George Tenet

How does he keep his job?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

No matter what happens during a Beltway scandal, one thing is certain: George Tenet will survive. Since taking over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1997, Tenet has presided over an astonishing litany of intelligence disasters. Some were fiascos because the CIA didn’t know what was about to happen: India and Pakistan’s nuclear tests in 1998, al-Qaida’s bombings that same year of two American Embassies in East Africa, the attacks of Sept. 11. Others occurred because the agency permitted the use of bad intelligence: President Clinton’s strike on Sudan’s Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war, and the current dustup over Tenet’s failure to strike a disputed statement from President Bush’s State of the Union address. But bad intelligence or no intelligence, Tenet has yet to be shown the door.

He’s not 100 percent certain to keep his job through the current scandal, but his odds have improved considerably over the course of the past week. Over the weekend, Democrats and Republicans alike were calling for his ouster. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, pronounced himself “disturbed” by the CIA’s “extremely sloppy handling of the issue,” including “a campaign of press leaks by the CIA in an effort to discredit the president.” After Tenet’s closed-door appearance before Roberts’ committee yesterday, however, the chairman changed his tune: “The director was very contrite. He was very candid. He was very forthcoming, and he accepted full responsibility,” Roberts said to USA Today. Roberts even admitted the Republican heresy that the White House was partly to blame: “I think mistakes were made all up and down the chain.”

How does Tenet do it? How did he become the third-longest-serving director of central intelligence in CIA history, the highest-ranking official to serve in both the Clinton and Bush administrations? His back-slapping personality and his loyalty to his superiors (as deputy director of the CIA, he shaved his beard at his boss’s request) tell part of the story, but his willingness to spin intelligence on behalf of his White House paymasters is crucial, too. Tenet is “a skilled, almost hyperactive operator,” an anonymous “former high-ranking CIA official” told the Los Angeles Times last year. A former CIA deputy director seconded that assessment to the Baltimore Sun: “George has cultivated the right constituencies. … That is his skill.”

Before critics such as New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Nicholas D. Kristof lambasted the Bush administration for politicizing the CIA’s intelligence analyses, spooks blasted Tenet’s agency for doing the same thing during the Clinton administration. An anonymous CIA official told the National Review in October 2002 that he was badgered “for writing analyses that did not jibe with Clinton foreign policy,” and another former CIA analyst wrote in 1999 on the Washington Post op-ed page, “Politicization of intelligence estimates continues to flourish under Tenet’s leadership.”

Admittedly, no one accused the Clinton administration of doing it to justify going to war, and the Bush administration has been accused of politicizing other parts of the government that were once regarded as ivory towers, such as the Council of Economic Advisers. But that’s another secret of Tenet’s success: During every scandal that he’s been embroiled in, there’s always been someone whose behavior was worse. In the aftermath of 9/11, for example, the FBI came in for considerably greater criticism than Tenet’s CIA. With the Sudan bombing, it was Clinton who was trying to distract attention from Flytrap.And during the effort to follow the yellowcake road, Tenet’s sins pale beside whoever it was inside the White House who inserted the disputed statement into President Bush’s speech—a person whose name Tenet reportedly revealed to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

There’s another reason not to be too rough on Tenet: As the administration and his supporters say time and again, it’s too early to render a verdict on his successes. “It’s impossible to judge him now,” before we know what happens with the war on terrorism, one expert told the Los Angeles Times last year. In addition, Tenet took over the CIA during a rough time for the agency, in the wake of the Aldrich Ames scandal, and as the agency’s fifth director in six years. By all accounts, his leadership helped boost morale in addition to garnering support from presidents and Capitol Hill.

To the extent that Tenet’s CIA was willing to stretch the meaning of particular data points, a February New Yorker story by Jeffrey Goldberg helps explain why. Tenet and the Bush administration hoped to introduce new methods of intelligence analysis that would prevent the “failure of imagination” that struck the government before Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11. Donald Rumsfeld told the magazine that he thought policymakers should give more “critical feedback” to intelligence analysts. Goldberg wrote that Tenet wanted his analysts “to extend themselves, to lower the threshold for what is credible.” The problem with that, as one expert fretted, was that analysts could “stray too far from the data.” But that’s exactly what Tenet wanted them to do. As he put it, “We’re emphasizing the point, as the saying goes, that intelligence work is often not about evidence but about the absence of evidence.”

In the current context, that sounds a little damning. But if too much evidence turns up absent in Iraq, don’t expect Tenet to take the fall. At least he shouldn’t. After all, his boss has said as much: “We need to encourage Congress to frankly leave the man alone,” President Bush said on Sept. 27, 2001, Time reported. “Tenet’s doing a good job. And if he’s not, blame me, not him.” Don’t worry, Mr. President. They will.