Tough Tasks to Greet Tenet's Successor

The White House-sanctioned photos said it all: CIA director George Tenet with U.S. President George W. Bush at Camp David as the Afghanistan war began. George Tenet seated behind Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN briefing on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. George Tenet leaning across the president's desk addressing Vice President Dick Cheney the day the Iraq war kicked off.

The message: After years of obscurity, the Central Intelligence Agency was back, and at the center of the major White House decisions on foreign operations.

Of all the challenges that face Tenet's successor, John McLaughlin, when he steps into the job July 11, preserving the CIA's status at the White House and among world leaders will be among the toughest.

McLaughlin's tricky political task will be "to hold on" to the agency's voice at the White House during a tenure expected to last at least through the fall election, said one senior U.S. intelligence official.

His understated personality and his career as an analyst signal to many administration officials and current and former intelligence personnel that the CIA's role is in danger of being marginalized within the context of such domineering personalities as Cheney, Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "He'll be seen as a colonel analyst" rather than a combat general, predicted one former senior intelligence official.

Complicating McLaughlin's prospects as the new acting director of central intelligence is another factor: Although he keeps a low profile, McLaughlin was more substantively involved than Tenet in the problems that led to the writing of a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq -- the official prewar assessment of the Iraq threat -- that was based on faulty, outdated and poorly sourced intelligence.

One former official said that McLaughlin is blamed in the White House for having signed off on the allegation in Bush's State of the Union address that Iraq had sought to acquire "yellowcake" uranium from Africa. Tenet said he had not approved the passage, but White House officials said McLaughlin did.

McLaughlin also has done much of the classified briefing for Congress that Tenet otherwise would have done, aides said. Members of Congress have not forgotten that.

"There is no way he can say, 'I'm not part of the problem,' " said the former senior intelligence official, who knows McLaughlin well.

McLaughlin will take over in the middle of a year that counterterrorism experts believe could prove one of the most dangerous for U.S. interests, as intelligence reporting shows al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are preparing to launch attacks against large, symbolic gatherings of Americans, such as the Democratic and Republican party conventions, this week's Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Georgia, and the Olympics in Greece.

Part of the agency's success in foreign counterterrorism operations has come from its newly robust relationship with foreign intelligence services. The CIA has lavished top-level attention and hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment and cash to win the foreign services' cooperation. Tenet was part of the campaign, and over the years, he developed close ties with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.

To pave the road for McLaughlin, who has met many of these same men, Tenet made a round of calls after his announced resignation Thursday, touting his confidence in McLaughlin, whom he described as his "alter ego," according to a senior intelligence official with knowledge of the calls.

At a time of unprecedented recruiting for new CIA case officers and analysts, McLaughlin will be expected to defend the agency's reputation and morale during the coming onslaught of criticism from two congressional reports and the commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In wondering last week whether McLaughlin will maintain Tenet's influential relationship with the White House, former and current intelligence officials lamented the days when then-CIA Director James Woolsey was able to wrangle only two semi-private meetings with President Bill Clinton during his two-year tenure.

When a Cessna airplane crashed into the South Lawn in 1994, White House staff members joked that it must be Woolsey trying to get an appointment.