June 4, 2004

June 4, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

Wrong Way to Leave

IT was expected to come even tually, but the timing stinks. Director of Central Intelli gence (DCI) George Tenet's abruptly-announced decision to leave his post in less than six weeks leaves the Bush administration - and perhaps the country - in a terribly vulnerable position.

Although Tenet's seven-year tenure has been marred with spectacular intelligence failures - 9/11 and the dearth of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD), for starters - pulling up stakes now in the run-up to a hotly-contested presidential election means a feeding frenzy for the media and a major distraction to the White House. (Most Cabinet-level officials agree to stay in their posts through the elections to avoid unnecessary leadership disruptions and questions of political unity.)

And with the war in Iraq at a critical phase, attempted terrorist attacks expected to surge during this summer's political conventions in New York and Boston, continuing challenges in Afghanistan and burgeoning Iranian and North Korean nuclear problems, the country needs a steady hand on the intel tiller until the president can name an appropriate - and trusted - successor as his senior intelligence adviser.

As the second-longest serving DCI since the position was created in 1947 (Allen Dulles served for eight years from 1953-61), Tenet's departure could be attributed to at least several possibilities:

* Perhaps Tenet feels he's become a lightning rod within the administration and lost credibility with Capitol Hill and the confidence of the president as his senior intelligence adviser - so he deems it best to step aside for the good of the CIA and the White House.

* Or maybe he decided that he didn't want to face the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's (SSCI) report on failures over Iraq's WMD or the 9/11 Commission's likely-scathing report due out this summer. Or maybe more bad news for the agency is coming out of Abu Ghraib prison or the unfolding Ahmed Chalabi controversy.

* Or Tenet, a lifelong Democrat, might have decided to capitalize on his experiences a la Richard Clarke and write a tell-all book - or become an adviser to the John Kerry campaign like many other Clinton administration political appointees, such as Dick Holbrooke and Jamie Rubin.

* Or he may just be plain burned-out from seven-day Executive Branch weeks and 20-hour workdays and want more time with his family after seven years in the intelligence hot seat.

On the positive side, Tenet's departure provides an opportunity for a fresh start for the CIA and the intelligence community after a particularly roiled recent history. The last few months have been brutal for the CIA, seriously damaging its credibility with the American public. New leadership at the CIA could be just the thing to help restore that confidence.

The intelligence community is also badly in need of reform. Taking into account the results of the Senate's and the 9/11 Commission's reports this summer, a new DCI would provide the guidance and vision needed to propel the community into the 21st century unsaddled by questions of past judgments.

We desperately need to recapitalize our clandestine human-intelligence capabilities, and to mold the intelligence community for the new national-security environment - one characterized by the scourge of terrorism, the spread of WMD and the dirty deeds of rogue states such as Iran, North Korea and Syria.

Good, solid intelligence is indispensable to our national security. Although morale at the CIA may dip with Tenet's unexpected departure, the "Company's" cast of brave, hard-working unsung professionals will quickly rebound and do the job that needs to be done in our nation's defense.

But they shouldn't have to. Though George Tenet served his country in the best way he knew how, he owed it to the president to stay on until Bush could find - and get confirmed by Congress - a new senior intelligence adviser at this critical time in American history.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in the New York Post