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George Tenet Hearings

May 2, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Next tonight, a Senate committee takes up the nomination of the director of Central Intelligence. Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: For George Tenet appearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was a return to familiar territory. He once directed the committee’s staff, and this morning he was surrounded by current and former Senators, all supporting his nomination to become CIA director. They represented New York, where Tenet grew up as the son of a Greek immigrant delicatessen owner in the borough of Queens, and Maryland, where he now lives, just a short drive on the beltway from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

SEN. PAUL SARBANES, (D) Maryland: Now, while George is originally from New York, my colleague, Sen. Mikulski and I are proud that he had the extremely good judgment to marry into a Maryland family and to live in our state throughout most of his career. So we lay some claim to him as well.

KWAME HOLMAN: George Tenet is 44 years old. After directing the Senate Intelligence Committee’s staff, he was staff director of intelligence on the National Security Council during President Clinton’s first term. In July, 1995, he was named deputy director of the CIA. Tenet was tapped by President Clinton for the top jobs soon after the failed nomination of Anthony Lake. In the first session of his confirmation hearings this morning Tenet was direct in explaining how he’d respond to the controversy and reputation for recent failure that encumber the CIA.

GEORGE TENET, CIA Director Designate: My first and overriding goal would be to give the President and other senior leaders the information they need when they need it to protect American interests. This sounds like it should be easier in today’s more open world, but, in fact, it’s not. In fact, the truth can be more elusive in an age of information overload than when many more societies were closed. Getting it right in the tough situations, situations that demand unassailably accurate information and the soundest judgment will always be my highest priority. In recent closed testimony on our budget I spoke concretely of future technological challenges and describe for you the new–in some ways–revolutionary collection strategies we are proposing. I strongly believe the intelligence community, which after all brought this nation, the U-2 and imagery from space has an obligation to be a national center for excellence and technological innovation. We must be on the cutting edge. I would create an intelligence culture that challenges conventional wisdom and encourages creative but responsible risk-taking, but it would be misleading if I did not also say to you and to the American people that this kind of risk-taking, no matter how responsible, will occasionally produce something other than total success. An intelligence community that shrinks from this, however, will never succeed on the scale required to protect American interests in the 21st century.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tenet acknowledged concerns about poor morale in the 80,000 person agency that’s had five directors in the last six years. Committee Chairman Richard Shelby noted the flux in leadership has coincided with the CIA’s highly publicized difficulty.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY, Chairman, Intelligence Committee: The CIA’s clandestine service–what we call the Directorate of Operations–has experienced a series of demoralizing scandals in recent years. You mentioned then, and others have. The Ames espionage case–the French diplomatic flap–and most recently the Guatemalan case. Some people are openly calling for the abolition of the clandestine service. Where does reforming and revitalizing the CIA’s clandestine service rank in your list of priorities for actions should you be confirmed as director of CIA?

GEORGE TENET: I’m not going to be politically correct here. I believe that the men and women of the Directorate of Operations perform a great service to this country each and every day. And to say, is it perfect, it’s not perfect, Mr. Chairman. We’re going to get better in the future. The glass is not half empty. It’s more than half full, and I believe the standards that we put in place over the last two years, our commitment to hard targets, our relentless focus on espionage, and the commitment we’ve made to these men and women will prove an enormous result for this country, and I think it’s important that we break that. We read a lot about morale. I haven’t seen bad morale when I’ve seen people who are challenged by their mission and their leadership. And I think it’s important to say that to the American people this morning.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bob Kerrey, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, wondered if new laws are needed to protect the director of Central Intelligence from White House or congressional political pressure.

SEN. ROBERT KERREY, (D) Nebraska: I would very much appreciate your comments on my own vision of the DCI with statutory independence greater than what you will have if you’re confirmed.

GEORGE TENET: Senator, by statutory independence, you mean a fixed term in terms of how long a person serves?

SEN. ROBERT KERREY: That would be certainly one of the possibilities. I don’t know what it would take to get the job done. I’m just saying a sufficient amount of independence so that you know that your analysts and your people that work for you could reach a conclusion that might make–might put you at odds in a public way with what the President is doing or, as I said, senior members of Congress.

GEORGE TENET: Senator, this may sound idealistic to you, but we don’t need a statute to do that job today. In fact, we do it all the time. I think there isn’t a statutory framework that I could conceive that could make us be independent along the lines that you’re suggesting. I think that critical to this process is preserving its integrity and preserving the ability of our analysts to tell it like they see it all the time and we do all the time. And any attempt to intervene or pressure us is not something I will ever take very, very kindly.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Intelligence Committee will continue questioning George Tenet, but in closed session, tomorrow. The final committee vote on his confirmation is expected by next week.