Jewish World Review June 9, 2004 / 20 Sivan 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Room at the top | George Tenet was always a master of political timing. Now he's leaving as head of the Central Intelligence Agency at the most opportune time: between two political storms.

Mr. Tenet didn't leave earlier, when he was being grilled by both a congressional committee and a special commission investigating Sept. 11. Neither seemed overly impressed with his work, but he wasn't about to resign when it would look like he was being forced out. This way, he won't be around to take still more heat when the investigators' reports come out blasting the CIA in general and his leadership in particular. Yes, it was the perfect time to go "for personal reasons."

George Tenet may have stayed too long at this party, but at least he won't be around to get in the way of the clean-up afterward.

Lest we forget: When it was good, George Tenet's CIA was very good. For example, it managed to bring Libya's quirky leader, Moammar Gadhafi, over to our side of the war against terror. Mad Moammar was at least a junior partner in the Axis of Evil, and getting him to join our side was a lot better than having to change his regime, with all the risks that would have entailed.

Another coup: The CIA outed the father of Pakistan's Bomb - A.Q. Khan - as the grandfather of nuclear weapons programs around the world, from North Korea to the Middle East. Dr. Khan, who ran a kind of bootleg nuke operation for shady characters of all origins and ready cash, did untold harm, but he could have done even more if the CIA hadn't unmasked him.

And does anybody remember when the war in Afghanistan was going nowhere? Not for the first or last time, the word of the day among the chattering class in Washington and New York was Quagmire! Critics like Arizona's much-admired John McCain - war hero, senator, maverick and loose cannon - demanded that a huge American expeditionary force be dispatched to the Afghan wastes at once.

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But while others all about him were losing their heads, George Tenet held out for sending a few CIA teams over there to organize the native resistance to the Taliban. American forces were kept to a minimum, and that approach (and patience) worked. No, it wasn't easy. It still isn't. But now Afghanistan is largely free and stable, the kind of success story some of us would gladly settle for in Iraq.

No doubt the CIA has a lot of other triumphs in its classified files we'll never hear about. It's supposed to do its work in secret, remember? But doubtless it has a lot of failures stored away, too. For when George Tenet and the CIA were bad, they were horrid. As the country found to its shock one early September morning in 2001. The CIA's gumshoes still haven't been able to find all those weapons of mass destruction that George Tenet just knew Saddam Hussein had. That call was, in the only words of George Tenet's that may go down in history, a "slam-dunk!"

Mr. Tenet took the fall for that misjudgment, but not quickly or graciously. Three years after Sept. 11, not a single official has lost his job, and, when one quits, like counter-terrorism chief Dick Clarke, it's to write a book blaming everybody else. Simple accountability seems as rare in American espionage as it is in American education.

George Tenet's resignation leaves a lot of room at the top of American spycraft, especially because his No. 2 man will soon be going, too. Those vacancies open up some promising possibilities, and Washington is full of speculation about who the next director of the CIA will be or should be.

But what the country needs is not just a new CIA director, but a central intelligence agency - one that would organize and check on all the others, and provide a clearing house for the vast cyber-storehouses of information this country's spooks collect.

There's no shortage of information about threats to this country, only a shortage of the kind of intelligence needed to organize it. The CIA was originally supposed to do just that, but it's become too much more. It's not simply evaluating, checking and organizing all the other intelligence agencies and their product. It's deep into operations. Which means it has become just one more player, along with the Pentagon and the FBI and Homeland Security and a dozen other agencies, in the bureaucratic turf wars.

A lot of intelligence information still needs to be exchanged and a lot of dots connected. And a lot of policies - not just personnel - need to be changed. But will this administration seize the opportunity? Or will it just rearrange the deck chairs on this huge, confused ship one more time?

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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