As criticism mounts that the White House lied about or exaggerated the threat Saddam Hussein posed to justify invading Iraq a year ago, so has the pressure on George Tenet, director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

 

Tenet faced more tough questions during a sometimes tense Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday.

Democrat politicians grilled him over whether intelligence agencies or policy makers were more to blame for doubtful claims about Iraqi weapons and Baghdad’s alleged ties to terrorism.

 

The CIA chief appeared to walk a fine line.

Pressed by veteran Senator Edward Kennedy, Tenet denied the White House had misrepresented Iraq-related data – but admitted he had corrected the president and vice-president in private "when I believed someone was misconstruing intelligence".

 

Bad intelligence

 

But unfortunately for Tenet, President George Bush’s gratitude has limits.

Bush has defended his pre-war portrayal of Iraq as an imminent and dangerous threat by insisting he acted in good faith - but now suggests he may have been fed bad intelligence.

 

Bush insists that he acted in good
faith prior to the invasion of Iraq

Enter Tenet, who has already admitted his assessment of Iraq's weapons capabilities was flawed.

With a president determined to deflect criticism before elections in November, and several intelligence reviews due to present critical reports over the coming year, the CIA chief's future appears to hang in the balance.

 

In public relations terms, the vultures have already begun to circle.

An influential political talk show journalist at Fox News, the leading US cable television news provider (which openly backed the attack on Iraq), recently voiced scepticism about Bush's war claims – and fingered the CIA boss.

 

"I think every American should be very concerned … that our intelligence is not as good as it should be," the hawkish Bill O'Reilly told viewers of the ABC network. "I don't know why Tenet still has his job."

 

Criticism pending

 

The independent inquiry into the 9/11 attacks is scheduled to present its potentially explosive findings at the end of July.

In addition, a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation is expected to condemn the intelligence agencies' collection and analysis of pre-war intelligence when it submits its conclusions later this year.

 

Criticism mounts against the US
invasion of Iraq

Should Tenet survive those inquiries, a bi-partisan commission reviewing intelligence agencies’ performance in relation to Iraq reports its findings in March 2005.

 

As a result of those pending inquiries, Tenet’s record as director of central intelligence (DCI) since July 1997 is coming under increasing scrutiny.

A former deputy director of counter terrorism at the State Department and one-time CIA official, Larry Johnson, says Tenet has a poor record as DCI. 

 

"During his almost eight-year tenure he has not rebuilt the human intelligence resources of the intelligence community and has presided over several major intelligence debacles," says Johnson.

 

"He should be fired in my opinion."
 

Serious intelligence failures on Tenet’s watch will be seen not only as costing lives but wasting tax-payers’ money too.

 

The CIA’s budget is not publicly disclosed but the figure for all intelligence-related activities – of which the CIA is the most important part – stood at $26.7bn for 1998, the most recent available figures.

 

Compromised role

 

As the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq nears, the illicit weapons that the CIA warned of have yet to be found – a stark fact that will underscore investigators’ expected criticism of the agency.

 

"For an intelligence failure of this magnitude, Tenet should resign"

Mel Goodman,
ex-CIA official

"There's no question that the CIA mishandled a lot of the intelligence and ignored a lot of evidence that argued against the case for invading Iraq," says Professor Mel Goodman, another former CIA official and now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

 

Goodman told Aljazeera.net he was shocked at how poorly the agency had performed its job, politicising its analysis of Iraq to support the administration's case for war.

 

"Tenet failed to understand that as director he has to stand outside the political process," says Goodman.

 

Tenet's alleged willingness to please the White House may lie in the fact that despite a disastrous breach of national security on 11 September 2001, the CIA chief kept his job.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich was recently quoted as saying: "George Tenet is so grateful to the president that he will do anything for him."

 

If so, Tenet’s compromised position contributed to what is now widely accepted as a seriously flawed intelligence assessment of the Iraqi threat. Many analysts and intelligence insiders say Tenet’s position has become untenable.

 

"For an intelligence failure of this magnitude," Goodman says, "Tenet should resign."