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CIA changes trouble Americans

U.S. needs continuity during this turbulent time, senator says

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WASHINGTON — As the United States braces for a threatened terrorist attack this summer, top intelligence officials will be shuffling jobs. The question is whether Americans should worry.

"I really regret it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "I think it's the wrong thing at the wrong time."

CIA Director George J. Tenet said last week he was resigning. It became known soon thereafter that James Pavitt, head of the agency's clandestine service, also was leaving in midsummer.

Feinstein, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said after learning of Tenet's announcement that it was "startling . . . because of the time we're in and the situation."

President Bush said Saturday that Tenet's departure should not hurt morale at the CIA. Others, however, are less certain about how assured the public will feel.

"To the average American, it definitely doesn't look good," said Thomas M. Sanderson, an analyst who has studied terrorists and terrorism policy for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.

News of the departures came just a week after the top law enforcement officials said they believe al-Qaida terrorists are close to completing a plan for a major strike on America.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said a steady stream of "disturbing" intelligence, collected for months, indicated that could mean terrorists already are in the United States to execute the plan.

Officials are particularly concerned about upcoming high-profile and large gatherings such as the political conventions this summer, the July Fourth holiday and the fall elections.

"I think what we need is continuity right now because this nation is on alert," Feinstein said.

Much-criticized for the intelligence failures of the Sept. 11 attacks and faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq, Tenet announced Thursday he was leaving to spend more time with his family.

Pavitt made his decision to retire several weeks ago, well before Tenet's resignation, though it was officially announced to the agency's workers Friday.

Stephen Kappes, a 23-year agency veteran, is expected to take over Pavitt's job at the division responsible for foreign intelligence gathering.

Bush said Saturday he talked with Tenet about CIA morale when the director told him Wednesday night of his decision.

"He assured me that morale would remain high because people inside the agency understand the vitality of their mission," Bush said at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi during a visit to Rome.

It was not clear whether Bush soon will nominate Tenet's successor or steer clear during the presidential campaign, avoiding debate over intelligence failures in what could be a tough confirmation fight.

Bush has asked Tenet's deputy, John McLaughlin, to temporarily head the agency after Tenet leaves in mid-July. The president said McLaughlin "has my confidence but more importantly has the confidence of the people who work in the agency."

On Capitol Hill, there were questions about how much credibility McLaughlin will have, given that he played a significant role in intelligence analysis during the Iraq weapons miscalculations.

Some said it was Tenet and his strong personality who kept a check on the Pentagon, where most of the intelligence budget is spent and where some civilian leaders aggressively push their own intelligence views.

There also was the question of how McLaughin's relationship with Bush would play out. Would he continue the somewhat unusual trend established in the Bush administration of having the CIA director attend the president's regular morning briefings on intelligence?

McLaughlin in the past filled in for Tenet when Tenet was unavailable.

John Brennan, director of the federal Terrorist Threat Integration Center, said McLaughlin will provide continuity because he and Tenet worked closely together over the past several years.

Others said it may not ultimately matter who heads the agency temporarily because it is a huge, well-oiled operation that will continue to function regardless.

"The director is just one person on top," said Richard K. Betts, a former staffer at the National Security Council and the Senate Intelligence Committee who teaches political science at Columbia University. "And the problems that existed before September 11 are probably less than they were then."

Sanderson said the leadership changes may be "symbolic to our enemies and symbolic to the country at a time of uncertainty, strife," but may not have much practical effect.

Also reassuring, Betts said, is that "everyone ... will be so sensitized to not missing a warning, that the system will be doing about as well as it can no matter who's at the top."

"If any warning bubbles up," he said, "it probably won't be hard to get the attention of the White House."