Tenet, 51, informed Bush of his decision in an hour-long White House meeting Wednesday night, and the president announced the news in a hurriedly arranged appearance before television cameras before leaving on a trip to Europe.
Tenet's move came amid new storms over intelligence issues, including an alleged Pentagon leak of highly classified intelligence to Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi politician. At the same time, a federal grand jury is pressing its investigation of the leak of a CIA operative's name, and Bush acknowledged he might be questioned.
The CIA denied that Tenet's resignation was connected with any of the those issues. "Absolutely not," said Mark Mansfield, CIA spokesman.
Tenet addressed CIA employees and said, "It was a personal decision, and had only one basis in fact: the well being of my wonderful family, nothing more and nothing less."
The news caught Washington by surprise. Bush informed his senior staff Thursday morning at an Oval Office meeting that included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. The president told his staff he did not want anyone speculating that Tenet was leaving for anything other than personal reasons, a White House official said.
"He told me he was resigning for personal reasons. I told him I'm sorry he's leaving. He's done a superb job on behalf of the American people," the president said before boarding a helicopter. Cheney stood outside the Oval Office to watch Bush's announcement and issued a statement later expressing regret that Tenet was leaving. "I have enjoyed working closely with him and believe he's done a superb job on behalf of the nation," Cheney said.
Tenet and Bush had a close relationship. The CIA director came to the White House most mornings to personally brief the president on intelligence matters. At one of those sessions in December, 2002, the CIA listed evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Unsure that Americans would find the information compelling, Bush turned to Tenet. "It's a slam-dunk case," Tenet replied. No weapons have ever been found.
Sen. John Kerry, Bush's likely Democratic opponent in this fall's elections, said Tenet had worked "extremely hard" but said "there have been significant intelligence failures, and the administration has to accept responsibility for those failures."
"He was caught in a difficult situation...trying to manage a 20th century intelligence community infrastructure to meet 21st century threats. This was not his fault," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
Tenet will serve until mid-July. Bush said that deputy, John McLaughlin, will temporarily lead America's premier spy agency until a successor is found. Among possible successors is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Porter Goss, R-Fla., a former CIA agent, and McLaughlin.
Tenet had given some consideration to leaving last summer, but decided to stay on. Some close to him believe he wanted to catch al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who remains at large and is believed to be on the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Like many who resign from government, Tenet plans to take time off with his family, and eventually pursue public speaking, teaching, writing or working in the private sector, according to the officials close to him.
"He's been a strong and able leader at the agency. and I will miss him," Bush said of Tenet.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said, "George has sought at every turn to bridge the gap between the CIA and FBI with one goal in mind — the security of the American public."
But Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the intelligence community had to be held accountable for its failings.
"Simply put, I think the community is somewhat in denial over the full extent ... of the shortcoming of its work on Iraq and also on 9/11," Roberts, unaware of Tenet's decision, said at a breakfast Thursday, "We need fresh thinking within the community, especially within the Congress, to enable the intelligence community to change and adapt to the dangerous world in which we live."
Tenet had been under fire for months in connection with intelligence failures related to the U.S.-led war against Iraq, specifically assertions made about Saddam Hussein's purported possession of weapons of mass destruction.
In April, a panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks harshly criticized the CIA for failing to fully appreciate the threat posed by al-Qaida before the hijackings. Tenet said intelligence-gathering flaws exposed by the attacks will take five years to correct.
"I'm surprised," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "I don't think anyone saw it coming."
Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said, "With Tenet's departure, the president has the opportunity to fix these problems by transforming the job."
Said Goss: "Just boat loads of stuff have been dumped on him by all kinds of people."
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said: "He served his country a long time. History will tell what the implications of his tenure were."
Retired Adm. Stansfield Turner said he believed Tenet was pushed out.
"I think the president feels he's in enough trouble that he's got to begin to cast some of the blame for the morass that we are in in Iraq to somebody else, and this was one subtle way to do it," said Turner, himself a former CIA director.