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CIA Director George Tenet Hands in Resignation

Aired June 3, 2004 - 10:30   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And we want to let you know this breaking news we're just getting into us here at CNN. CNN is confirming that President Bush says that CIA Director George Tenet will resign his post. What we're hearing right now is he'll resign for personal reasons.
George Tenet, of course, heading up the CIA for a number of years and surviving a number of political challenges, not the least of which the latest coming as the war in Iraq and the information -- and the information that was based on the weapons of mass destruction being allegedly found in Iraq. Huge stashes of weapons of mass destruction that was never found.

You have seen this video. George Tenet appearing before a number of congressional committees. A lot of people in Congress asking for answers.

But yet, once again, President Bush saying that CIA Director George Tenet will resign, heading up the CIA. And right now all that is being cited is for personal reasons.

We're going to have much more on that just ahead. Right now? All right. We are working on getting our reporters, both up at the White House and our intelligence reporter David Ensor.

But as we do this, we can talk about George Tenet who has headed the CIA. And there has been speculation for a long time that he could be, what some people would consider, the fallguy in the challenges that have faced this Bush administration with the war in Iraq.

This is a man who has lasted more than one administration, obviously. And some people surprised when President Bush kept him on. And, yet, he did heading up the CIA.

We just heard from President Bush just a few minutes ago. If you were with us at the top of the hour, he was in the Rose Garden of the White House appearing with the Australian prime minister. And, yet, nothing was mentioned at that point. And, yet, the word we get now is that it was from President Bush that we're getting this word that George Tenet will be resigning.

We do expect to hear President Bush just within a few minutes. Perhaps as early as the top of the hour. We had already known that he planned to leave, to take off from the White House from Marine One and head to Andrews Air Force Base. The president leaving on his trip to Europe where he'll head to Rome and France. And when the president does leave, we do expect him to make some comments about this news of George Tenet deciding to resign.

Apparently the comments from President Bush already made as he was getting on board Marine One that George Tenet is resigning. All right. Here's the videotape shot a few minutes ago from the White House.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... a letter of resignation. I met with George last night in the White House. I had a good visit with him. He told me he was resigning for personal reasons.

I told him I'm sorry he's leaving. He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people. I accepted his letter. He will serve at the CIA as a director until mid-July, at which time, the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John McLaughlin, will serve as the acting director.

George Tenet is the kind of public servant you like to work with. He's strong. He's resolute. He served his nation as the director for seven years. He's been a strong and able leader at the agency. He's been -- he's been a strong leader in the war on terror. And I will miss him.

I send my blessings to George and his family. I look forward to working with him until the time he leaves the agency. And I wish him all the very best. Thank you.


KAGAN: A short statement from President Bush before he gets on board Marine One.

The breaking news coming out of the White House that George Tenet, the head of the CIA for the last seven years, will resign his post. He is citing only personal reasons. You heard President Bush say that George Tenet will stay on through July. And no word on who his successor will be.

Our Suzanne Malveaux standing by at the White House with more on this news. There's been some talk for sometime that this could be coming. And yet when it finally did, a bit of a surprise, Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly not a surprise for the White House, for the administration, because Tenet had said on numerous occasions that he wanted to step down, that the administration did not actually accept that.

But as it has developed now, as you know, he has come under fire for quite a number of incidents. This is a man who is a holdover from the Clinton administration. He also, of course, was in the midst of a controversy over the faulty intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction inside of Iraq.

We are told that the president met with Tenet yesterday to discuss his resignation. He only said that it was for personal reasons. He said that his deputy, this is John McLaughlin, would go ahead and in and step in in the interim until they find a replacement in July.

But as you know, Daryn, this has been speculation for quite sometime. People thought that perhaps the president would actually ask him to step down because of all of the number of incidents and the controversy over intelligence from Iraq and other incidents, but this is something that he says he has done for personal reasons -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And the spin has yet to come as to -- even though his resignation was offered, as to whether was forced by the White House or why now.

But this comes at a time, Suzanne, where it's not just a question of who might be the successor. There's much discussion in Washington and we've seen a number of congressional committees about this. But the whole structure of the intelligence community and those agencies.

MALVEAUX: Well absolutely. And that was one of the criticisms about how the CIA and FBI were handling intelligence is that they essentially were not talking to each other.

There was another criticism, of course, that we have heard that there are members of Iraq, of the exiles including Chalabi that were unreliable when it came to providing intelligence. That there really was not a process of vetting that was adequate.The administration had addressed that for sometime in the past.

But this is a man who really has taken a lot of weight on his shoulders. It had been sometime when there was speculation that he, himself would step down, not for personal reasons, but because he was involved in so much controversy. The president sticking by him to the very end.

But it will be very interesting to see just how the whole department is rearranged, how that relationship with the FBI is turned over.

KAGAN: And with that, let's bring in our man, David Ensor, who spends most of his time watching the intelligence agencies in Washington and around the world. David, are you surprised by the timing of this announcement?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: I am surprised by the timing, Daryn, yes. But I'm not surprised that there is an announcement.

The conventional wisdom had been in recent months that George Tenet was on his way out, would likely leave after November and probably before January.

He certainly has told me, he has told others, that after all these years in this job, he's the second longest serving director of Central Intelligence in the United States, he's tired. This is a very tough job. He's had it. In the 9/11 era, a tremendous amount of pressure on the man.

So he was looking forward to moving on. At the same time, he didn't want to move on at a time when it looked like he was resigning under pressure. So I'm surprised by the timing, although I know he's been looking for a way to move gracefully out of the job and into the private sector.

As you were talking a moment ago the question now will be how will the job be restructured, if at all, for the next incumbent? You heard the president say that John McLaughlin, the deputy director of Central Intelligence, will be taking over from him in July when he actually leaves the job. This is a professional CIA officer who has worked his way up through the system, a trusted professional.

But it's clear that the president is not planning to propose a new director of Central Intelligence before the election. He doesn't want to have those hearings which could be contentious, given all of the things that have gone on over the last year or two. So he's going to put the whole intelligence community kind of in a holding pattern until after the election.

Then the question comes how do you reorganize it? Will there ever be a director of Central Intelligence again or will there be a new job, perhaps with greater cabinet level, perhaps with greater powers? Right now George Tenet wears two hats. He's is director of Central Intelligence which puts him in overall charge of the whole intelligence community. And you know there are 14 or 15 intelligence agencies of one kind or another.

And he is the director of -- he's the CIA director. He's the director of the Central Intelligence Agency itself, which not only is the clearinghouse for intelligence gathered by all of the other agencies, but, of course, also runs the human intelligence program, the spies for America that are out there trying to gain intelligence, either by recruiting agents from other countries or various other methods, breaking and entering being one of them.

KAGAN: So many questions for you here. First of all, you're saying that Tenet had been talking about looking for a way to leave. You were surprised by the timing of it. Does the timing indicate to you, David, then he was -- that he is leaving under pressure?

ENSOR: Well, I just talked to an official at the Central Intelligence Agency who confirmed, of course, that this is the case, and we've heard the president, so we know that's true. She told me that it was his decision, that he was not pushed, that this was a personal decision, as it's being described. We're told there will be some more details, not very many, but some more details available to us in the next few hours. So they are presenting it as a personal decision, and I know he's very tired, that his wife would like to see a little more of him, that he would like to get into the private sector. But at the same time, he's a proud man, he's been at this job for quite a while.

You heard the president praising him in very strong terms. I think the Bush administration feels he's been a strong team player, and the Clinton administration felt the same way. This is a man, of course, who's one of the few to span both Democratic and Republican administrations.

KAGAN: As we're having our discussion, of course, we're looking on the other side of the screen. That is Marine One landing at Andrews Air Force Base. You'll see the door open up and President Bush get out any moment. He will be getting on Air Force One and heading to Europe for that trip commemorating D-Day. He'll be meeting on Italy with Italian leaders there and also with Pope John Paul II, also with French and German leaders and British leaders as well.

David, you were talking about the many jobs that George Tenet in charge of and, of course, you were mentioning human intelligence. So much of the criticism of what has not gone completely right with Iraq has been based on the lack of strong human intelligence coming from within inside that country.

ENSOR: That is true. It is a very difficult job to get the kind of human intelligence that can stop terrorism, and the U.S. has not had a terrific track record at it. It's getting better but -- and George Tenet actually has been responsible for hiring more CIA operations officers, the kind who go overseas and try to recruit agents and gather intelligence than any director, as far as I know, since the beginning.

But he came into a CIA which was depleted. The country had decided it wanted a Cold War dividend, the budgets were cut, and the agency had kind of lost its sense of where it was headed. Of course, it had been designed as a Cold War institution, designed to try to gather intelligence against the Soviet Union, and there is no Soviet Union anymore, so they were looking for new roles, trying to figure out where they were headed, and unfortunately for all of us, that is now all too clear.

KAGAN: Again, we're looking at a live picture from Andrews Air Force Base. That is President Bush and Mrs. Bush, to his right, leaving onboard Marine One and getting onboard Air Force One. They will be heading to Europe. First stop, Italy marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome during World War II.

David, if you could talk a little bit more. As you mentioned, you make a good point that this is, George Tenet, the second longest serving CIA director in the history of that agency, and you were talking a little bit about how rare and unusual it is for a CIA director not just to last from one administration to another, but from a Democratic on to a Republican one.

ENSOR: Indeed. Is this a man who actually got the job in part by default in the Clinton administration. He was deputy director, well regarded. He'd been on the National Security Council staff doing intelligence work. He'd served on the hill. His mentor was Senator David Boren, who promoted him as a staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee way back when. So he knew the field, but he had not been a professional, you know, CIA officer. He came up through the political side a little bit more.

Very well liked. The son of a Greek immigrants, he worked in his father's Greek restaurant up in the New York area as a young man, went to Georgetown University, where he often has gone to speak when he has something public he wants to say. He is someone who works Washington well, who understands the corridors of power, who, on the one hand, has a very good mind. On the other hand, he's very approachable.

It's funny, when you meet him, it's hard to see him as some CIA spy chief. You think of him as a very chatty, pleasant, warm person. Of course, he doesn't give any secrets away, though.

KAGAN: Of course, not, being the master of that business.

David, don't go anywhere. I want to, for our viewers that are joining us, share with them the comments that President Bush made from the White House before he got on board Marine One.

Here's the entire statement on George Tenet's resignation.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had a good visit with him. He told me he was resigning for personal reasons. I told him I'm sorry he's leaving. He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people.

I accepted his letter.

He will serve at the CIA as the director until mid-July, at which time the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John McLaughlin, will serve as the acting director.

George Tenet is the kind of public servant you like to work with. He's strong, he's resolute. He's served his nation as the director for seven years. He has been a strong and able leader at the agency. He's been a strong leader in the war on terror. And I will miss him.

I send my blessings to George and his family. I look forward to working with him until the time he leaves the agency. And I wish him all the very best.

Thank you.


KAGAN: And that was President Bush making the announcement from the White House, right before he got onboard Marine One, announcing that he has accepted the resignation of CIA director George Tenet.

Let's bring in our White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux.

Suzanne, that sound like a subdued President Bush making that announcement, that he is he accepting George Tenet's resignation.

MALVEAUX: Well, as you know, this president typically is very loyal to his employees. He does not like to show any kind of dissatisfaction with those who work under him. And as you know, Tenet has come under a great deal of fire because of faulty intelligence, really intelligence that the president used to make his case to go to war, to invade Iraq. The president, of course, getting this letter of resignation and talking to Tenet yesterday about this.

This is not the first time that Tenet actually wanted to step down. He had offered to do so before the war. The president did not want him to do that. And as you noted, Tenet said that he left for personal reasons, but it is in July, mid July, when Tenet will be stepping down and -- or rather when there will be a replacement, when that 9/11 Commission report will be released talking about some of the structural changes that will need to be made between the CIA, the FBI, and other agencies regarding intelligence -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And in the meantime, the president making an announcement who will run the CIA.

MALVEAUX: Yes, that's right. He is talking about his deputy of the CIA, that is John Mclaughlin, who will be the interim acting director of the CIA. This is just a temporary post.

Of course, they are going to have to try in earnest to find somebody to replace Tenet. You know Tenet a holdover from the Clinton administration, highly regarded within the administration, but also very controversial figure as well. A lot of people in Washington had speculated for sometime why it was, or even asked out loud, why it was that he wasn't asked to resign a long time ago or he hadn't done this before. But President Bush, historically very loyal to those who work for him, saying that he did a superb job; he stood him until the very end.

KAGAN: All right, Suzanne, we'll get back to you at the White House you in just a moment. Right now, you mentioned George Tenet a controversial figure. Nowhere has he been more controversial than at the United Nations. So much of what the United States did to make their case for war came from information coming from George Tenet and the CIA.

For more on what that means at the United Nations, let's go to our Richard Roth, who is standing by there -- Richard.

RICHARD ROTH, CNN SENIOR U.N. CORRESPONDENT: Well, there probably won't be that much surprise here. Nobody really mentioned George Tenet's name that much. They certainly talked about the CIA. The main presence here by Tenet was behind Colin Powell. He was the man who sat behind the secretary of state February 5th, 2003. You're looking at some other file video in Washington of Tenet. But on that day, Secretary Powell laid out a strong message from the United States that Iraq and Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat. You may remember Powell holding up this fake vial of anthrax, and also used slide and video presentations, taped audio conversations, eavesdropping on Iraqi officials, to tell the Security Council, to convince them of a need for a new resolution, a mandate for war. Tenet behind Powell. There had been several days of briefings for Powell. He was concerned, was this information strong enough?

This message, and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, has done great damage to the U.S. image here, and whether the world should believe the U.S. in the future, whether it's on North Korea or Iran.

Even today more debates about the Security Council resolution as countries continue to oppose Washington regarding the terms for sovereignty on Iraq.

So this briefing of February 2003, which the CIA and Tenet played a major role, still resounds here in the U.N. corridors -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right, Richard. More from you later.

Right now I want to bring back in David Ensor to talk about what might be next. And, David, as we were discussing before, you talk about the who. You heard Suzanne Malveaux talk about the end of July we expect to get that report from the 9/11 Commission.

The first question is the what? What will be the structure of America's intelligence agencies before you figure out who's going to run that?

ENSOR: Well that's right. And perhaps it would be -- I don't know what the president's plans are. He may not know himself yet. But it might be wise to -- if they're going to be reorganizing the intelligence community and the way the leadership is structured it might be wise to do that before picking the person who's going to have the job.

And there may be two jobs in the future. There may be a director of national intelligence, a cabinet officer. This is the idea that some of the 9/11 Commission people have been talking about. And then a separate man who is the CIA director who runs the CIA itself.

Now, George Tenet has said himself that he doesn't -- he has some questions about that idea. He believes that there is always been an advantage for him, that he has troops, so to speak. That he has firsthand, face-to-face relationship with the kinds of officers who go off and do the things that need to be done around the world to gather intelligence for the United States.

He's always felt that that combination of being able to know the hands-on people that do that kind of work and talk to them directly, as well as being the person who goes to the White House and briefs the president in the morning. But that's given him special strengths as a servant of the United States, that if you reorganize it, they might not be.

But change -- you heard several 9/11 Commission members say over the last few weeks that changes in the air, there are going to be changes, whether you like it or not.

I would like to point out one other thing about George Tenet and his longevity amidst all of the quote/unquote "failures" that have been talked about that Richard was alluding to earlier.

In a way, it's been useful for President Bush to keep George Tenet. George Tenet's been a lightning rod, someone who could fall on his sword from time to time, be blamed for what seemed to be failures, what sometimes clearly are failures of U.S. intelligence. And it's allowed the president to deflect the blame in a different direction.

It may be that there just has become just too many issues at this point. If you take it all the way back to the failure to warn the United States that India was about to test a nuclear weapon. The India-Pakistani thing got very hot. There was no intelligence warning of that.

And there have been a succession of other failures or perceived failures relating to the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq. The most famous one, of course, being the matter at the United Nations where, as Richard mentioned, George Tenet was sitting behind Colin Powell. In effect, by his presence saying we back this material up.

And so much of it is now in question. The biological weapons labs, the mobile trucks. People are saying now that was just fabricated by emigres. The aluminum tubes that were supposed to be parts for centrifuges. Now people are saying those are really supposed to be parts for conventional rockets.

And some of these intelligence assessments that were made under the watch of George Tenet are not looking so good anymore. He's taken a bit of a battering.

At the same time, this is the director who has done more to expand the intelligence agency and move it into the 21st century and turn it to the war on terrorism in a very concrete way.

We should remember that this is the man who, in the summer of 2001 was repeatedly warning pretty much anyone who would listen that al Qaeda was coming, that al Qaeda wanted to attack the United States and that something major could happen.

He was warning senior officials from the president on down. He warned publicly in hearings before the Congress that trouble was brewing. Not many people listened -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And as we heard in the recent congressional testimony, he said that his biggest fear was that people would become complacent. And as 9/11 got farther and farther away, people would think something wasn't coming. And he seemed to believe that more attacks were on the way and that the intelligence agencies need a big help in trying to help prevent that from happening.

We're going to be back to you in a second, David. We're going to get right to -- right now on the phone with us we have Graham Allison. He is director of the Belfour Center at Harvard University. He is a former special adviser to CIA director Stansfield Turner.

Mr. Allison, thank you for being with us.


KAGAN: And tell us your reaction, please, to the resignation of George Tenet.

ALLISON: Well, I was surprised of the timing, but I think it's understandable and appropriate. I admire George's many contributions, but I think the principle that says that the buck stops at the director's desk in the case of the performance of the intelligence community is a good principle, and I think the community, and particularly CIA, has been responsible for a series of significant intelligence failures, including the run up to 9/11, and the actions that were not taken that could have prevented 9/11. Iraq, that's been discussed already, particularly the claims about chemical and biological weapons, and the certainty of those claims.

But a number of points that follow. So I would hope this might become a general principle, that folks who actually were responsible for bad decisions would take responsibility for them, and I think there are, unfortunately, too few resignations in the U.S. government, so I can congratulate George for this, I'm sure, very hard decision.

KAGAN: So it's one thing, Mr. Allison, to congratulate somebody on going, but the next question is, where do you go from here and perhaps who would you like to see fill that position or the restructuring perhaps of the U.S. intelligence agencies?

ALLISON: Well, those are very big questions.

KAGAN: Yes, they are.

ALLISON: And I think we're in the midst of a presidential campaign, if you were thinking of any significant restructuring, that requires not only a proposal from the executive branch, but congressional legislative actions, so I don't think that's in the cards in the short run, though the Bush administration may make proposals with respect to it.

And I think in the case of any new director, I like very much the principle that the Bush administration established that you don't change directors just when you change presidents, but I think if they should -- if the Bush administration should appoint someone now, they'll, obviously, be thinking about their opportunities and longevity in a new administration, especially if the person should be of a partisan strike, so I think it's going to be a difficult job to fill.

KAGAN: Well, of course, we hear the speculation that this is not something that the president would want to do during these election months, to have to go through those confirmation hearings, so perhaps the actual director, or whoever ends up filling that role, that decision will wait perhaps until after election. But do you think, especially with all the congressional hearings, and all the changes and all the hints that we've heard from this 9/11 Commission that the intelligence agencies will remain in their current form, or do you imagine a huge restructuring?

ALLISON: I would bet that there will be some significant restructuring, because I think that what 9/11 and now the more recent Iraq information suggests to us is that the community's performance has been poor, and that the fact that poor performance relates to lots of failures within, not just CIA, but the other intelligence agencies.

So I think what one would hope would come out of the 9/11 Commission is a really fundamental analysis of why the performance has been as poor as it has, and what can be done to reconstruct an intelligence community that we need, starting from the bottom up, not simply from moving the boxes around at the top of the picture.

I think when he analyze it, it's the bottom of this pyramid that has performed most poorly. In particular, it's evident that we didn't have spies in Iraq who had seen with their eyes the things that they -- that CIA reported to the president and that CIA told Secretary Powell were facts, which turned out not to be facts.

KAGAN: And that we saw Secretary Powell go before the United Nations to make the case for the U.S. going to war in Iraq. Graham Allison, the director of the Belfour Center at Harvard University, thank you for your time today. Much appreciated.


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