"He told me he was leaving for personal reasons," Bush said at the White House. "I told him I'm sorry he's leaving. He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people."
"This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make," Tenet said in an address to CIA employees Thursday. "And while Washington and the media will put many different faces on the decision, it was a personal decision and had only one basis in fact -- the well-being of my wonderful family. Nothing more and nothing less." Tenet will stay in his post until mid-July, at which point CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin will take over in an acting capacity until a new agency chief is approved by the Senate.
Tenet "has been a strong and able leader at the agency," Bush said. "He's been a strong leader in the war on terror."
Tenet had reportedly been considering resigning, and it was widely believed that he would not stay on for a second Bush term. He was appointed to the CIA job in 1997 by President Clinton, and is the second-longest serving director in the agency's history.
Prior to his confirmation, Tenet was deputy CIA director and acting director following the departure of John Deutch in late 1996. Before joining the CIA, Tenet was special assistant to the president and senior director for intelligence programs at the National Security Council.
"George Tenet is the kind of public servant you like to work with," Bush said. "He's strong. He's resolute."
The CIA has come under fire in recent months over the quality of intelligence analysis of Iraq's suspected weapons programs, which administration officials used to justify last year's invasion of that country.
In a speech at Georgetown University in February, Tenet drew a sharp line between those assessments -- which he said consisted largely of "estimates" -- and the pronouncements by some Bush administration officials that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was preparing to use them on U.S. interests.
Intelligence analysts never called Iraq an "imminent" threat to the United States, Tenet said. But he insisted that CIA-led analysis of Iraqi chemical, biological or nuclear programs represented analysts' best efforts to ascertain any threat they posed, and that some of it was inconclusive.
Ronald Marks, 16-year CIA veteran who served as an agency liaison to the Senate, said recent criticisms not only of the Iraq intelligence but the failure of the CIA to predict the Sept. 11 attacks took their toll on Tenet's credibility.
"The number of mistakes, failures [and] problems have added up to the point where he's a political liability," Marks said. "It was time for him to go."
Tenet was widely popular among CIA employees. In January 2003, National Journal reported that "stories abound of George Tenet using his considerable personal charisma and common touch to win the affection and loyalty of people in the intelligence community."
Such tales included "Tenet and his wife tirelessly greeting the agency's rank and file -- to the extent of remembering most people's first names -- at the annual Christmas party; Tenet attending the funeral of a former Intelligence Committee colleague who committed suicide; and Tenet going undercover with the help of the covert operations makeup department to attend a party as an old man, much to the host's surprise."
Tenet's leadership and sense of humor were widely credited with rekindling a sense of esprit de corps at an agency where morale was madly hurt by a series of scandals and intelligence lapses in the 1990s, the magazine reported.
"I have had the chance to be part of a massive transformation of our intelligence capabilities," Tenet said. "That revolution may not make headlines, but it will continue to benefit our country for years to come." The transformation, Tenet said, included rebuilding the agency's Clandestine Service, expanding and empowering the CIA's corps of analysts, streamlining support operations, developing new technologies, setting up new training facilities, and recruiting "record numbers" of new employees.
But Marks said Tenet fell short of the goal of overhauling U.S. intelligence operations. "The community really needed to be reformed and revamped to deal with post-Cold War issues, and George never really took it on and the White House never took it on," he said.