CIA Director George Tenet, battered by Sept. 11 fallout and criticism of Iraq intelligence mistakes, said Thursday he would soon resign in a surprise announcement that threw open a key position at a critical time in the war against terrorism.
Tenet, a Democratic appointee whose close relationship to President Bush has helped him survive the intelligence failures, said he was leaving for personal reasons. But some in Congress questioned whether he had been pushed out.
Tenet may be coming under intense criticism soon as various intelligence investigations conclude, including a Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Iraq weapons mistakes. "It's a very stinging report of failure inside the CIA," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a committee member, said recently.
Bush said Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, would temporarily lead America's spy agency during a period in which Iraq remains unstable and U.S. officials worry terrorists might strike in hopes of influencing the November elections.
In a speech to CIA employees, an emotional Tenet said, "It was a personal decision and had only one basis in fact: the well-being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less."
Tenet, 51, spent an hour with Bush at the White House Wednesday night, informing him of his decision to leave his post as head of the CIA and director of the 14 other agencies that comprise the intelligence community.
In a hurriedly arranged announcement Thursday before leaving on a trip to Europe, Bush said, "I told him I'm sorry he's leaving. He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people."
A White House official said the president told his staff he did not want anyone speculating that Tenet was leaving for anything other than personal reasons. "If (Tenet) wants to expand on that further, then we will leave it to him to do so," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan later said.
Tenet, a gregarious man described by some as a political animal, is the second-longest serving Central Intelligence director and just the second to continue to serve when a new administration came in. He briefed Bush at the White House almost daily.
Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., who befriended Tenet while serving on the House Intelligence Committee, said he talked to Tenet Thursday afternoon and Tenet told him the president asked him to stay.
It seemed unlikely that Bush would send a nomination to the Senate before the fall — for what could be a bitter confirmation fight given controversies over recent intelligence failures — rather than wait until after the election, should he win.
Among names mentioned as a possible successor are House Intelligence Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose spokeswoman discounted the speculation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., remarked on Tenet's timing — with the nation on alert for an attack and with the presidential election approaching.
"I can't remember any resignation that has struck me as more startling than this one," she said. "I suspect there is going to be more of a story to tell than just personal reasons."
Lawmakers including Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., were pushing for Goss, a former CIA officer who questioned Thursday morning whether the intelligence community is too susceptible to misinformation and deception.
McLaughlin, who is nicknamed "Merlin" and is considered close to Tenet, will take over the agency when Tenet steps down in mid-July, on the seven-year anniversary of his swearing in.
The head of the agency's clandestine service, James Pavitt, will also announce his retirement Friday — a decision the 31-year CIA veteran made several weeks ago, before he knew of Tenet's decision, a CIA official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He is expected to be replaced by Stephen Kappes, a 23-year veteran.
On Tenet's watch, the CIA helped capture key al-Qaida leaders including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaydah, as well as fallen Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He also oversaw a significant increase in the number of covert officers in training and came forward with an aggressive plan to go after al-Qaida in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, winning favor with Bush.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, traveling in Asia, expressed regret over Tenet's resignation, saying "he has helped save lives on the battlefield."
But Tenet and his agency were strongly criticized for failing to predict and prevent the Sept. 11 attacks. And al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) remains at large.
In May, a panel investigating the attacks criticized the CIA for failing to fully appreciate the threat posed by al-Qaida before the terrorist hijackings. Tenet said the intelligence-gathering flaws would take five years to correct.
Tenet also has been under criticism for intelligence failures in the U.S.-led war against Iraq, specifically wrong assessments about weapons of mass destruction.
In a February speech, Tenet conceded that the intelligence community may have overestimated Iraq's weapons programs, but he defended his analysts. "They never said there was an imminent threat," Tenet said.
The CIA has been angered over recent allegations that Defense Department civilians may have given highly classified information on Iran to an Iraqi politician and former Pentagon favorite, Ahmad Chalabi. After the resignation, Chalabi lashed out at Tenet, accusing him of being personally responsible for spreading the allegations.
Agency officials also still are upset over last summer's leak of a covert CIA operative's name. Bush said Wednesday he was considering hiring a private attorney to give him legal advice in a grand jury investigation into that leak.
Tenet had considered leaving before. In 1998, he told his first boss, President Clinton, he would resign if Clinton pardoned convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, a former naval intelligence officer who gave top-secret documents to Israel.
Officials close to Tenet say he also thought about resigning last summer, but decided to stay on. Some believed he had wanted to see through bin Laden's capture.
Since the intelligence failures on the Iraq war, congressional aides have said that Tenet's capital among some key lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike — had dwindled.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the intelligence community had to be held accountable for its failings.
"Simply put, I think the community is somewhat in denial over the full extent ... of the shortcoming of its work on Iraq and also on 9/11," Roberts said Thursday morning before learning of Tenet's decision. "We need fresh thinking within the community, especially within the Congress," Roberts said.
Former CIA Director Stansfield Turner said he believed Tenet had been pushed out.
"I think the president feels he's in enough trouble that he's got to begin to cast some of the blame for the morass that we are in in Iraq to somebody else," said Turner, a retired Navy admiral.