WASHINGTON – With the surprise resignation of CIA Director George Tenet (search) on Thursday, many officials inside and out of government are wondering what changes are in store for the spy agency, and speculation starts with the name of the person who will replace the 7-year head of central intelligence.
For now, deputy director John McLaughlin (search) will take over as acting head of the agency when Tenet departs in mid-July, and several sources speculate he will stay in his post until after the presidential election in November.
The reasons for that speculation are simple. The Bush administration has come under intense scrutiny over the quality of its intelligence and the decision to act on it even when its strength is questionable.
Before the election comes, the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks will make its findings and recommendations. It has already strongly condemned the CIA (search) for pre-Sept. 11 failures. On top of that, the Senate Intelligence Committee will give out its report on faulty prewar estimates of Iraq's weapons capabilities. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a member of the panel described the release as "a very stinging report of failure inside the CIA."
With those reports on the way, the last thing Bush needs is to get bogged down in a fiery Senate confirmation hearing that would likely veer into topics other than the president's choice of a new director for the agency. Aside from that, Congress is spending very little time on Capitol Hill over the next few months as lawmakers gear up for the elections. That gives them little time to vet a potential candidate.
But even if a hearing were to come, possible replacements for Tenet are still anybody's guess. Several names have been offered as Tenet's potential successor, including Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (search); former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (search), who was in office at the time of the terror attacks; former Sen. Bob Kerry (search), D-Neb., who is a member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States; and House Intelligence Committee chairman Porter Goss (search), R-Fla. Goss is retiring at the end of this congressional term.
"I think Porter Goss or Rich Armitage would have to be considered the likeliest choices," said Michael Hirsh, senior editor of Newsweek.
Goss told Fox News that he hasn't given a thought to becoming the next head of the CIA, but the former CIA operative did not rule it out.
"I've never campaigned for that job and I've never been asked to consider it seriously by anybody in the administration, but anybody, after I retire from elected public office, who came to me with a proposition and asked me to render some services to the United States of America, my country, of course, I would consider that very carefully," Goss said.
As for other candidates, Giuliani's spokeswoman discounted the speculation, and observers say it's unlikely he would want the job.
"Giuliani would be insane to take the job and I don't see the president appointing Bob Kerry," said Time magazine writer Jay Carney.
Carney added that several changes could be in store for the intelligence community now that the vacancy has created an opportunity for a general overhaul of the troubled agency.
"There is this whole issue of reforming the entire structure of U.S. intelligence agencies, and one might argue that why appoint a new director of central intelligence now when as early as next spring there may be efforts underway to completely restructure U.S. intelligence with a new national czar of intelligence, a national director over the CIA, over the Defense Department intelligence agencies and with the possibility of creating a domestic spy agency along the lines of Britain's MI-5 (search)," Carney said.
Many of the suggestions for a new intelligence structure have resulted from several errors that arose under Tenet's tenure.
While the president said Thursday that he was sorry to see Tenet go, the agency has been under intense scrutiny, having been accused of getting bad information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, of failing to catch the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks, of letting Usama bin Laden (search) slip away and of building barriers that prevent communication with other U.S. intelligence agencies.
"If we look at the record of performance by George Tenet, there have been more failures on his watch since he's been director than any I have seen," said Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, a longtime critic of Tenet. "There have been too many failures for too long. I believe the resignation was overdue. I think we would have done better with someone else, and now the administration has a great opportunity, I hope they will take advantage of it."
But by most accounts, Tenet has been credited with leaving the CIA stronger than it was.
Under Tenet's command, the CIA saw its resources boosted and its clandestine service grow. Among the agency's successes, the CIA went into Afghanistan to help dismantle Al Qaeda and, in Iraq, the agency was involved in the capture of fallen Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
"George has certainly contributed to the national security of this country," former National Security Council spokesman David Leavy told Fox News, adding that Tenet gave the CIA an "esprit de corps" that was formerly lacking and refocused its mission after the end of the Cold War.
Leavy said that while Tenet may have used the excuse that he was leaving for personal reasons, the director's "final act of loyalty" to Bush was to "fall on his sword" and blunt the impact of the two reports soon to be released.
"I think he did fall on his sword and give the president a little breathing room," he said.
An emotional Tenet told CIA employees on Thursday that his resignation was the most difficult decision he's made. "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 faced a tough year before his final goodbye. Agency officials were angered over the release of a CIA employee's name. A federal grand jury is investigating whether the leak came from within the White House. Tenet also has had a touchy relationship with the Defense Department, especially in light of the recent release of classified information on Iran to Ahmad Chalabi (search), a former favorite of the Pentagon who has been accused of passing the information to Iranian officials.
Tenet is not the only departure from the CIA. The head of the agency's clandestine service, James Pavitt, plans to 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.
Stephen Kappes, a 23-year agency veteran, is expected to take over the agency's best-known division, responsible for foreign intelligence gathering.
Even with Tenet's resignation, some Democrats say they want more heads to roll in the Bush administration as a result of intelligence miscalculations and the jump to war in Iraq.
"I did not lose confidence in his judgment," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "I think there are many more people who are responsible for the mess that the administration has" created.
Fox News' Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.