It's impossible to argue with George Tenet's resignation after seven years as director of central intelligence.
On Mr. Tenet's watch, the American intelligence community failed to comprehend the domestic threat from Al Qaeda before Sept. 11, 2001. It either bungled or hyped its analysis of Iraq to spin fanciful threats from chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, threats that President Bush used to justify the invasion. The C.I.A. itself apparently did not sign on to the more ludicrous visions offered by Mr. Rumsfeld's team, like the one of grateful Iraqis showering American soldiers with flowers. But it utterly missed the dismal state Iraq was in and the strength of the insurgency that Americans would face after the fall of Baghdad.
The intelligence community's shortcomings did not begin with 9/11 or Iraq. While Bill Clinton was president, Mr. Tenet's team was stunned when India, a close ally, conducted nuclear tests. American intelligence did spot Pakistan's undisguised preparations for testing its own bomb. But now we know that a Pakistani rocket scientist had been peddling nuclear technology all over the world for years, possibly with government sanction, without the C.I.A. noticing.
Certainly, Mr. Tenet was hampered by shortsighted budget cuts that began in the first Bush administration. His supporters say he bolstered the intelligence agencies' morale after 9/11 and provided stability and continuity. There is also evidence that C.I.A. analysts disagreed with the more outrageous claims about Saddam Hussein's weapons. And the beleaguered Mr. Tenet must have found vindication in allegations that Ahmad Chalabi, a darling of the Pentagon who was long mistrusted by the C.I.A., gave American secrets to Iran.
But if Mr. Tenet secretly thought that the prewar analysis was overblown, there's no evidence that he did anything about it. In Bob Woodward's recent book, Mr. Tenet is depicted as assuring Mr. Bush that the case against Mr. Hussein was a "slam dunk," something that is sure to haunt him.
Mr. Tenet's reasons for leaving were the subject of much speculation yesterday. The White House offered up the customary "personal reasons" and said Mr. Bush had not forced him out. Mr. Tenet said in a choked voice that he wanted to spare his family further exposure to the pressures of his job. It's easy to sympathize, considering the months of criticism that he and the intelligence agencies are about to endure - from a highly negative Senate Intelligence Committee report that Mr. Tenet received this week, from the 9/11 commission's report and from an update expected this summer from Mr. Tenet's own investigator in Iraq on the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.
Whether the resignation was voluntary or forced, the timing was terrible. It's too close to the November election for Mr. Bush to make any credible effort to replace Mr. Tenet. The president named Mr. Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, as the acting director starting July 11, and, in theory, he could rush through a new nominee. But it is hard to imagine such a choice being based on more than simply finding someone politically bland enough to pass muster in an already tense election year.
Instead, Mr. Bush could leave Mr. McLaughlin, a veteran of three decades at the C.I.A., as the caretaker, and the White House and Congress could finally get serious about reforming the intelligence community and providing the tools the next director will need to do the job. Mr. Tenet had the responsibility to oversee, but not the power to control, 15 intelligence agencies. The biggest share of the intelligence budget was well out of his reach at the Pentagon, where Mr. Rumsfeld has repeatedly tried to usurp the C.I.A. with his own espionage outfits.
There are credible ideas on the table to start the discussion. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has floated the notion of having his committee control all the secret intelligence budgets scattered around Congress. Representative Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, is shopping around legislation that seems a good start toward putting the intelligence agencies under one responsible and accountable official. Instead of engaging in a partisan confirmation brawl, the White House and Congress could spend the summer on these issues, and present the winner of the election with the chance to name an intelligence director who has the personal stature, political mandate and, ideally, added authority to institute some real reform.