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In little more than a year, George Tenet went from watching his CIA take the lead in ousting the Taliban from Afghanistan and going after bin Laden to resigning his post several months after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Here, former CIA officers and others discuss the impact and legacy of one of the nation's longest-serving directors of central intelligence.

... George Tenet is a product of official Washington. He started as an aide to a lobbying group for solar power. He then worked for a long time on Capitol Hill, mainly for moderate Democrats. The most important mentor in his career was David Boren, a conservative Democrat from Oklahoma who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee during a period where Tenet was his chief staffer. It was through Boren's mentorship that Tenet moved from the Senate to the Clinton National Security Council [NSC], where he was in charge of intelligence, budgeting and decision-making at a level that put him right at the heart of the bureaucratic process that is the intelligence community in D.C. For several years, completely out of the limelight, he worked at the NSC at the heart of this culture.

In the mid-90s, at the beginning of Clinton's second term, the CIA leadership imploded, and Clinton sent Tenet out there as deputy director, because he was the only person who could be confirmed. George Tenet is a man that just about everybody in Washington likes. He's a product of Georgetown University; he's a gregarious, outgoing, warm, blunt character who knows how to work the aisle.

And so with that experience, he became an indispensable figure for Clinton, who wasn't interested in transforming the world through the CIA or running risky covert-action programs all around the world. He wanted the CIA to be responsive to his relatively modest foreign policy agenda. He wanted smooth political sailing. George Tenet delivered all of that to him.

At the CIA, first as deputy director and then as director, Tenet was a popular figure. The CIA had had an unusually rapid amount of turnover among the directors, and they didn't for a good while have a director who really wanted to be there and who seemed to love the place and its mystique and its culture and its self-mythologizing. Tenet loved the place, the people. He liked walking around, he liked being of the place, and that showed; that made people feel good about his leadership. ...


Richard Clarke
National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, National Security Council, 1998-2001

Read his interview »

... [Tenet] managed to do something that no one had done before, which was to really improve the morale of CIA. He went out there to run an organization that [Clinton's Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright compared to a battered child. It had just been smacked around by the Congress and by past administrations, and directors had come and gone with great regularity, and they were not feeling loved. They didn't have a lot of self-respect as an organization.

Instead of going out there and battering them around some more, he went out there and gave them a big hug. You can argue about whether or not that was the right thing to do; I think in retrospect it might have been right to clean out some dead wood and give what was left a big hug. But in any event, Tenet greatly improved the morale.

What was the nature of the Bush-Tenet relationship on an interpersonal level? ...

George Tenet is a remarkably likable fellow and can figure somebody out very quickly, and figure out how to interact with them so as to have personal rapport. He did that with President Bush right away, and I think they established a personal rapport.

Did Tenet get it about Al Qaeda? Did you ever brief him about it?

I didn't have to brief Tenet about Al Qaeda; Tenet totally understood the nature of the Al Qaeda threat. In fact, what we would do frequently is talk about how Tenet could use his morning meetings with the president to convince the president that there was a big Al Qaeda threat. George Bush was briefed 40 or 50 times in the first nine months of his administration, in those morning briefings, about Al Qaeda. ...


Daniel Benjamin
National Security Council, 1994-1999

... You will have a hard time finding many intelligence officials to gainsay George Tenet, particularly in public, because he has enormous charisma and was very well-liked by most of the agency. There were some senior managers who felt that he was too much all things to all people, but he had certainly been a strong advocate for the CIA, even within the government, and he had stayed with the CIA. He had done a lot to promote its interest, whereas it had had a series of short timers and failures before Tenet. And so that made a big difference.

And really, he had a great deal of support among the rank and file, who liked him personally, who were delighted when he would come to the cafeteria, who were always astonished that he would pull them aside in the corridor and say hello. George works a corridor like no one else. And so I think that there was a certain amount of schizophrenia in the community at that time [the lead-up to the Iraq war], at the CIA in particular, about doing something that they thought was unwise on the one hand, and at least being glad that they had a strong advocate on the other. ...


David Kay
Iraq Weapons Inspector 1991-1992, Iraq Survey Group, 2003-2004

... If the President thinks you're important and shows you're important, people will treat you very differently [than] if the President isn't interested in you. Clinton didn't take personal briefings from the head of the CIA, the DCI, and he didn't meet with them. And so Tenet came in realizing that if the institution he was now in charge of was going to succeed, he indeed had to be useful to the president, and it was Clinton.

It's a Faustian bargain, because ultimately, anyone who heads an intelligence agency has got to speak ... truth to power. And very often that's going to be telling policy-makers either things they don't want to hear, or telling them things that seem so ambiguous that they can't figure out why they're being told it. ...

... I think it is true that George Tenet wanted to be a player. And he understood that if you didn't give the policy-makers what they wanted, he believed, I think wrongly, that you weren't a player, and therefore your views wouldn't be taken and you wouldn't be invited into the closed meetings, etc. He traded integrity for access, and that's a bad bargain any time in life. It's particularly a bad bargain if you're running an intelligence agency.

But, I must say, I wish it were only a problem of the people at the top, but it really was deeper than that. The system had lost its ability to understand how it comes to a conclusion under conditions of great uncertainty. There was no manager that I know of who stood up and said, "Mr. Tenet, we don't have enough information to reach a conclusion. We have to say we don't know." And yet, there were a lot of cases where that was the appropriate answer. Or to say, "Based on what we knew up to '98, we think there's no reason to believe that they've [Iraq] changed." ...

Are you saying that Tenet said, "Mr. President, this is a slam dunk," and knew it wasn't?

Now, we're all relying on Bob Woodward who said it [in his book Plan of Attack], but if indeed he said it as a "slam dunk," yes, I think he was in a position that he would have had to know that the data was not of a character that one could describe [that way], even in a loose manner, and certainly not in the Oval Office of the President, who has expressed doubt about the presentation he's heard.

"Don't worry, Mr. President, that's a slam dunk." The data was not that solid. George Tenet knew we had no agents inside Iraq. George Tenet knew that on the case of Curveball, no American had ever talked to Curveball directly, no American had been given his name by the Germans. And you go down the line, he knew the holes in the data. And yes, I think he certainly knew it wasn't a slam dunk. ...


Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.)
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 2001-2003

Read his interview »

... What's [Tenet] like?

He's a political person. He is outgoing. He interacts with people easily. He probably likes to tell people what they want to hear, not necessarily what they should be hearing. He had a generally excellent relationship with the Congress, and that may have contributed to some degree of backing off from the level of scrutiny and oversight that should have been provided. ...

... Why did George Tenet want to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency? Did he have a goal? ...

I think he genuinely wanted to use the capabilities of the CIA to secure the American people. I don't deny that. I don't think he had a clear agenda of what it was going to take to do that. ...

... I think that George fell in love with the job and was unwilling to do those things that he should have done which would have put his continued tenure as director of CIA at risk. ... Tenet did not feel the urgency of telling [the administration] both what he knew and I think particularly what he didn't know. ...


Carl W. Ford, Jr.
Director, State Department Bureau of Intelligence, 2001-2003.

Read his interview »

... One of the best things that George Tenet accomplished was the relationship he developed with the president. As an intelligence officer, if you don't develop a relationship and credibility with your primary consumer, what good are you? If you don't have access to tell them what the intelligence community believes, it doesn't matter whether you are right or wrong; they don't find out about it.

Now, did George have an influence on the president? I'm sure he did, because he had gotten access. He was providing the president with information from the intelligence community. ... Unfortunately for him, he got the access, but the crap he was giving him was not necessarily as good as it should have been.

Did Tenet know the intelligence was crap?

Best as I could tell, it wasn't that [he was] trying to give the president what he wanted to hear -- not in George's case, not in the senior intelligence group that I dealt with. ... They were honestly and sincerely trying to give them their best sense of what the intelligence community believed, and that judgment was wrong. The information that they provided them was, in many cases, not as good as I think it could have been, but that wasn't because they were weak or they were conniving. It was because they made some fundamental misjudgments about what the intelligence community could and couldn't do. They should have known better, but they didn't, apparently. ...


Lawrence Wilkerson
Chief of Staff, State Department, 2002-2005

Read his interview »

... What is your view of George Tenet?

A mystery to me. I spent some of the most intimate hours of my life with George Tenet and John McLaughlin his DDCI [deputy director of central intelligence]. ... [It's] a mystery to me in the sense that he could be so bamboozled by his own intelligence community and by foreign intelligence communities with whom he was dealing.

I have to go back and look at the record of the agency over which he presided. Let's face it: We missed the fall of the Soviet Union. We missed the 1998 nuclear test in India. We missed the five-year preparation cycle for 9/11. We bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. The CIA has not got a stellar record in the last decade or two. ... But George Tenet presided over this organization for quite a long time, and I sat in the room looking into his eyes, as did the secretary of state, and heard with the firmness that only George could give it -- and I don't mean terminology like "slam dunk," although he was a basketball aficionado and used that kind of terminology a lot, but I mean eyeball-to-eyeball contact between two of the most powerful [men] in the administration, Colin Powell and George Tenet -- and George Tenet assuring Colin Powell that the information he was presenting at the U.N. was ironclad, only to have that same individual call the secretary on more than one occasion in the ensuing months after the presentation and tell him that central pillars of his presentation were indeed false.

Now, do I believe George Tenet knew they were false when he told him that? Absolutely not. I just don't believe it. I refuse to believe it. How did we get to that point? How did our intelligence community get us to that point? How did [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy] Douglas Feith, who clearly politicized intelligence, clearly cherry-picked intelligence, clearly provided some of that cherry-picked intelligence to the vice president of the United State -- how did we combine all of that, plus a good dose of psychological groupthink, to come up with such an abysmal failure in regards to WMD in Iraq? It's a mystery to me, and I will never know the answer. ...

... I've talked to people who say he got too close to the president, that they had a personal relationship and that it's hard to bring the bad news to the client.

That's as good an explanation as any I've heard. Maybe that's the reason, for example, President Clinton decided not to have the daily briefings from the DCI. You're committed, and every day that you go, you're committed more. The tendency to be spun yourself without even realizing you're being spun suddenly becomes more pronounced, I would imagine. ...

When I teach this, I'm not going to teach this as a terrible aberration. I'm going to teach this as a decision-making process, set up by the Congress of the United States in conjunction with the president of the United States, ... signed as the National Security Act [of 1947] and amended by other presidents and other congresses as we went forward. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't work. In most cases that it doesn't work, it's when the president decides to do something different than what the law suggests. It's not illegal. Our founding fathers left wide gaps ... between legislative, judicial, executive. But when it leads to failure, presidents have to pay the piper. ...


A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard
Executive Director, CIA, 2001-2004

... People talk about him walking around on the 7th floor [of CIA headquarters], bouncing a basketball, going down to the cafeteria, not eating in the executive dining room. How much of that is artifice, and how much of it is the real George Tenet?

It's all the real George. George loves people. And he loved the job and the place, and he would wander around. Now, as time went on, his time became much more constrained, but he was always available. Loved being there, having the job, wasn't looking for something else. People say that [former DCI] John Deutsch always wanted to be Secretary of Defense; well, with George, he had the job that he wanted and made no bones about it. And loved it and loved the people and was very happy.

George, especially for the DCI -- I mean, not a very good poker player in a sense that what you see is what you get. He wore his emotions and his feelings on his sleeve. And you could sense that he really loved the place and wanted to do what he could for the people that were there. So I don't think any of it was an artifice. ...

... When he resigns, could you feel it coming?

Well, we had talked about it on and off, on and off. Days or a week before he resigned. I knew he was going to; you just sense it. I said, George wears it all right out in front.

And what was it like to watch him give that speech at Georgetown [where he discussed the WMD intelligence]?

I really felt badly for George because you know, he would take it so personally. Like Robert E. Lee's retirement, he said, "I did the best I could. I could have done no more. I should have done no less." And George really put everything he had into that. ...

The only way to judge George Tenet, in my opinion, is, did he leave the place better than he found it? He clearly did. And the thing I feel saddest about George, ten years from now if we're playing a word association game and I say "George Tenet," you're going to say "slam dunk." And for a guy that did as much for the Agency, and derivatively therefore for the country, I think that's a cheap shot. And I think anybody that was at the Agency during the time we're talking about, would agree with me, that he left it a lot better than he found it. And that's how I think of him. ...

Is the Agency a broken place today?

I do not think that the Agency today is nearly as dependable, efficient or reliable as it was under George. I think they've lost an awful lot of top quality people. You know the old saying, "The strongest swimmers are the first off the boat." ... Absolutely top drawer [people are] gone. ... [Tenet] hung in there tough as long as he could, and then [Porter] Goss came in and brought with him his people, and that was the end. ...


Lt. Gen. Michael DeLong
Deputy Commander, CENTCOM, 2000-2003

Read his interview »

...The team of McLaughlin and Tenet were formidable -- both smart, both talented and both able to work whatever they had to work. I was impressed.

Did you ever see Rumsfeld interact with those two guys?

No, I never did. He was frustrated with George sometimes, because I think George was too gregarious for Secretary Rumsfeld, and if there was media in the room, the media would probably go to George because he was easier to work with. I'm not sure that was something that the secretary cared for. Don't know -- it's just my impression.

... Because [Tenet] was a gregarious person that always told the truth as he knew it to be, or it appeared he did. ... He saw that as his job, and he told the president, "Here's what I think." [If] the president didn't like it, fine, but I never saw him hold back on what he knew. ...


Tyler Drumheller
Chief, CIA European Division, 2001-2005

Read his interview »

... I think [Tenet] was truly dedicated to the idea of making an intelligence service. He's also, I think, dedicated to the institution of the CIA, and he wanted to make it better. ... I don't think he was ever completely comfortable with the Directorate of Operations [DO], because we cause problems for people. I think his staff tended to be analysts and people who came from the Hill.

But we had regular contact with him ourselves, and we could talk with him directly. You didn't have to go through one of these staffers. He was very dynamic. A lot of the things that we did in Europe in the war on terror -- we did some very good things with Europeans, and it was largely because I was able to call on him to sit down and talk to the leaders of these countries. ...

... The night before the speech [Colin Powell's UN Speech], that's this famous phone call from Tenet. In fact, it's funny. After many years of friendship with Tenet, [it's] one thing I really think stressed our relationship, but the fact is that phone call was meaningless, because at that point the speech was written. They were already in New York; they were going to give it the next day. But I called to give the phone number of the European service chief, and while I had him on the phone, I said: "Boss, ... there's a lot of problems with that German reporting. You know that?" And he said, "Yeah, don't worry about it; we've got it." So I said, "OK, done," and I went to bed confident that they had taken it out. ...

... It seemed to me ... he was trying to do the right thing. ... At that point, they had already decided that to attack and everything by the end of January, so there was tremendous pressure, and almost a fear, that something was going to happen to derail the attack. I think he just got sucked right along with it. He, in the end, was the guy that pushed the hardest trying to figure out if Curveball was fabricating. ...

What do you mean he pushed the hardest?

He's the one that said, "We have to get to the bottom of this," after the fact, after the speech. "We have to find out the truth about this." He very easily could have covered it up.

But before the speech?

Before the speech, they let it play out among the divisions. All they had to do was say, "We made a mistake." ... But I guess that's hard to say when the war started. ...

You know him. What was going on with him at that time?

I think he was just caught up in it. I think they were tired; they were all working around the clock. It's intoxicating to be around the president, to be in power. ... But I do think there was just incredible momentum, just a huge force, an irresistible force, for the war coming in. ... It's Washington; it's the way it happens in government. When things start building towards war, when there's all this emotion, you do things that you wouldn't have done if you sat down and thought about it. After the fact, like I say, he's the one that pushed very, very hard. He said, "We have to determine if this was real or not."


Because I think he really had to know; he wanted to know if it was real. ...

... I really do like the guy. I admire the guy; I really do. But again, as you said, there's no way to get around it.

Around what?

Around [the fact that] if they had these doubts, they should have told the president. You know, I wish he'd come out and say it, because knowing him, I can't believe he didn't [say anything], because that would be his nature. But I wasn't there, so I don't know. That's the other part of the equation: Only George was there. To have a debate within the service, that's not unusual; that's part of what intelligence work is. ... It should have been figured in, and George is the one who should have done it. Or if it was done and it was ignored, then that's a different issue. But that I don't know. Again, that's the murky part of it.


Paul Pillar
National Intelligence Officer, 2000-2005

Read his interview »

... George Tenet enjoys much respect and affection on the part of the great majority of people at the CIA, and many of us throughout the community as well. I'd have to say he's a very tough act to follow. ...

... There have been people who've come into this room and said to me, "It's a serious problem that George Tenet got so much face time with the president because he couldn't speak the truth to power."

That is a serious issue: For decades, intelligence officers ... have argued and debated about this, about what is the ideal degree of closeness to have. On the one hand, if you're too close, your objectivity is questioned. On the other hand, if you're not close enough you risk being irrelevant. You have to strike a balance. ...

What do you think in this case?

I think, well, the pendulum over the last two decades has swung more in favor of closeness and away from distance. It has probably swung too far. ...

... [Powell's Chief of Staff] Larry Wilkerson said to us ... that every time Powell would complain about something at Langley, or often, that it was Tenet who said, in effect, "Trust me; we've got this." It's the "slam dunk" line all over again. ... How does [Tenet] make assertions like that? ...

I have absolutely no reason to doubt that the director was calling things as he saw them and was not willfully misleading anyone. The director had reason to be upset and angry, too, because I think he was [let down] by people lower down in his organization who did not do sufficient checking or cross-checking on some of these issues.


Vincent Cannistraro
CIA, 1971-1990

... Tenet goes. He knows that there's a negative report coming, I gather, and decides that he's got to go, or decides to go.

Well, he decides the time has come to leave. He knows that there's nothing good coming out of this. He knows things have started to turn sour. He knows that the Senate has begun an investigation of the [Iraq] intelligence, itself. He knows some of the things that he vouched for to Colin Powell for the UN speech were not true -- he didn't know it at the time. So he decides to leave.

Plus, there are a number of leaks coming out from CIA professionals that are making their way into the press. Some of it comes from CIA, some of it comes from other parts of the government but based on CIA information. For example, an appraisal of the situation in Iraq is written by the CIA Chief of Station, and it gets disseminated to Washington. It has a very bleak pessimistic analysis of the situation and the occupation in Iraq. It is leaked by opponents of the war -- say in State Department and other places -- because it has a very wide distribution placement. But it appears in the newspapers, and it has a very negative view of the war and how it's being prosecuted.

And the White House, Defense Department, blames CIA. They say, "Here it is, CIA, the liberals again, trying to undercut Bush's policy." And this is before the re-election last November of 2004. So this is another burden for George Tenet to have to bear, especially since he's never really satisfied his critics at the Pentagon. He hasn't been entirely their team player. And he again is allied with ... Colin Powell and [Richard] Armitage.

So yeah, he decides to leave, and the administration decides that they need someone that they can totally control and, more importantly, is totally loyal to the administration. And they have difficulty finding someone like that. A couple of people were offered the job and turned it down. They don't want it because they know what kind of a mess it is. And they don't want to be involved with it and be left holding the bag. ...


Dewey Clarridge
CIA 1955-1987

... What's your thinking on Tenet?

I don't know the man, I've met him a few times. ... Decent enough man, and he certainly did something for the morale of the Agency after [Tenet's DCI predecessor John] Deutsch....

Did he get too close to the president?

Probably too close to the president, and I think he was [in] over his head. I think you've got to be more than a congressional staffer who is brought up in a tradition of pleasing his principal -- make sure that the coffee's there at the right time, get the right question, yes sir, no sir. ... But, of course, that's not true for all cases. But I think the atmosphere it creates is that of servant; you know, obsequiousness. And so that sort of answers your question, I think. "Did he get too close to the president?" I think by nature -- his training was, you've got to please the principal.

And what? You can't be that way and be DCI?

I don't think so. You've got to be your own man. There's no question of being loyal; that's one thing. But being loyal, in my view, is also being dead honest. Even if it's going to cost you your job


Melvin Goodman
CIA, 1966-1986

Just one point that's important: Tenet really wasn't involved in the intelligence details. ... Intelligence, he turned over to John McLaughlin

And a lot of the misdeeds, in terms of intelligence, were really John McLaughlin's misdeeds. The phony "white paper" that was produced on the [National Intelligence] Estimate, the denial that he had ever been told about Curveball. Because McLaughlin knew before the U.N. speech that Curveball was phony, that the Mobile Biological Labs should not be a part of the Colin Powell speech. And McLaughlin never did anything about it.

And I think the feeling was that they were getting so close to war, this is now not the time to try to edit this intelligence or correct this intelligence or issue [disclaimers] of any type. The train had moved out of the station, and no one was going to get in the way of this thing. ...

... In the summer of 2004, in an election year, Tenet finally resigns. ...

I think he resigned because he knew his life would be overtaken by the need to go down to the Hill to explain this National Intelligence Estimate, that special assessment on weapons of mass destruction, the papers they did on links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and that his life would become just nothing but total misery. ... And frankly when the Robb-Silverman Report came out, that's quite an indictment of CIA intelligence, methodology, CIA tradecraft. And if you look at the staff studies of the 9/11 Commission ... they really indict CIA intelligence.

So he goes. He also gets the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Why?

Because he took a bullet for the White House; he took a couple of bullets for the White House. He took the blame for the State of the Union speech, even though he had never seen it before; he had gone to bed early that night. He left Alan Foley and John McLaughlin to deal with that issue. And he took a lot of blame for the intelligence on the weapons of mass destruction, even though he defended it in the Georgetown University speech. So I think George Bush wanted to buy a certain amount of silence. ...


Raymond McGovern
CIA analyst, 1963-1990

When George Tenet was nominated to be director of Central Intelligence, the word in Washington was that this was a very unusual person, that he had equal stature, he got along equally well with both sides of the aisle, okay? Now, that's quite a catch in Washington. But intelligence officers look at things a lot differently, and we recognize that to be the kiss of death. Because if you're equally popular on both sides of the aisle, that just means that you haven't spoken the truth as it needs to be spoken. You haven't knocked any noses out of joint, because [you're] oozing charm from every pore. ... And so we recognized him to be just the antithesis of what you need in the director of Central Intelligence. ...

... Now, despite all that, he supported CIA intelligence officers in their refusal to make-believe that there was evidence of close ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq before 9/11. He did that all the way up to Colin Powell's famous speech [at the U.N.] on the 5th of February, when George Tenet completely caved in, sat behind Colin Powell like a potted plant, and sort of said, "The intelligence community subscribed to all the things that Powell said about ties between Iraq, and Al Qaeda as well."

So up to a point, he tried his best, I suppose, and then he got completely caved in. That was a terribly demoralizing event for those analysts who had uncovered every scrap of evidence and didn't see anything good at all. Meanwhile, while the Office of Special Projects, so-called in the Defense Department, was feeding off scraps that really could not be substantiated and sending their information up through Rumsfeld to the President that way. Terribly, terribly discouraging. And all responsibility for that, the culpability, goes to George Tenet, because he didn't have the courage to say, "Look Mr. President, look Don Rumsfeld, look Mr. Cheney, look Colin Powell, I'm not going to let anybody say anything that isn't true, not on an important issue like this." That's just it.

You know, if he were ... a self made person, ... he would have quit, Colin Powell would have quit. They both knew that these were cockamamie stories. They both knew what the game was. And they didn't have the courage to quit. ... I think you have to go back to Watergate, when [Attorney General] Elliott Richardson and [his deputy William] Ruckelshaus both quit rather than fire the Special Prosecutor. You don't see that kind of courage anymore.


R. James Woolsey
Director of Central Intelligence, 1993-1995

George is a very able and likable person. And it's fine to be likable, you just don't want to try. I think that's the point. You can be likable, and a lot of people are likable and call it straight, and I have no reason to believe George didn't do that. But you can't skew anything at all because you want to be liked. That's sort of the point. ...

... When Tenet resigns right before the 9/11 commission, sort of in the midst of the reelection campaign, what did you think of that?

The amount of time George spent in the job is a long time for that job. I only spent two years. And we live in an open society; the CIA is a secret organization. There's a natural tension with the press, with the public, with the Congress to some extent. Sometimes you can explain yourself and sometimes you can't because you'll betray a source or a method. And sometimes explaining yourself might reflect badly on other people in the government. So sometimes the only real answer is to that you consider all those things, is to say sayonara. And I take my hat off to George for staying in the job as long as he did.


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posted june 20, 2006

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