A consummate bureaucrat adept at currying favour

Click to follow
The Independent US

The wonder of George Tenet's resignation is not that it has happened now but that it did not come a lot sooner.

He weathered a litany of scandals and failures to survive seven years as director of central intelligence, hanging on long enough to become the second-longest incumbent since the post was created at the beginning of the cold war.

He was one of the very few officials to survive the ideological U-turn that accompanied the Clinton-Bush transition. Even after his resignation was announced, Mr Bush felt compelled to praise him as a "strong and able leader".

His great asset, according to those who know him, is that he was a consummate bureaucrat who knew how to curry favour and hold his cards just close to enough to his chest to deter would-be enemies. "George has cultivated the right constituencies," a former CIA deputy director told the Baltimore Sun last year. "That is his skill."

The rise to power of Mr Tenet, the son of Greek immigrants, can be attributed largely to the fact that everyone liked him and he always aimed to please. From his origins as an international affairs graduate of both Georgetown University in Washington and Columbia in New York, he rose through the ranks of official Washington - first as an arms control expert and then as staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He served on Bill Clinton's transition team as an intelligence expert, then moved to the National Security Council and to the number two spot at the CIA. With a personable reputation, he was the person everyone instinctively turned to when the former CIA Director, John Deutch, left his post in 1997.

One of the hallmarks of Mr Tenet's stormy tenure is that the havoc wreaked by his missteps - at least until now - has almost always been cushioned by someone else's more visibly bad behaviour. Nobody paid attention to him in the summer of 1998 - when al-Qa'ida bombed two US embassies in Africa and faulty CIA intelligence led to a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan being hit in retaliation -- because of Monica Lewinsky. He survived the debacle of 11 September largely because of a perception that the FBI had fluffed even more than he had. On Iraq, he carefully distanced himself from the much more gung-ho Office of Special Projects (OSP) inside the Pentagon, even claiming at one point not to know that the OSP was funnelling its own intelligence on weapons of mass destruction to the President.

As for the State of the Union address, which he vetted, the uranium allegation was conspicuously sourced to British intelligence, not the CIA.

Intelligence professionals argue that Mr Tenet's greatest sin was to allow the information he passed on to both presidents he served to become tainted by political considerations.

Mr Tenet's gravest infraction, according to his peers, was the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq he cooked up in three weeks in September-October 2002. NIEs usually take several months to compile. The document, which prompted Congress to give Mr Bush a blank cheque to go to war, has been criticised for starting with a predetermined conclusion - that Saddam's weapons posed a grave and immediate threat to the US - and working backwards from there.

"In 40 years of following such issues quite closely, I have never seen politicisation of intelligence so cynical, so sustained, so consequential," the CIA veteran and outspoken Bush critic Ray McGovern said at the time. "And don't forget, I was there for Vietnam."