WASHINGTON – First the CIA missed clues that might have led to the Sept. 11 hijackers. Now President Bush (search) is planning an independent investigation to examine whether U.S. intelligence on Iraq was wrong and why.
The two apparently massive intelligence breakdowns would seem to jeopardize the future of CIA Director George Tenet (search). But despite scattered calls for his dismissal, Tenet is considered unlikely to go any time soon, lawmakers and analysts say.
His position is strengthened by close ties to the president, good relations with Democrats and Republicans, and apparent loyalty from CIA staff. His supporters credit him with intelligence successes and question how much he can be blamed for the failures.
Moreover, with Iraq intelligence potentially a hot issue in the presidential election, both parties have political incentives to keep Tenet: Democrats say the CIA alone doesn't bear the blame for intelligence failures in Iraq. They suspect the Bush administration manipulated prewar intelligence and don't want Tenet used as a fall guy. For Republicans, Tenet's dismissal could be seen as blunt acknowledgment that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction in recent years.
Former weapons inspector David Kay's (search) recent statements that the prewar intelligence was "almost all wrong" — and Bush's decision to create a commission to investigate — put Tenet in one of the most difficult points in his 6 1/2-year tenure, and his position is certainly not guaranteed.
Pressure on Tenet could intensify as the House and Senate intelligence committees wrap up separate inquiries that are expected to echo Kay's criticisms.
But Frederick Hitz, a former CIA inspector general now at Princeton University, said he doesn't believe Bush would be inclined to fire Tenet.
"He's loyal to his people and I think he would like to have George Tenet depart on his own terms. So I think he would try to avoid any rupture if possible," Hitz said.
Tenet has support from Democrats and Republicans. He was appointed by President Clinton and confirmed unanimously by the Senate in 1997. He had previously worked with both parties as a staff member for the Senate Intelligence Committee, eventually serving as staff director.
Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel Berger, said Tenet "has done about as good a job as any CIA director in my lifetime in balancing the three constituencies that the director of Central Intelligence has to balance:" the president, Congress and CIA staff.
"I'm hard-pressed to think of many folks who have done a better job in more difficult circumstances," Berger said.
Tenet has strong critics, though. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a former Intelligence Committee chairman, said Tenet at first "brought stability to the agency and was beginning to get the agency focused on international terrorism." But more recently, "he has not demonstrated the ability to coordinate the intelligence community toward a new priority on terrorism," Graham said.
The congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks concluded the intelligence agencies had ignored important clues, had not shared information and had paid inadequate attention to the likelihood of a major attack.
Eleanor Hill, the inquiry's staff director, said it is difficult to say how much blame can be placed on Tenet.
"What we saw was that a lot of these problems go back a long way and I'm not sure we can tag them on one individual," she said.
Intelligence agencies won praise for their work during major combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially in identifying targets.
But the Iraq war led to new criticism as prewar intelligence was called into question.
In his State of the Union speech last year, Bush cited British intelligence reports that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa. The administration later acknowledged it had no proof and that the intelligence had been discredited.
The White House blamed Tenet, and he accepted responsibility though some outside observers believed the White House was at fault.
Criticism mounted after Kay quit as chief weapons inspector and told Congress the prewar Iraq intelligence had not panned out. Kay said he believed U.S. intelligence agencies had lacked the needed human informants in Iraq and that analysts had been too quick in making conclusions without adequate data.
Even so, few lawmakers have called for Tenet to step down.
"Should heads roll about these things? That's up to the president," said Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "I'm much more interested in fixing the problems than in dismissing people."