CIA chief George Tenet should have left a long time ago. But that doesn’t mean he should be the fall guy now.

When Tenet announced his resignation after seven years in the job, he claimed that there was one reason–and one reason alone–for his quitting: his family. In Washington, few believed that. The timing of his departure was rather convenient in that the CIA is about to be blasted by several reports due out in the coming weeks. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has wrapped up its investigation of the prewar intelligence on WMDs. The 9/11 Commission’s final report has to be released by the end of July. The administration’s chief WMD hunter in Iraq is scheduled to produce a report this summer. And the various investigations into the prison abuse scandal in Iraq could implicate CIA officers. Tenet had good reason to skedaddle before all this incoming arrives. He reportedly tried to argue against the findings of the Senate report (which Senator Pat Roberts, the chairman of the intelligence committee, has characterized as scathing), but ultimately he gave up.

Tenet remained in the spy chief’s chair longer than he should have. He should have submitted his resignation–or been fired by George W. Bush–after 9/11, and then again after it became clear there were few, if any, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (See this previous Capital Games column for a reminder of how a pre-9/11 CIA screw-up prevented the FBI from chasing after two of the 9/11 hijackers at least 18 months before the September 11 attacks.) But Bush kept supporting Tenet and insisting that the prewar intelligence had been “good” and “solid.”

Bush’s defenders have pointed to Tenet’s prewar declaration to Bush (per Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack) that the WMD case was a “slam-dunk.” This, the Bush-backers claim, proves that Tenet, not Bush, is the one to blame for those embarrassingly absent WMDs, that Bush was not disingenuous or deceitful. He was merely misinformed by his CIA director.

That is not the full story. Bush repeatedly exaggerated the case presented to him by the CIA. He, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice took bad intelligence and made it worse. I have written about this extensively elsewhere (click here to see a catalogue of such Bush misrepresentations), but one notable example is Bush’s claim that Iraq had a “massive stockpile” of biological weapons. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced by the CIA in October 2002 concluded that Iraq had biological weapons, but it was referring to a biological weapons development program. A development program is not the same thing as a “massive stockpile.” But that did not stop Bush from claiming Iraq was sitting on a giant arsenal of bioweapons. By the way, the White House conceded last summer that neither Bush nor Rice ever bothered to read the entire 90-page NIE (which contained information challenging the view that Iraq was loaded to the gills with weapons of mass destruction).

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Tenet was not responsible for the many exaggerations and misstatements Bush and his gang used to grease the path to war. Tenet and the CIA, for example, did attempt to stop Bush from claiming in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Africa, but the White House kept the false charge in the speech.

With the announcement of his resignation, Tenet continues to be the central figure in the WMD controversy. This might be viewed as Tenet’s last favor for Bush. But Tenet chose a politically inconvenient time to depart. Most CIA-watchers in Washington expected him to leave (or flee) after the election. By saying good-bye now, Tenet tarnished the first good week the White House had in months.

“Good week” is a relative term. This week, the news broke that Bush has consulted with an outside lawyer about the White House/CIA leak investigation, which is still under way; front-page headlines shouted that Bush would be keeping US troops in active duty longer than the usual rotation; and Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, the favorite Iraqi of the neocons and the Pentagon, was accused of being a spy for Iran and disclosing to Tehran that US intelligence had broken a key communications code used by Iran. (The Chalabi episode seemed to mark Tenet’s ultimate triumph over Chalabi, a longtime foe. After The New York Times reported the Chalabi allegations, Chalabi accused Tenet of leaking the information to destroy him.) Still, the appointment of a new government in Baghdad allowed Bush to talk about something that he could depict–or spin–as a hopeful sign. And Bush was on his way to what would, no doubt, be a stirring commemoration of D-Day in Europe. By the middle of the week, Bush campaign aides and other Republicans were saying they believed that Bush–politically–had hit bottom and, with the establishment of the new government in Iraq, was finally pulling out of a months-long nosedive. Then came the Tenet bombshell, which, within hours, was followed by reports that James Pavitt, head of the CIA’s operations directorate, would also be resigning.

This is not the sort of news–chaos at the CIA!–that Karl Rove and the White House would prefer to see at the end of a “good week.” It could be expected to dominate the weekend chat shows. So if Tenet was being pushed by the White House to leave, it seems he decided to announce his departure time at a time of his own choosing–which sure was not in sync with White House political interests. Does that mean anything? Was it a not-too-hidden signal? Maybe Tenet will explain so in his book. (No, there is not any word that he is pulling a Richard Clarke. That would be a true surprise.)

After Tenet made his announcement, the first indications out of the administration were that Bush would allow the deputy director, John McLaughlin, to serve as acting director for a while, and that no replacement for Tenet would be nominated until after the election. Such a decision may be politically dicey. That would leave Bush open to the charge that he is prosecuting the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism without filling an essential position. (McLaughlin is not generally regarded as director material.) The smart political move would be for the White House to pick Representative Porter Goss, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, for the job. Goss is a former CIA case officer. His committee has been critical of the CIA’s prewar intelligence without causing discomfort for the White House. Goss could probably win confirmation quickly. But one cause of concern for the White House might be that any confirmation hearing before the election–whoever Bush nominates–might bring yet another round of attention to those never-found WMDs. (Some neocons quickly suggested that former CIA chief James Woolsey or Michael Leeden, an Iran-contra alumni now ensconced as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute–aka Neocon Central–be handed the job. This is evidence some neocons live in a bizzaro, fantasy world. Can any neocon cheerleader of the war who was a fan of Chalabi–a suspected Iranian spy–serve as CIA chief? Woolsey’s law firm even was a registered foreign agent representing Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress in Washington.)

The White House knows there will be a wave of bad news when the Senate report on the prewar intelligence is released. Why set up the opportunity for another? But it is not yet clear whether the Senate report will go beyond lashing the CIA. Last year, Democrats demanded that the committee not only examine the CIA’s performance but also examine the Bush administration’s use–or abuse–of the intelligence. Roberts resisted for weeks, and then relented. But how thoroughly did his presumably reluctant investigators pursue that end of the inquiry?

Tenet was responsible for the performance of the CIA regarding 9/11 and the WMDs in (or not in) Iraq. But it was Bush who kept Tenet in the post. More importantly, Bush should be accountable for how he used the material he got from the CIA. It is undeniable that Bush, when presenting his prewar case against Iraq, made false statements that went far beyond the information Tenet and his CIA produced. So Bush could use a fall guy. Is Tenet going out into the cold to become the patsy or to avoid being the mark? Whatever the true reason for Tenet’s exit–and maybe he really is quitting for his family–the fellow who still needs to assume responsibility for the WMD scam is the man who received and accepted Tenet’s resignation letter.

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