WASHINGTON, The Washington Post
The CIA and its director, George Tenet, have developed a close relationship with President Bush over the past six months, rivaling the bond between the agency and the first Bush White House, according to senior administration officials.
Tenet meets several times a week with Bush, a sharp contrast to what former CIA Director R. James Woolsey recently called his “nonexistent” relationship with former President Clinton.
By most accounts, Tenet is not a policy player. Unlike Secretary of State Colin Powell or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his official role is not to set policy but to provide information to the government’s top policymakers, including Powell, Rumsfeld and other Cabinet members as well as the president and vice president.
Still, Tenet is the sole holdover from the previous administration in Bush’s inner circle, and he has gained unusual access to the Oval Office.
The ties between the CIA and the White House vary from administration to administration and generally reflect the importance that each president places on the agency’s reports.
Anxiety swept the executive offices on the CIA’s seventh floor when stories circulated early in the previous administration that Clinton had little interest in intelligence, though that did not turn out to be true. Now, the agency’s access to the Bush White House is boosting morale at CIA headquarters, which was renamed the George Bush Center for Intelligence two years ago in honor of former President Bush, the only president to have served as director of central intelligence.
Tenet and the current President Bush “have really hit it off,” said a former senior agency official. One reason, he added, is that Tenet’s unpretentious way of presenting serious material suits Bush’s style.
“George is a very genial guy who a lot of people like, and he’s doing a good job, and the agency is doing a good job,” Woolsey said. “And I think the president senses that and finds it valuable. The director of central intelligence is not a policymaker. His overall responsibility is to pull intelligence and call it the way he sees it. He is the only adviser without any incentive to make it seem that things are working out.”
Tenet would not discuss his relationship with Bush. But unlike many of his predecessors, the spymaster personally goes to the White House most mornings to discuss the “President’s Daily Brief,” a top-secret, 10-page compendium of reports and analysis that the agency prepares for the president and a handful of other top officials.
After a formal, 10- or 15-minute presentation by senior CIA analysts who regularly brief the president, Tenet or his deputy, John McLaughlin, expounds upon aspects of the daily brief with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.
Bush has also asked Tenet on several occasions to brief him at Camp David on weekends. And, for the first time, the president has started taking CIA briefers with him on international trips. In such instances, the President’s Daily Brief is encrypted and sent abroad over secure links.
One sign of Bush’s trust was his decision in June to send Tenet to mediate a cease-fire between the Israelis and the Palestinians, reviving a role the CIA director had played during the Clinton administration.
Because their conversations center on intelligence matters that government officials routinely decline to discuss, it is hard to measure Tenet’s influence on Bush. But on occasion, the president has sounded very much like his CIA director.
For example, Tenet frequently uses the word “inches” to describe his view of how to measure progress in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. When Bush emerged from a June 26 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he said: “Progress is in inches, not miles, but nevertheless an inch is better than nothing.”
“The relationship between the president and the CIA director, if close, can assist enormously in the creation of foreign policy,” said Robert Gates, CIA director under President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1992. But to be effective, Gates added, “the director has to be in the innermost circle.”