When the new Senate was sworn in last week, one person who may have been quietly celebrating was CIA Director George Tenet.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence gained a new chairman as the new session began, replacing Democratic senator Bob Graham of Florida with Republican senator Pat Roberts of Kansas. Tenet’s toughest critic on the committee, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, is leaving the panel because of chamber rules that limit members to eight years on the committee. Shelby has said he will use his new position as head of the Senate Banking Committee to investigate terrorist financing, but he is much less likely to cross paths with Tenet there.
In Roberts, Tenet will face a committee chairman who has been a steadfast defender of him and the CIA. Roberts’s warm relationship with Tenet was on display at a December 11 dinner held by the Nixon Center honoring the CIA director.
“I can’t think of a better choice or a better time to honor George Tenet,” Roberts said during the dinner. “He has the ear and the confidence of the president of the United States.” According to the Washington Post, Roberts even joked that Tenet “does that wonderful dance made famous by Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek. I saw him do it once down at a Greek restaurant in Old Town, and he even smashed the plates….the guy is good!”
Tenet’s plate-smashing abilities aside, the personalities of Roberts, Shelby, and Graham have dominated the public dealings of the intelligence committee.
Shelby has been a vocal critic of Tenet and the CIA since 1998, when India surprised the world by conducting three underground nuclear tests. The senator says Tenet told him over the phone that the agency “didn’t have a clue” that India was ready to demonstrate its nuclear arsenal. Shelby’s criticism has only become louder since 9/11, where he stepped just short of calling for Tenet’s resignation. Since then, he has become a regular on the Sunday morning talk-show circuit, a reliable voice of GOP dissent.
Sen. Graham (D., Fla.), who had more Sunday talk-show appearances than any other member of Congress last year (according to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call), is less direct in his criticism, usually reserving his barbs for the Bush administration rather than the intelligence community. Graham has recently called the administration’s effort against international terrorism “lethargic.” He has also expressed interest in running for president in 2004.
Sen. Roberts’s role in the public part of intelligence debates is usually as the congressional defender of Tenet and the CIA. Upon his election as the new committee chairman on January 7, he pledged to “support strongly” the intelligence community while conducting vigorous oversight.
“I believe strongly that one can be an advocate for the men and women of our intelligence agencies while at the same time ensuring that we safeguard the American people and make sure that they are getting their money’s worth,” Roberts said.
Last fall, three separate intelligence issues gave the trio a chance to play their familiar roles as Tenet critic, administration critic, and agency booster.
— In September, relations between the committee and the agency soured over a report by Eleanor Hill, the lead investigator for the House and Senate Joint Inquiry Committee on the Sept. 11 attacks. Besides the difficult issues of classified terror warnings and whether they were ignored or mishandled, the report accused agency officials of being reluctant to reveal information to committee staff. An inquiry-committee background paper suggested that Cofer Black, the former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, was likely to “dissemble” if asked certain questions.
The paper ignited a surprisingly public spat between the committee and the agencies. Roberts offered Black an apology and compared the joint committee to a “runaway train” more interested in generating sensational headlines than improving intelligence capabilities. He also said the intelligence committees from both chambers shared as much responsibility as the CIA and the FBI for underestimating the terrorist threat.
In a later letter to Shelby and Graham, Tenet said he was “grateful” to Roberts for exposing the attitude of the committee’s staff toward CIA witnesses.
— In October, there was another flare-up when some committee members wondered if the CIA was being forthright about whether a U.S. invasion of Iraq would heighten the threat of terrorist attacks in the United States.
After a three-hour, closed-door committee briefing on Iraq with Tenet, Graham said he would press the CIA to declassify intelligence reports on the risk of terrorism resulting from an Iraq war, as well as connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Shelby characterized the CIA cooperation on Iraq as “pretty good” but said he had reservations: “Is it perfect? Have they been timely about everything? Have they told us everything we want to know? I’m not sure about that.” Meanwhile, Roberts said the CIA had “been as forthright as they can be.”
A former intelligence officer said it is historically common to see senators hunting for discrepancies between intelligence reports and White House assertions. “Where you get a DCI [Director of Central Intelligence] in a bind is where . . . to use an example, the senators ask, ‘Is there any evidence that Iraq’s connected to al-Qaeda?’” explains the former officer. “And that information is going to be used to fight the administration, or on the other side, to support the administration. There have been lots of examples of that over the years, where Congress wants information and the White House doesn’t want to give it to them.”
— In December, on the morning after Tenet’s Nixon Center award night, the joint congressional committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks issued a report sharply criticizing the CIA and other intelligence agencies for failing to thwart the plots.
Shelby singled out the current CIA director for having more “massive intelligence failures” under his watch than any other director. He issued an 84-page dissenting opinion, and asked how Tenet “could have considered himself to be ‘at war’ against this country’s most important foreign threat without bothering to use the full range of authorities at his disposal.”
CIA officials told the New York Times that Shelby’s animosity towards Tenet stems from the fact that the senator was not seated on the dais at the ceremony to rename CIA headquarters after President George H. W. Bush in 1999. Shelby has long denied holding a grudge against Tenet over the event.
“If you don’t have good relationship between the DCI and the chairman, and the chairman and the ranking member, things don’t work too well,” says the retired intelligence officer quoted above, citing former CIA director James Woolsey’s stormy relationship with former committee chairman Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D., Ariz.), in the early Nineties.
In recent months, rumors of an impending departure by Tenet have been outpaced only by rumors of EPA head Christie Todd Whitman’s departure — neither of which has come to pass. Tenet’s close relationship with President Bush has been widely reported, and Tenet personally briefs the president for about a half-hour almost every day. And, since the White House is preoccupied with potential conflicts with Iraq and North Korea and the continuing war on terror, Bush is unlikely to endorse replacing Tenet in the middle of a crisis.
With public and private hearings of the Senate Intelligence Committee no longer featuring Shelby’s Alabama twang, Tenet is likely to face a warmer reception on Capitol Hill in 2003 — barring a dramatic intelligence failure.
— Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, covers Washington for several newspapers including the Tuscaloosa News in Alabama.