Tenet survives despite CIA woes

Director: Though Sept. 11 and other intelligence failures have cost American lives, few are pointing fingers of blame at the agency's chief.

February 06, 2002|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Thinking it would be a quiet day with the president out of town, CIA Director George J. Tenet was having breakfast with former Sen. David L. Boren, his longtime mentor, at a swank hotel near the White House on the morning of Sept. 11.

The two were talking about their families when, after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, Tenet's security detail descended upon his table.

"A plane has gone into the World Trade Center, Mr. Director," an aide said.

"Was it a big plane?" Tenet asked.

He was told it was.

"Was it an attack? It sounds like an attack."

Before the second plane hit, Tenet was leaving his scrambled eggs on the table and heading back to headquarters.

"This is bin Laden," he told his breakfast partner. "His fingerprints are all over it."

The lone Cabinet-level holdover from the Clinton administration, Tenet, 49, had long warned and worried about Osama bin Laden - almost to the point of "obsession," says Boren, who, as the Democratic chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in 1988, named Tenet his staff director.

A year ago, Tenet told Congress that bin Laden's network posed "the most immediate and serious threat" to the nation. Last summer, after picking up clues that something bad would happen - though not necessarily on American soil - he began to prepare a strategy, at President Bush's request, for taking down al-Qaida.

But, of course, he was too late.

And if anyone was likely to take the fall for what even some at the CIA had to admit was a colossal intelligence failure, it would be Tenet. Yet, with Congress beginning to request documents from the CIA for hearings to investigate what went wrong, few are pointing fingers at him.

Instead, lawmakers have seen Sept. 11 as a government-wide breakdown, with plenty of blame to go around. And far from being ousted, the engaging, cigar-chomping Tenet has emerged as a key architect of the war on terror.

In the process, he has carved out an extraordinarily prominent role, the largest since the Vietnam War, for the spy agency he has run since 1997. He has also established a role for himself as one of the president's most trusted advisers on the war.

"It is his relationship with the president that has saved his job," says Steven Aftergood, an intelligence policy analyst.

Not only did Bush not ask for Tenet's resignation after Sept. 11, but he came to his defense. Visiting CIA headquarters soon after the terrorist attacks, the president pointedly expressed "a lot of confidence" in Tenet and the agency.

To be sure, there have been critics. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, an Alabama Republican and former Intelligence Committee chairman, argues that in light of repeated intelligence breakdowns - failure to anticipate nuclear weapons tests in India, U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, the attack on the USS Cole and, of course, Sept. 11 - Tenet should go.

But broad support for Tenet, whose party affiliation is unknown even to friends, has been more conspicuous. It is a testament to his popularity in the intelligence community and his strong relations with Congress and the president.

Tenet, a former Capitol Hill staffer who bounces a basketball in the CIA hallways, plays Motown music in his office and calls everyone "pal," clicked with Bush from the start of the administration. The president, in fact, asked the CIA director to attend the daily intelligence briefing at the White House rather than send an emissary or, as President Bill Clinton preferred, a written report.

`Are we missing anything?'

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, colleagues say, the salty, at times profane, CIA director has become more determined and harder-working than ever, asking himself over and over the questions that lawmakers will likely ask if he sits before them:

What could intelligence agencies have done to detect an impending terrorist attack on the United States? Were signs missed?

"We're consumed by it," says A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, the CIA's No. 3 executive who has worked by Tenet's side since 1998. "We sit around and examine and re-examine: `Are we missing anything?' Every single afternoon we have a meeting to talk about the terrorist threat. We don't need people beating up on us. We beat up on ourselves."

Krongard, a former Marine captain and former CEO of the Baltimore investment firm of Alex. Brown, says the self-critique, which includes reviewing mountains of encrypted information picked up in the weeks and months before Sept. 11, has turned up no glaring oversights by the agency.

Still, unlike some CIA officials who have been loath to utter the word failure, Krongard concedes that, in his business, anything less than perfection is a disaster.

"Everything having been said," Krongard said, "it's a failure because it happened."

A frustrating business

Tenet, who declined to be interviewed and who prefers to stay out of the spotlight, has become grayer since Sept. 11. Those around him say he was deeply shaken by the attacks on a number of levels.

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