WASHINGTON- George J. Tenet hinted yesterday at one of his secrets of survival as director of central intelligence, when he answered a Georgetown University student asking about the influence of conservative Pentagon analysts who operate outside normal intelligence channels.
"I can tell you with certainty that the president of the United States gets his intelligence from one person and one community: me. And he has told me firmly and directly that he's wanted it straight and he's wanted it honest and he's never wanted the facts shaded," Tenet said.
With that answer, Tenet reaffirmed his personal relationship with President Bush and defended his agency's credibility, while also defending Bush against the frequent charge that he is captive of ideologues who manipulate intelligence to advance their own agendas - starting with the war in Iraq.
Appointed by former President Bill Clinton and reappointed by Bush, Tenet has become one of the agency's longest-serving directors but must perform a difficult balancing act: satisfying varying demands of the president, top policy-makers and members of Congress, while protecting his own thousands of employees from the fallout from intelligence failures.
At the same time, Tenet has become a master at damage control, deflecting blame from his own agency without pointing the finger too directly at his political masters.
Rarely has a director faced such conflicting pressures as those Tenet confronts now, with the credibility of U.S. intelligence under fire perhaps more than at any time since the Cold War.
"He's a political animal, and he's very good at personal relationships," said Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism official.
Former weapons-hunter David Kay and congressional Republicans say the CIA suffers from a woeful shortage of spies and specialists on the Islamic world. Democrats want to show that however inadequate the Iraq intelligence might have been, it was hyped and distorted by the Bush administration to rally support for war.
Meanwhile, at least two of the leading Democratic presidential contenders, John Kerry and Howard Dean, have called for Tenet to resign. They join two former chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham of Florida, a dropout from the Democratic presidential race, and Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama.
The uproar over Iraq comes not long after U.S. intelligence endured criticism for a failure to predict the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which revealed an inability to penetrate the upper ranks of a terrorist network that the CIA had been following closely for years.
Tenet emerged somewhat damaged but still upright from a congressional investigation, which concluded that the intelligence community failed to recognize the full significance of information pointing to an impending terrorist attack.
Earlier in his career, Tenet was a Senate staffer who worked for Republican John Heinz of Pennsylvania (whose widow is now married to Kerry) and Democrat David L. Boren of Oklahoma, and acquired a reputation on Capitol Hill as a nonpartisan professional.
Undoubtedly, he also learned there from the mistakes of CIA directors who enraged congressional leaders by stonewalling investigators.
Others in the administration have defended Tenet's conduct before Sept. 11. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said yesterday that during the summer before the terror attacks, "George Tenet was pounding on tables warning that something was going to happen." Armitage said he had told this to the bipartisan commission looking into 9/11, headed by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean.
This kind of backing reflects Tenet's ability to inspire trust.
"He's one of the most-liked people in Washington. He's honest, fun to be around and has a human side that endears him to people," said Nancy Soderberg, a former National Security Council official and United Nations ambassador under Clinton.
Armitage, who regularly attends Georgetown Hoyas basketball games with Tenet, says the director appeals to Bush as "a man's man" who chews cigars, loves sports and "reads people very well."
These people skills also endeared him to an agency periodically rocked by scandal. The CIA had been traumatized by shakeups conducted by his predecessor, John M. Deutch, and badly needed a morale boost when Tenet took over in July 1997.
When, on taking office in 2001, Bush faced the choice of keeping Tenet or replacing him, the director might have gotten an approving nod from the president's father, a former CIA chief himself. Tenet renamed agency headquarters after the former president.
"I'm sure he had heard, particularly from the old bulls, how much George had done for the place," Armitage said of the former president.
Since Sept. 11, Tenet has weathered criticism both from outside the government and from conservative hard-liners inside the administration, who believed CIA analysts had not drawn sufficient connections between rogue regimes and terrorist groups.
The scrutiny of intelligence on Iraq has tested Tenet's political skills to the limit, forcing him to appear loyal to his agency while trying not to undermine the president.
Last year, when White House officials pinned blame on the intelligence community for the much-disputed "16 words" in Bush's State of the Union speech alleging that Saddam Hussein had sought to buy nuclear-weapons fuel in Africa, Tenet allowed the agency to fire back, noting that he had warned the White House away from this information.
Stephen Hadley, a deputy national security adviser, later took responsibility for allowing the passage to be used in the speech.
A similar balancing act was on view yesterday. In his Georgetown speech, Tenet stressed that his analysts had carefully hedged their conclusions about Iraq's weapons and had never claimed that Hussein posed an "imminent" threat, distancing himself from the pre-war drumbeat of danger from the White House.
At the same time, he said intelligence from another government's source hinted that Hussein was "aggressively" developing a nuclear weapon, was stockpiling chemical weapons and had an elaborate plan to deceive United Nations inspectors.
"Did this information make a difference in my thinking? You bet it did," he declared. "It solidified and reinforced the judgments we had reached and my own view of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein."
It thus came as no surprise that various Washington experts reacted as though they had heard different speeches.
"I heard the [director of central intelligence] stand up for the honesty and integrity of his people," said Janne Nolan, international director at the Eisenhower Institute think tank.
Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, heard a speech that raised further doubts about Tenet's credibility: "I think the clock is ticking on his tenure as DCI."
Patrick Lang, a former top official of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said he heard a man who feels under threat, warning that if the intelligence community is going to be made a scapegoat, "we're going to fight back."
A former top CIA official noted yesterday that any president would fire a director of central intelligence at "only great risk."
"They know so much about how this thing played out," said the former official, who spoke on condition of not being named. "Really screwing the CIA is not something I would advise for any administration."
Tom Bowman of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.