Mr Woolsey's misfortune was to be in charge of the agency when the most devastating traitor in its history was belatedly unmasked. Having taken over only in 1993, he could not be blamed for Mr Ames's espionage for Moscow, which dated back to 1985. But Capitol Hill was infuriated by his seeming determination to protect the CIA, and his refusal to mete out sterner punishment to Ames's supervisors over the years.
He leaves to his successor - John Deutch, the Deputy Defense Secretary, is the name most frequently mentioned - a demoralised agency facing substantial cuts in its budget and still struggling to adjust to the post-Cold War world. Some influential senators have called for the CIA to be abolished, and its functions split between the State and Defense Departments.
Such concerns were evident in President Bill Clinton's statement, accepting the resignation "with regret". Mr Woolsey, a former Rhodes scholar, Pentagon official and arms-control negotiator for both Democrat and Republican presidents, had been a "staunchadvocate of maintaining an intelligence capacity second to none". Mr Clinton promised to ensure the agency had the "support, resources and leadership" it needed.
Mr Woolsey's departure overshadowed yesterday's White House nomination of Dan Glickman, a nine-term Democratic Congressman from Kansas, to be the new Agriculture Secretary - the first of a string of high-level appointments aimed at giving new momentum toMr Clinton's administration after November's pounding in mid-term elections. In picking Mr Glickman, the President has opted for a consummate Washington insider who, in the words of the Senate majority leader, Bob Dole, should "sail through the confirmation process". An agriculture specialist, Mr Glickman was also chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and, until yesterday, a mooted successor to Mr Woolsey.
Mr Glickman's electoral fortunes represent a case study of the Democratic Party's woes. His defeat last month at the hands of an obscure Republican was one of the biggest upsets of the elections. Mr Glickman acknowledges that Mr Clinton's personal unpopularity was a factor in his downfall.
Originally the White House had hoped to name him as one of a batch of high-level appointments. But planning again fell victim to Mr Clinton's incurable procrastination. Despite weeks of pondering, the President has still not settled on a new Democratic Party chairman. Nor has he picked a new White House political director and a new Surgeon General.