Mon, Jun 07, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Top CIA resignations cause security jitters

AP , WASHINGTON

As the US braces for a threatened terrorist attack this summer, top intelligence officials will be shuffling jobs. The question is whether Americans should worry.

"I really regret it," said Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. "I think it's the wrong thing at the wrong time."

CIA Director George Tenet said last week he was resigning. It became known soon thereafter that James Pavitt, head of the agency's clandestine service, also was leaving in midsummer.

Feinstein, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said after learning of Tenet's announcement that it was "startling ... because of the time we're in and the situation."

US President George W. Bush said on Saturday that Tenet's departure should not hurt morale at the CIA. Others, however, are less certain about how assured the public will feel.

"To the average American, it definitely doesn't look good," said Thomas Sanderson, an analyst who has studied terrorists and terrorism policy for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.

News of the departures came just a week after the top law enforcement officials said they believe al-Qaeda terrorists are close to completing a plan for a major strike on America.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said a steady stream of "disturbing" intelligence, collected for months, indicated that could mean terrorists already are in the US to execute the plan.

Officials are particularly concerned about upcoming high-profile and large gatherings such as the political conventions this summer, the July Fourth holiday and the November elections.

"What we need is continuity right now because this nation is on alert," Feinstein said.

Much criticized for the intelligence failures of the Sept. 11 attacks and faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq, Tenet announced on Thursday he was leaving to spend more time with his family.

Pavitt made his decision to retire several weeks ago, well before Tenet's resignation, though it was officially announced to the agency's workers on Friday.

Stephen Kappes, a 23-year agency veteran, is expected to take over Pavitt's job at the division responsible for foreign intelligence gathering.

Bush said on Saturday he talked with Tenet about CIA morale when the director told him Wednesday night of his decision.

"He assured me that morale would remain high because people inside the agency understand the vitality of their mission," Bush said at a news conference with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

It was not clear whether Bush soon will nominate Tenet's successor or steer clear during the presidential campaign, avoiding debate over intelligence failures in what could be a tough confirmation fight.

Bush has asked Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, to temporarily head the agency after Tenet leaves in mid-July.

In Congress, there were questions about how much credibility McLaughlin will have, given that he oversaw intelligence analysis during the disastrous Iraq weapons miscalculations.

Some said it was Tenet and his strong personality who kept a check on the Pentagon, where most of the intelligence budget is spent and where some civilian leaders aggressively push their own intelligence views.

There also was the question of how McLaughin's relationship with Bush would play out. Would he continue the somewhat unusual trend established in the Bush administration of having the CIA director attend the president's regular morning briefings on intelligence?

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