Did David Petraeus leave his mark at the CIA?
- By Paul R. PillarPaul R. Pillar, a retired CIA officer, is nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies and author of Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform.
It was something more than a blip, but not a lot more. David Petraeus hardly inhabited Langley long enough to establish anything that can rightly be called a legacy. His brief directorship of the CIA is unlikely to encompass very many of the pages of any future biographies written about him. Neither will it form a large part of histories of the agency, despite the drive that Petraeus has brought to each of his jobs.
Petraeus’s tenure as CIA director was one of the shortest ever. It exceeded by one day the unhappy directorship of William Raborn, a retired Navy vice admiral whom President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed in 1965. Only two other CIA bosses had even shorter tenures. James Schlesinger was director for five months in 1973 before becoming defense secretary when that position unexpectedly became vacant. George H.W. Bush led the CIA during the last year of Gerald Ford’s administration and would have been happy to continue under President Jimmy Carter, but Carter wanted to install his own man. And though Bush won enough admirers at the agency during his one year there that the Langley campus is now named after him, none of these short-timers otherwise had significant lasting impact on the CIA and how it does its business.
Especially given the circumstances under which Petraeus went out, he is unlikely to be memorialized with something like the naming of a CIA facility. But the way he came in was admirable. He knew he had much to learn as he transitioned from his military career to an enterprise that, though still part of the national security apparatus, involves much different lines of work. He collected advice on how to run the agency. He was aware of some of the pitfalls earlier directors had encountered and thought about how to avoid them. One mistake Petraeus easily could have made, having become accustomed to the personal staffs and acolytes he enjoyed in the military, would have been to bring with him to his new job an entourage of aides. In not doing so he avoided the error of a recent past director, Porter Goss, who deserved better than the bad press he got and whose problems stemmed less from his own performance than from the bevy of assistants he brought with him from Capitol Hill. It is these sorts of things that go a long way to determining the nature of the relationship between a director and the workforce, the effectiveness of the director’s leadership, and ultimately the impression of success or failure that surrounds him.
Possibly the biggest lasting consequence of Petraeus’s directorship has been to dispel some of the very concerns about the leadership of intelligence agencies that his own appointment tended to highlight. One concern was how a media-savvy celebrity could fit into an organization where secrecy is a stock in trade. Petraeus came to the job as the most celebrated U.S. military leader of his generation and with probably more public name recognition than any other CIA director had at the time of his appointment. The combination of a star and a secret spy agency nonetheless worked, mainly because Petraeus did not behave like a star, at least publicly. Petraeus certainly was aware of the hazards involved and viewed these as another set of potential mistakes to be avoided. The lowering of his public profile as he made the change from general to CIA director was so stark it became the subject of media commentary. He kept a profile that was lower even than the one his immediate predecessor, Leon Panetta, kept when he was director. The lasting lesson is that even stars can adapt.
That star power, however, despite Petraeus wisely occluding it, will benefit the standing and stature of the CIA even now that the celebrity has gone. Petraeus was not drafted into the job; he wanted it. If someone with his stature and his post-Army options sought to head this agency, then the obvious conclusion is that the agency must still be — notwithstanding the dislike, disdain, and disregard to which it is frequently subjected — very important.
Petraeus did not rock boats at the agency for the sake of rocking boats. He did not see his mission as a turnaround job. Panetta’s directorship was widely regarded as successful, as reflected in the Senate confirming — with no dissenting votes — his nomination to be defense secretary. Petraeus also was genuinely impressed with how much gets accomplished at the CIA with resources far smaller than what he was accustomed to having when heading major military commands. And the favorable things he said about his new organization seemed to be more than polite boilerplate.
Another concern, frequently voiced even before Petraeus became director but one that his appointment exacerbated in the eyes of some, is what can be labeled as the militarization of the CIA. This concern has several aspects, including a worry about military requirements shoving aside other national needs in the allocation of limited intelligence resources. A more fundamental aspect is a possible loss of the CIA’s focus on the core missions of collecting and analyzing intelligence if additional attention is devoted to paramilitary activities such as the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists.
This is a legitimate worry, but it is too often expressed in terms of the backgrounds of senior leaders in the intelligence community. The fact that three of the four men (including the incumbent, James Clapper) who have served as director of national intelligence (DNI) — the job established in 2005 to oversee the entire intelligence community without running any single agency such as the CIA — have been retired military officers has been much noted. But too much attention is devoted to past career tracks, whether of the DNIs or of Petraeus. It is unsurprising and appropriate that many people filling such positions have come out of the military. That is where much of the talent with high-level national security experience is to be found.
Nonetheless, the attention to this subject underlay the retirement of Petraeus from the Army before he took over the agency. He entered his CIA job as Mr. — not General — Petraeus. Some reporting indicates that the retirement was President Barack Obama’s idea rather than Petraeus’s own. In any event, the retirement made Petraeus an exception. None of the previous CIA directors who came out of the military took that step upon being appointed to the job. The most recent two military appointees before Petraeus — Adm. Stansfield Turner, who was Carter’s director, and Michael Hayden, an Air Force general who served under George W. Bush — retired from the military only after each had already headed the CIA for two years.
Part of Petraeus’s attraction in taking over the CIA was that he saw his mission there partly as a continuation of previous goals, including counterterrorism, that he had pursued in the military. But the CIA is not where policy that determines the extent and shape of the country’s counterterrorism program is made. That policy is made in the White House. The future nature of the program will not depend on the identity, or the background, of the CIA’s director.
Petraeus leaves the agency’s relationships with other elements of the national security apparatus, both military and civilian, in rather good shape. We have heard less, lately, about the tensions between the CIA and the office of the DNI that stem from the confusion created by the reorganization that the 9/11 Commission devised. The public reaction by current DNI Clapper to Petraeus’s resignation was a statement that praised "Dave’s" contributions. Even poorly designed institutional structures can be made to work with enough skill and will from the people at the top. Individual working relationships that those people forge are critical, and different people in the same positions might not be as good at forging such ties. Nonetheless, the tone that the people at the top set shapes the work habits of the folks lower down in their organizations. Once formed, the habits can persist even after leaders change.
Had Petraeus remained CIA director for at least another couple of years, it is almost inevitable that he would have found marks to make that would add up to something that could legitimately be called a legacy. The man simply has exhibited too much initiative and dynamism in his career to expect otherwise. Perhaps he would have championed some doctrinal intelligence counterpart to the counterinsurgency manual he wrote at Fort Leavenworth. But we will never know.
Meanwhile, the CIA will shake off this latest turbulence and go about performing its mission. Despite the public distractions, the vast majority of the workforce is still focused on performing or supporting the core functions of collecting and analyzing intelligence. Scandals and controversies are, for that vast majority, outside noise that has little or no impact on their jobs. The latest scandal briefly provides a topic for water-cooler conversation. And then people go back to work.