CIA chief's job is on the line

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Sooner or later, when the shock subsides and the investigation settles down, heads will roll over America's failure to head off the 11 September terrorist attacks. And the prime candidate for the chop is the CIA's director, George Tenet.

Since Tenet took over the agency in 1997, CIA morale has improved along with its public image. Three TV networks had scheduled series glorifying the agency. All have now been canned. Instead, there are only questions: what use is the US intelligence budget of $30bn, of which Tenet, as director of central intelligence (DCI), is in overall charge?

Any amount of electronic data is hoovered up by the National Security Agency, the US equivalent of Britain's GCHQ, and the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates America's spy satellites. But why did the CIA not have informers within the terrorist movements?

Missing the Washington and New York attacks wasn't Tenet's first misfortune. The CIA had no advance warning of India's resumption of nuclear testing in 1998, nor of the bombings at the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania the same year.

It's unfair to blame Tenet alone. The FBI failed to pick up clues, but it has only just taken on a new director. The immigration service is also being blamed, but its shortcomings have been public knowledge for years. Unfortunately for Tenet, the buck stops with him.

In fact the CIA and the FBI are damned either way. Either they didn't have a clue, bearing out accusations of incompetence on a epic scale; or they had warnings but failed to act on them, making them equally culpable. All of which makes even more interesting reports that the Israeli agency Mossad tipped off the CIA in August that 200 suspected terrorists had entered the US, intending to hit high-profile targets. The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has denied the report. Had he admitted it, Tenet would have been out already.