Person of the Week: George Tenet

CIA Director George Tenet is leaving his post on Sunday, a position he held for seven years.

His departure will come two days after a scathing report from the Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA's handling of intelligence that led to the Iraq war. The report was highly critical of Tenet's leadership.

During a farewell address he gave at CIA headquarters last month, Tenet told his colleagues: "These have been eventful years filled with exhilaration and triumph, with pain and sorrow, and, yes, with questions about our performance. Such is the nature of a tough, essential business."

Tenet's decision to resign was not a simple one.

"I did not make this decision quickly or easily," Tenet told ABC News in an interview conducted before the Senate report was released. "But I know in my heart that the time is right to move on to the next phase of my life."

The CIA is facing more criticism now than at any time in recent history, and Tenet has been a polarizing figure. In the middle of a campaign year, many say he has also been a liability for President Bush.

"Somebody had to take a fall. I think he felt a couple of months ago that he had to do something," said former CIA Director Stansfield Turner.

But Tenet insists he is leaving purely for personal reasons, saying his family has spent far too long without him around.

"[My son] John Michael is going to be a senior next year," Tenet said during the ceremony. "I'm going to be a senior with him in high school. We're going to go to class together. We're going to party together. I'm going to learn how to instant message his friends — that would be an achievement."

Life-Changing Moment

The strain of the job had apparently reached a critical point one night last year, when Tenet took the family for a drive in Virginia.

"Suddenly the windshield shattered and there was a huge thump, and Tenet slumped over the steering wheel," said family friend and Washington Post reporter Sally Quinn. "[His wife] Stephanie said this was it. She knew for sure this was a terrorist attack and he was dead. The Secret Service came running over and as it turned out, a deer had leapt out of the forest and landed on the windshield and crashed the whole thing. But I think that brought home to them how tense they all were."

Working-Class Roots

President Clinton appointed Tenet to the director post in 1997.

The son of working-class Greek immigrants, Tenet often skipped the limos and the fancy lunches and instead dined close to his office in the cafeteria.

During the late 1990s, the agency was in a state of chaos — its mission in question. The Cold War had ended, so the national enemy was no longer the Soviet Union.

Until the terror attacks of 9/11, Tenet's political skills had served him well. Even the incoming President Bush was said to be an admirer. But after the attacks, it became clear that the CIA, under Tenet's charge, had missed the signs.

Making Case for War

It was, by many accounts, Tenet who helped convince Bush that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — which subsequently led to war. In a comment that has now become famous, Tenet reportedly told the president the case for war was a "slam dunk."

"The president of the United States gets his intelligence from one person and one community — me. And he has told me firmly and directly that he's wanted it straight and he's wanted it honest, and he's never wanted the facts shaded. And that's what we do every day," Tenet told reporters in February.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations in February 2003 to make the case for war, it was no accident that Tenet sat behind him, in sight of the cameras. Powell based the case on what the CIA told him.

"[Iraq] can produce enough dry biological agent to kill thousands upon thousands of people," Powell wrongly told the United Nations.

Days Were Numbered

When the administration's argument for war in Iraq was found to be deeply flawed, Tenet's days were numbered.

"If John Walker could get to talk to Osama bin Laden, why the heck couldn't the CIA get an agent closer to him?" asked Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., of Tenet during congressional testimony in February 2002. Roberts was referring to John Walker Lindh, the American citizen convicted of fighting alongside the Taliban.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., added: "The director of central intelligence is hired not to observe and to comment but to warn and protect."

"It was not the result of a failure of attention and discipline and focus and consistent effort, and the American people need to understand that," Tenet responded, defiant.

There have been other intelligence failures under Tenet's watch: the 1998 missed signals that India and Pakistan planned nuclear tests, and the wrong intelligence which mistakenly identified the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade as a target, leading to an airstrike that killed three people.

But 9/11 and Iraq have taken the biggest toll on his reputation.

The paradox is that for all the criticism, Tenet has been immensely popular with his staff and very well-respected by two administrations.

Saying goodbye to his staff, he left them with a closing thought from President Teddy Roosevelt.

Said Tenet: "He had it exactly right when he said, 'It is not the critic who counts or the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or whether the doer of good deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.' Central Intelligence Agency, the men and women of this agency, were born into the arena, and we are still there."