Pundits on Tenet

RealClearPolitics has a good collection of columnists, think tankers, and legislators and their reactions to the Tenet resignation. Not a whole lot that you didn’t see around the blogosphere yesterday, but these folks get paid the big bucks, so they must be smarter than we are.

Bob Novak (pundit, curmudgeon, Prince of Darkness)

Reports or no reports, Tenet cannot escape the CIA’s twin failures under his leadership: not warning the government of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and providing false intelligence to justify the U.S. attack on Iraq. Bush has come under mostly quiet criticism from some Republicans in Congress for retaining President Bill Clinton’s director of Central Intelligence instead of naming his own man.

Still the consensus is that he was the most effective director in many years. He certainly had the confidence of Bush, usually beginning the president’s day with a one-on-one briefing. Though a Democratic congressional staffer rather than an intelligence professional, Tenet became very popular inside the agency. His emotional farewell address Thursday delivered at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., outside Washington, was well received by the intelligence professionals.

Rep. Jane Harman (ranking member, House intel committee)

What we need going forward is a single director of national intelligence who would have greater budgetary and statutory authority over the entire intelligence community. The job would be a president-appointed post whose office would help fuse together the collection and analysis functions in the same way our military services were transformed into an integrated fighting force nearly 20 years ago.

Paul Pillar (author, former CIA counter-terror chief)

Far more is at stake here than repairing the reputation of the C.I.A. The conclusions of the 9/11 commission will be important for countering the terrorist threat of today, as manifested in the post-9/11 attacks from Bali to Madrid. Al Qaeda, although still a danger, has been badly damaged by the measures taken over the past two and a half years. But the broader Islamist network it supports and feeds off of may be as strong as ever, and it constitutes a serious terrorist threat that will remain even after Osama bin Laden is killed or captured.

The big lesson of the 1990’s isn’t that the intelligence agencies had no idea of the threat we faced. It is that even their repeated warnings were not sufficient to change national priorities. Two more specific lessons follow. First, national intelligence estimates are not panaceas, either in adding to what the intelligence community conveys to policy makers through other means or in stimulating new agendas. Experience has shown that major policy changes tend to come only from actual disasters.

The second lesson is that the American public needs more of an education in the complexities of international terrorism, and fewer of the oversimplifications that have characterized the current blame game. George Tenet may be leaving government service, but the public would do well to take heed of his testimony to the 9/11 commission, in which he noted that “warning is not good enough without the structure to put it into action.”

James Jay Carafano (Heritage, casual acquaintance)

Despite all the confidence that President Bush expressed in Mr. Tenet, it was probably past time for him to move on. Retaining an intelligence chief who allegedly claimed it was a “slam dunk” that Iraq had a robust weapons of mass destruction program, when the data were actually far more ambiguous, would have been, well, untenable.


Testimony before the 9/11 commission clearly demonstrates the need for better sharing and dissemination of information at all levels of government. Specifically, the United States needs:

  • A national leadership that will ensure rapid improvement in information-gathering capabilities at all levels and access to timely, reliable and actionable information from both foreign and domestic sources for use at the federal, state and local levels.
  • An information clearinghouse where all intelligence and law enforcement agencies can screen data about terrorist activities.
  • The Department of Homeland Security to become the single integrator of the domestic intelligence picture as envisioned by the Homeland Security Act.
  • Strengthened use of intelligence in visa issuance and monitoring, enforcement of immigration laws and anti-money-laundering activities.
  • Mark Riebling (author)

    Overdue, because Tenet led the U.S. intelligence community into its worst failure of risk-assessment since Pearl Harbor. That our policymakers should share blame with him is moot: As President Kennedy told then-CIA Director Allen Dulles, after the failed 1961 invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, “In a parliamentary government, I would resign. In this government the president can’t, and so you must go.”

    Peter Brookes

    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.

    John Podhoretz (pundit, son of neocon founder)

    n a speech at the CIA yesterday, Tenet insisted that he was leaving because of the needs of his family, and broke down sobbing when he began to speak about his 16-year-old son, Michael.

    Usually when Washington officials say they want to spend more time with their families, they’re lying through their teeth. But people generally don’t accuse themselves of having been lousy parents in public. If Tenet was lying when he told Michael, “You’ve been a great son, now I’m going to be a great father,” he’s the greatest actor in the world.

    OK, so the director of central intelligence probably has some acting skills. But this would put Tenet at Olivier level.

    If you watched the speech, you’d have to acknowledge Tenet didn’t look like somebody who had been kicked out the door. He looked fantastically relieved, like an enormous weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He seemed delighted that his friend and deputy John McLaughlin had been named acting director to succeed him.

    Rich Lowry (NRO editor, TV pretty boy)

    Tenet stacked up an impressive number of failures during his tenure, but pinning America’s atrophied intelligence capabilities on him is a little like blaming Danish Defense Minister Soeren Gade for Denmark’s weak defense. The problem is the national material with which both have had to work. Led by Congress and the media, the United States has hobbled its ability to conduct intelligence operations throughout the past three decades with its squeamishness and its gotcha political culture.

    Intelligence is a dirty business — “a lout’s game,” in the words of writer Rebecca West. In the course of engaging in it, things will inevitably go wrong. Unless you are willing to accept these facts with some equanimity, you won’t be able to do intelligence well. You will instead write Marquess of Queensberry rules for yourself and engage in paroxysms of self-blame when they aren’t followed properly.

    Since the emasculating Church hearings of the 1970s, this has been the story of the CIA. It seemed that 9/11 would change all that. Instead of picking ourselves apart with self-criticism, we would meet the dangers confronting us, even in the face of setbacks and mistakes. Alas, in the explosion of media and congressional attention to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and in the self-flagellating 9/11 Commission hearings, it has been the 1970s all over again.

    Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball (Newsweek columnists, have funny names)

    “This seems to have as much to do with the president’s re-election as anything else,” says one veteran intelligence community official who has long been close to Tenet. “George is a fighter and it’s not in his character to walk away like this. I think he read the tea leaves” that the White House wanted him to leave, the official said.

    Bush today praised Tenet, saying “he’s done a superb job on behalf of the American people.” But the intelligence community official said “the point is the president didn’t stop him” from resigning by asking him to stay on.

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    James Joyner
    About James Joyner
    James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


    1. Herb Ely says:

      I also like the comments in this morning’s Washington Post that it was the “slam dunk” sound bite that did the DCI in. The NYT reports that Senator Roberts thinks the intelligence community is in denial. See my weblog for further comments and links.

    2. James Joyner says:

      Or two posts down right here on OTB 😉

    3. Robertita says:

      I am kinda surprised that I haven’t seen anyone picking up the headline earlier in the week about the lie detector tests being administered in the CIA. Funny, but to me it seemed that it would certainly raise a question that 2 CIA leaders resign a few days after an investigation of Plame ( I believe) caused them to be required to take lie detector tests.

      Perhaps merely coincidence.