WASHINGTON - An indelible image from George J. Tenet's tenure shows him strategically seated near Colin L. Powell in the U.N. Security Council chamber on Feb. 5, 2003, symbolically putting the full weight of the U.S. intelligence community behind the secretary of state's claim that Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.
That Tenet shares responsibility for the blow to America's credibility from the failure so far to find those weapons is part of the story that image conveys - but only a part.
Perhaps more than any director of central intelligence since William J. Casey, who served President Ronald Reagan, Tenet was an integral member of the president's national security team - implementing and contributing to policies now clouded by doubt and dissension.
His resignation yesterday is a major crack in that team, already fractured by increasingly public disputes among State and Defense departments and Vice President Dick Cheney's office. The team has been jolted by a series of investigations not only into the failure to find banned weapons but also by inquiries scrutinizing counterterrorism planning, the leak of highly sensitive information and the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and elsewhere.
Tenet's departure is bound to raise anew important questions that arose when Casey played a major role in orchestrating the covert war to topple the leftist regime in Nicaragua: Where does one draw the line between intelligence and policy-making? And how can intelligence agencies retain their independence in an administration with an activist foreign policy?
Robert M. Gates, who served as CIA director under the first President George Bush, said "It's essential for the [director of central intelligence] to be in the small policy-making circle when key decisions are made. He's responsible for keeping everybody straight and keeping the debate honest, if you will."
But Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, suggested in a statement that the CIA director needs to maintain something of an arm's-length relationship with the president and other policy-makers. The intelligence community, she said, must stand "as an independent voice, delivering unvarnished, unedited information to this and future administrations."
Whether Tenet straddled the line between dispassionate intelligence reporting and being an active promoter of the president's agenda is unclear, but history thrust him into a major foreign policy role.
Under President Bill Clinton, who appointed him as director in 1997, the CIA launched a secret plan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, then in Afghanistan, according to accounts by author Bob Woodward.
From 1998 until September of 2000, Tenet also played a key role in the Middle East peace process as the CIA closely monitored Palestinian Authority actions against terrorist groups.
"He had better relations with both the Israelis and the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] than anyone else did. It's not surprising that Clinton used George in a very open way," Gates said.
Tenet's effort helped suppress attacks on Israelis, and an aide said the director views his performance in the Middle East as one of his most important accomplishments.
But it was under the younger George Bush that Tenet's role became truly pivotal - and also when the intelligence community's failures proved most costly.
"George and I have been spending a lot of quality time together," Bush said at the CIA's northern Virginia headquarters shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, referring to their almost daily meetings in the Oval Office to assess intelligence on terrorism.
The comment enhanced the prestige of the director, who presides over 15 intelligence agencies but actually has full control only over the CIA. At that time, little was known of the CIA's role in the major intelligence failures that preceded the attacks.
In an April staff report, the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission found that despite Tenet's own fears that terrorists would strike the United States, his urgent demands for action by subordinates "had little overall effect in mobilizing the CIA or the intelligence community." Tenet, the report added, "did not develop a management strategy for a war against terrorism before 9/11."
Critical reports likely
The commission's final report next month and the House Intelligence Committee's review of intelligence failures leading to 9/11 are expected to be harshly critical of Tenet.
"This is going to be a horrible summer," said David Kay, sent by the CIA to Iraq in a fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction.
Intelligence on Iraq suffered not only from bad or misleading information, some of it passed by exiles with an axe to grind. But it also suffered from interpretations that, in the view of some analysts, went beyond what the available facts justified.