Balancing act makes spy chief a survivor

CIA director is skilled at meeting the needs of the president, his agency

February 06, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON- George J. Tenet hinted yesterday at one of his secrets of survival as director of central intelligence, when he answered a Georgetown University student asking about the influence of conservative Pentagon analysts who operate outside normal intelligence channels.

"I can tell you with certainty that the president of the United States gets his intelligence from one person and one community: me. And he has told me firmly and directly that he's wanted it straight and he's wanted it honest and he's never wanted the facts shaded," Tenet said.

With that answer, Tenet reaffirmed his personal relationship with President Bush and defended his agency's credibility, while also defending Bush against the frequent charge that he is captive of ideologues who manipulate intelligence to advance their own agendas - starting with the war in Iraq.

Appointed by former President Bill Clinton and reappointed by Bush, Tenet has become one of the agency's longest-serving directors but must perform a difficult balancing act: satisfying varying demands of the president, top policy-makers and members of Congress, while protecting his own thousands of employees from the fallout from intelligence failures.

At the same time, Tenet has become a master at damage control, deflecting blame from his own agency without pointing the finger too directly at his political masters.

Rarely has a director faced such conflicting pressures as those Tenet confronts now, with the credibility of U.S. intelligence under fire perhaps more than at any time since the Cold War.

"He's a political animal, and he's very good at personal relationships," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism official.

Former weapons-hunter David Kay and congressional Republicans say the CIA suffers from a woeful shortage of spies and specialists on the Islamic world. Democrats want to show that however inadequate the Iraq intelligence might have been, it was hyped and distorted by the Bush administration to rally support for war.

Meanwhile, at least two of the leading Democratic presidential contenders, John Kerry and Howard Dean, have called for Tenet to resign. They join two former chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham of Florida, a dropout from the Democratic presidential race, and Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.

The uproar over Iraq comes not long after U.S. intelligence endured criticism for a failure to predict the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which revealed an inability to penetrate the upper ranks of a terrorist network that the CIA had been following closely for years.

Tenet emerged somewhat damaged but still upright from a congressional investigation, which concluded that the intelligence community failed to recognize the full significance of information pointing to an impending terrorist attack.

Earlier in his career, Tenet was a Senate staffer who worked for Republican John Heinz of Pennsylvania (whose widow is now married to Kerry) and Democrat David L. Boren of Oklahoma, and acquired a reputation on Capitol Hill as a nonpartisan professional.

Undoubtedly, he also learned there from the mistakes of CIA directors who enraged congressional leaders by stonewalling investigators.

Others in the administration have defended Tenet's conduct before Sept. 11. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said yesterday that during the summer before the terror attacks, "George Tenet was pounding on tables warning that something was going to happen." Armitage said he had told this to the bipartisan commission looking into 9/11, headed by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean.

This kind of backing reflects Tenet's ability to inspire trust.

"He's one of the most-liked people in Washington. He's honest, fun to be around and has a human side that endears him to people," said Nancy Soderberg, a former National Security Council official and United Nations ambassador under Clinton.

Armitage, who regularly attends Georgetown Hoyas basketball games with Tenet, says the director appeals to Bush as "a man's man" who chews cigars, loves sports and "reads people very well."

These people skills also endeared him to an agency periodically rocked by scandal. The CIA had been traumatized by shakeups conducted by his predecessor, John M. Deutch, and badly needed a morale boost when Tenet took over in July 1997.

When, on taking office in 2001, Bush faced the choice of keeping Tenet or replacing him, the director might have gotten an approving nod from the president's father, a former CIA chief himself. Tenet renamed agency headquarters after the former president.

"I'm sure he had heard, particularly from the old bulls, how much George had done for the place," Armitage said of the former president.

Since Sept. 11, Tenet has weathered criticism both from outside the government and from conservative hard-liners inside the administration, who believed CIA analysts had not drawn sufficient connections between rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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