the image of the agency, as well as its mission in the post Cold War world, that’s undefined, and the image is all too well defined because of these cases and other scandals that have hit them in Guatemala and most recently in Germany, for example, where a CIA agent is under threat of being expelled. And there have been just a whole series of difficult stories involving the agency. And, you know, these people are bureaucrats. It isn’t all that different from the Department of Agriculture. And any agency–

JIM LEHRER: Well, don’t tell us that. We want–

DAVID WISE: I hate to spoil your illusion.

JIM LEHRER: I’ve read all your books, though, David. Okay.

DAVID WISE: But I think these people are not immune from the feeling that any department would have if it’s buffeted by the–

WARREN RUDMAN: I have a somewhat contrary view.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Be my guest.

WARREN RUDMAN: Let me just be very brief. Some of what David says I agree with, but let me simply say that from my work in the committee in the Senate and my recent work on the intelligence board, there are thousands of CIA people around the world doing extraordinary work at great risk to themselves for very little pay because they believe in what they’re doing. There’s nothing wrong with their morale. They don’t like the traitors. That’s not good for the team. But they’re out there working and working hard. Unfortunately, this is a very unusual kind of place. You can’t talk about your successes, but the press will learn and talk about your failures. And there have been failures. But they don’t get any positive feedback on what they do. But let me say from my dealings with the whole community of the last several years, particularly the CIA, there are people there who have just got on with the work and who are not that, you know, down about it, although obviously disappointed.

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: I agree more with Warren, I think, but I do think it’s important to realize that there is some morale problem. But a lot of it has to do with something Tony Lake said very well in his confirmation hearings, which is that there is no agency of government for which the disconnect between the reality and the public image is so large as with the CIA. The reality is much more, I think, what Warren was saying. And when they do something well–for example, they started to do counter-intelligence quite well in the early 1990′s, about 1990, ’91–under Bill Webster–and the successes that they had in counter-intelligence beginning then is what made it possible for them to catch both Nicholson and Ames, and the FBI went through a similar evolution. It was not doing counter-intelligence well in the mid ’80′s. When Pitts began to spy there, they caught him here in the 1990′s as well. The changes that took place–

JIM LEHRER: Pitt was the–

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: The FBI–

JIM LEHRER: The FBI guy, right. Actually, I think it’s Potts, wasn’t it?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: Pitts.

JIM LEHRER: Is it Pitts? Okay. Sorry.

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: The changes that took place took place around 1991/’92, and made it possible for these later counter-intelligence successes. But when the arrests come, that’s when the rest of the world learns about it, and they say, isn’t this terrible, they must be doing something wrong. Well, they were doing something wrong mainly back in the 1980′s, but they started correcting it in ’91 or ’92.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel, David Wise, about the point that the gap between the reality of the CIA and public image is so big? Do you agree with that?

DAVID WISE: Well, that’s why I made the reference to the Agriculture Department. I think a lot of people don’t understand and Mr. Woolsey, again, may disagree, but I think a lot of people don’t understand the CIA’s a bureaucracy and not so much unlike many others. And there are a lot of bureaucratic considerations that have nothing to do with the glamour of espionage. And, for example, I think this was one reason it took so long to catch Aldrich Ames, something like nine years, after he began spying before he was, in fact, arrested. And that has to do with the fact that in a bureaucracy there are certain priorities. And counter-intelligence, as Mr. Woolsey has suggested, was not a high priority in the middle 1980′s and has now become more of a priority. And that bureaucracy was not focused on catching spies because that was not career-enhancing. That’s not how you get promoted.

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: Not until about ’91.

JIM LEHRER: That’s when it became–what about the covert side, David Wise? Where does Tenet–how is Tenet going to be regarded by the covert operators in the CIA?

DAVID WISE: The directorate of operations, which means the spooks or the spies, the clandestine people, are a very tough and close-knit bunch, and they tend to take directors, especially outsiders who have not too much experience, and gobble them up and spit them out for breakfast. And that could happen to Mr. Tenet, and it’s because the DO, as it’s called, would probably rather have one of their own at the helm than an outsider.

JIM LEHRER: You agree, that’s a threat to George Tenet?

R. JAMES WOOLSEY: Not particularly. I think most of the people now who are in the directorate of operations are quite responsive to their civilian outside leadership. I think that’s–I think what David is expressing is a view that’s some years out of date frankly.

WARREN RUDMAN: I would say that every intelligence finding over the last several years while George was in charge of the Senate Intelligence Committee staff he saw, he was briefed on. He knows the operations people. They’re going to have a tough time pulling the wool over his eyes.

JIM LEHRER: Chewing him up and spitting him out.

WARREN RUDMAN: And he is tough enough to move in there and make major change if he feels it necessary. The one thing about George Tenet that does not come through–because he’s very easy going and pleasant, has a wonderful sense of humor–he is very tough. And if he is sure about something and he is right about something, he’ll move on it, and he’s very independent. And I think that’s a positive for the CIA.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you all three very much.