WASHINGTON – A Senate report detailing serious flaws in U.S. intelligence-gathering highlights the urgent need for a permanent CIA director given the current terrorist threat, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee (search) said Sunday.
George Tenet (search), who announced in early June that he was resigning for personal reasons, left the agency on Sunday after seven years as director. His deputy, John McLaughlin, took over as acting director.
Tenet's departure came two days after the committee concluded the CIA provided unfounded assessments of the threat posed by Iraq that the Bush administration relied on to justify going to war.
"An acting director for the next six or seven months, during such a dangerous period for the United States, with all of these talks about attacks on the United States, is not acceptable," said West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller (search), the committee's top Democrat.
The chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts, said McLaughlin's ability to lead is limited as acting director even though he is "very skilled" and brings a lot of experience to the job.
"I hope the administration will send somebody up," said Roberts, R-Kan. "It will have to be an extraordinary nominee. If that's the case, we will go full time into the hearings to get him or her confirmed."
Committee members discussed several possible nominees: Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage; former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.; House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla.; and former Navy Secretary John Lehman, a member of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.
The White House gave no indication Sunday about when Bush would name a permanent director.
"Acting director McLaughlin is a strong and capable leader," said Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman. "The president will make a decision on a new CIA director in due course."
A senior administration official said in early July that White House aides expect the announcement of the next director could happen soon. Officials close to Bush have said more than one person is under consideration to take over direction of the CIA and the 14 other agencies that make up the nation's intelligence apparatus.
Federal officials said last week that intelligence from militant-linked Web sites and elsewhere indicated al-Qaida wants to attack the United States to disrupt the upcoming elections.
The government is putting in place elaborate security plans for the political conventions this summer in Boston and New York. Also, officials are considering how to secure polling places come November. Such security measures require a strengthened CIA to help execute, Rockefeller said.
"I think that John McLaughlin is trying to make some changes, but making changes in the CIA after a 50-year history of Cold War operations and mentality is a very tough thing to bring about," he said. "We have to do a better job."
Without mentioning names, Rockefeller said there were four or five candidates who could get quick bipartisan support if Bush were to nominate them now. When pressed, however, Rockefeller said he did not believe Goss was one of them.
"I don't think that anybody who should be up for consideration should have a political background," Rockefeller said.
But Roberts quickly followed: "I don't know of anybody in Washington that doesn't have a political background of some sort."
One committee member said the president should take time to make the choice -- someone who will go in with a mandate to oversee major changes.
"This is going to be a very hot nomination confirmation process," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "And I would urge the administration -- not that they're going to listen, but I would urge them anyway -- to go slow on this, because we want to do the reform. And I think it's a huge mistake to confirm someone that might not be a major reform figure."
Roberts and Rockefeller also clashed over whether administration officials had pressured intelligence analysts to reach predetermined conclusions on the Iraq threat.
The White House's role will be examined in a second phase of the committee's investigation, which probably will not be finished until after the election.
Rockefeller said the administration should be held partly accountable for what he considered to be an undue interest in invading Iraq after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"In the meantime, we have created, therefore, the lowest standing of the United States in our history around the world; more people trained and being trained for probably a generation or so to come to hate us and to try and hurt us abroad and here in the homeland," Rockefeller said.
Roberts said the White House should not be blamed for asking tough questions of analysts and making public statements such as those referring to a "mushroom cloud" -- which is produced after a nuclear explosion -- in describing the Iraqi threat.
"The information that was provided to the president and to the Congress -- that led to the same kind of assertive comments that the same critics are now blaming the president for -- was flawed," he said.
The lawmakers appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," "Fox News Sunday," ABC's "This Week" and CBS' "Face the Nation."