America - Andrew Stephen explores the mystery of a CIA boss

US presidents are usually frightened of intelligence chiefs because they know where the bodies are b

I was Reaganed-out by about six on the Saturday that the old Gipper died. Indeed, I vowed that if I heard the words "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall" once more, I would destroy every radio and television in my house. But instead, I decided to concentrate on the mysterious resignation of George Tenet, the Central Intelligence Agency's second-longest-serving director. He was one of the few Clinton hold-overs and had served seven years in the post. By contrast, there were no fewer than ten CIA directors between 1973 and 1997, the year Tenet was appointed.

I say "mysterious" because the manner of his going was bizarre. In the midst of the same sort of WMD scandals that engulfed Britain, Tenet offered his resignation to President Bush a year ago. It was declined. Then Tenet offered it again. "Let's announce it in the morning," was Bush's response, I'm told. Next morning, the president held a joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden with the Australian prime minister, John Howard, and then went back into the White House. On his way to Normandy a few minutes later, Bush went over to microphones that are always there in case he has anything to say, and announced Tenet's departure: "I told him I'm sorry he's leaving," said Bush. "He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people."

But not superb enough to prevent him being the Bush administration's first sacrificial lamb over WMDs and 11 September, it seems. Vice-President Dick Cheney signalled Tenet's departure in three terse sentences. They are an ungrateful lot, really. Tenet, despite his Clintonian roots, has been ultra-loyal to Bush and Cheney. He was a very popular man, a schmoozer and backslapper who exceeded even Washington standards in social conviviality. If he had a fault, it was that he tried to be all things to all people. His famous words to Bush over WMDs - "it's a slam dunk", quoted in Bob Woodward's book - will doubtless haunt him. But he had in fact been a pronounced sceptic on the egregious Ahmad Chalabi, the crook and probable double agent who fed the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz their false information on the non-existent WMDs and the situation in Iraq.

Yet Tenet, who broke down when he referred to his teenage son in his announcement that he was leaving for the predictable "personal reasons", would have faced three ordeals this summer - ones that the Bush administration will have to weather. The first is a report by the Senate select intelligence committee on how the administration got the WMD issue wrong: its 400 pages will excoriate the CIA in particular for "slipshod work" and "factual failures". The committee's chairman, the Republican senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, says the CIA is still "in denial" over its intelligence failures. The report, censored of sensitive material, could be issued as early as this month.

Second, what is referred to here as the 9/11 commission, which has been sitting for most of this year in private, will issue its report in the week of the Democratic convention in July. Likewise, it is expected to say that there was a catastrophic and preventable breakdown in intelligence that led to the 11 September atrocities. Third, Tenet would have had to face the report later this summer of Charles Duelfer, the CIA's very own man still searching for those elusive WMDs.

The Senate report will hammer the CIA for relying on overseas informers, such as Chalabi, and will say that it had shockingly little human intelligence on the ground in Iraq. That also explains the much less noticed departure, announced on the same day, of James Pavitt, the head of the CIA's clandestine services until he became deputy director for operations two years ago.

But despite all this, Tenet has been treated badly by an administration that decided it desperately needed a fall guy this summer. In the 1990s, he was the few intelligence figures to warn of the dangers of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. As long ago as 1998, he said in an intelligence report that "we are at war" with al-Qaeda. Also, by no means all intelligence in the US is handled by the CIA: the budget for overseas military intelligence operations is roughly $40bn, of which only roughly $4.5bn is earmarked for the CIA. Much of the rest is allocated to the Pentagon, under the direction of Rumsfeld in this administration. Rumsfeld, as I reported here long ago, founded his own intelligence unit specifically to ferret out damning information on Iraq.

More mysterious still in Tenet's departure is the role played by Cheney. The vice-president began to pay almost daily visits to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, before the invasion of Iraq. That is something vice-presidents have never done before. He was quite

clearly cherry-picking intelligence on Iraq

for Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and co. No wonder he and the others became the principal cheerleaders for the invasion to rid Saddam Hussein of his WMDs, and the ones who predicted flowers and garlands for US troops in Iraq. But Tenet, cynical about Chalabi although Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz saw him as the future saviour of Iraq, then sealed his fate with his "slam-dunk" exclamation.

Presidents have historically been scared of their intelligence chiefs because they often hold the goods on the occupants of the White House. Whether Tenet will now spill the goods on the Bush administration is open to question.

Two little local difficulties are coming up for the administration over which Cheney has been questioned by the FBI. The first concerns "Plamegate". Who told journalists that Valerie Plame, the wife of Joseph Wilson, the US diplomat who reported that the Niger uranium claims were unfounded, was a covert CIA operative? That was an effort to discredit Wilson by hinting that he was somehow involving his wife. Revealing the identity of a covert CIA operative is a serious criminal offence, and the FBI is nosing around the office of Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Doubtless Tenet could fill in a juicy detail or two.

Second, have Cheney's connections between the oil giant Halliburton, the company he ran until joining the Bush team, and contracts in Iraq been improper? And has the vice-president compromised US policy on energy by his dealings with the ex-bosses of the likes of Enron? Tenet, I suspect, knows all the answers. Perhaps he will mull over all this during the summer, or perhaps he will take his secrets to the grave. Who knows?

The acting CIA director is John McLaughlin, who has worked for the agency for 32 years. He is an accomplished amateur conjurer, known as the visiting magician to the annual Waterford Festival in Ireland. His code name to staff is "Merlin".

He will remain in the post at least until November, because the Bush team will not risk a stormy Senate confirmation hearing for a permanent replacement. Perhaps Bush et al hope for more magic from McLaughlin?