CIA Nominee: Take Two
Why The Senate Loves An Understudy
By Eric Pooley
(TIME, March 31) -- Washington is full of people who know how to scramble up the ladder of power. But George Tenet, President Clinton's latest nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has set new records for both speed and elegance of ascent. Last week Republican Senators were all but telling Tenet he would be confirmed even before Clinton had nominated him.
On Wednesday morning, hours before he was to fly to Helsinki, Clinton was in a characteristic dither. Some White House aides recommended that he quickly nominate Tenet, 44, an amiable former Senate intelligence staff member who has been deputy CIA director since 1995. But National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, not wanting a repeat of the Lake mess, argued that Clinton should wait until lawyers vetted Tenet one more time. Then around 3 p.m., word reached the White House that Senators--Republican Senators--had swooned over Tenet that morning, crowding around him at a secret budget briefing and predicting his confirmation hearings would be a lovefest. Even Richard Shelby, the intelligence-committee chairman whose guerrilla warfare helped bring down Lake, "was falling in [Tenet's] lap," a White House aide told TIME. Hearing that, Clinton went on TV at 4:48 p.m. and nominated Tenet.
American politics, like every other branch of show business, loves the myth of the heroic understudy--the unknown who coolly takes the stage when the headliner can't. Now that the spotlight is on Tenet, a bipartisan chorus is calling him the perfect man for the role of CIA director. It's a monstrous job. Three directors in the past six years have tried to drag America's $30-billion-a-year intelligence empire into the post-cold war era as ugly disclosures--especially the unmasking of traitors Aldrich Ames and Harold Nicholson--made the agency seem an unreliable relic. Why should anyone think that Tenet, a New Yorker whose Greek-immigrant parents owned a diner, can succeed?
Because, his boosters say, Tenet's rise was fueled by smarts, loyalty, a taste for truth telling, and a commitment to reform that somehow didn't cost him the respect of the CIA. In 1987 he was a 34-year-old Senate intelligence-committee staff member when chairman David Boren chose him to be the new staff director. Boren put him in charge of auditing clandestine CIA programs. Tenet, says Boren, forced the agency to shut down two major covert operations after his staff found that case officers opposed U.S. policy goals and possibly allowed informants to siphon funds. Since his boss John Deutch resigned last December, Tenet has run the CIA--but not without incident. Last month Tenet said the agency did not know prior to 1995 that an Iraqi weapons dump blown up by U.S. troops in the Gulf War may have contained chemical weapons. Last week Tenet acknowledged the agency had sketchy information as early as 1986. Now that Lake, Clinton's first choice to replace Deutch, has been chased from the theater, Tenet the understudy is onstage. Already, critics are waiting to coach him their lines: rein in the CIA's hard-core culture; implement ethics courses for officers; create "honest spies." Soon, he will have to brave the reviews.
--Reported by Elaine Shannon and Douglas Waller/Washington
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