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George J. Tenet

A CIA Director

WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 2002

When George W. Bush was president-elect, he got some fateful advice about his daily C.I.A. briefing from a man who would know.

Mr. Bush’s father, the only president to have served as C.I.A. director, was in the unique position of having both given and received the secret morning updates, and often told friends that his time in the 1970’s at the C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., was one of the best jobs he ever had.

He unequivocally instructed his son, said Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, to develop a close relationship with the person who ran the spy organization and oversaw the other intelligence agencies that make up America’s covert empire.

“The former president reinforced how important it was that a president have face-to-face meetings with the C.I.A. director, rather than just receive his intelligence reports on paper,” Mr. Card said in an interview last week.

“And so the president-elect told me, when I was the chief of staff-designate: ‘Make sure that happens. I want to see the C.I.A. director and be able to talk with him.’ ”

At that moment one of the most unlikely and important relationships in Washington was born. President Bush, the 56-year-old Texas-bred product of Andover, Yale and the Republican establishment, would bond with George J. Tenet, the 49-year-old gregarious Clinton appointee who once worked as a busboy in his father’s Greek diner in Little Neck, Queens. In those days, Mr. Tenet once joked, he had “the biggest mouth in town.”

Two years into the relationship, Mr. Tenet has faced bitter public criticism over the intelligence failures that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks, yet his link with Mr. Bush has not only survived but been strengthened by the ongoing campaign against terrorism and the crisis over Iraq. Friends and critics of Mr. Tenet agree that the president’s trust explains why an embattled C.I.A. director caught unaware by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon remains in his job. Last week, Mr. Tenet was once again under fire as a joint Congressional committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks issued a report sharply criticizing the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies for failing to thwart the plots, which killed more than 3,000 people.

“The most important factor in determining the director of central intelligence’s success is his relationship with the president of the United States,” said John M. Deutch, Mr. Tenet’s immediate predecessor as C.I.A. chief. “And George Tenet has that as well as anybody ever has.” Mr. Tenet declined to be interviewed for this article.

Administration officials say Mr. Bush will not forget how Mr. Tenet regrouped after Sept. 11, and marshaled C.I.A. forces in Afghanistan to work with opposition forces to the Taliban, buy off warlords and direct American bombers to critical targets. But equally important, friends say, is that the two men have a similar chemistry.

“They’re pragmatists, they talk sort of `male talk,’ ” said Senator Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who was co-chairman of the committee investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. “George is a very smart person, but his rhetoric isn’t theoretical. It’s blunt. It’s straightforward.”

Advisers say Mr. Bush, who grew up with resentments about the East Coast elite, likes Mr. Tenet for his lack of pretense. In a speech in 1999 at his alma mater, Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Queens, Mr. Tenet called himself “the short fat guy from Little Neck,” and told the crowd that “many of you will go on to college and you will run into people who went to fancy prep schools and who appear to have a higher quality education than you do. They don’t.”

Former C.I.A. officials say Mr. Tenet’s relationship with Mr. Bush’s father is also a critical factor in his success. The 41st president was overwhelmed, friends say, when Mr. Tenet named the agency headquarters after him in 1999. Agency officials point out that it was Republicans in Congress — not Mr. Tenet, then President Bill Clinton’s C.I.A. director — who pushed through the legislation for the renaming. But at the ceremony, Mr. Tenet and the former president were seated next to each other and appeared to bond strongly. It was the kind of gesture that feeds Mr. Tenet’s reputation as a man who brilliantly cultivates those important to his advancement.