Faulty Intelligence

David Petraeus will be the next CIA chief. But is he the right man for the job?

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

This week, the U.S. Senate will hold confirmation hearings for Gen. David Petraeus’s nomination to take the helm at the Central Intelligence Agency. Petraeus is widely praised on Capitol Hill, and no one seriously believes his confirmation is in jeopardy. But it will be unfortunate if the hearing turns into a pro forma exercise, because there are reasons to doubt that he is right for the job.

In addition to espionage and covert action, the CIA director is responsible for the agency’s analytical wing. He is also the official voice of the CIA at the White House, charged with delivering the agency’s views to the president and the National Security Council. This requires satisfying legitimate policy requests while simultaneously protecting analysts from policy biases. Intelligence chiefs — from Allen Dulles to George Tenet to everyone in between — have long struggled to remain relevant to the policy process without losing their ability to remain objective. It is not an easy job.

Petraeus clearly has the political acumen to stay in the administration’s good graces, but senators should ask how he can remain objective about current U.S. foreign policy, given that he is deeply vested in the current strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Petraeus has been the champion of a doctrinal transformation in the military, arguing that the key to success in counterinsurgency is the ability to make the government legitimate in the eyes of the people. This is an increasingly controversial position, not least because it requires an enormous long-term investment in the political and economic development of war-torn countries.

Petraeus is also deeply involved in the ongoing policy debate about the upcoming troop drawdown in Afghanistan. According to news reports, he has sided with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in trying to slow the pace of the withdrawal. Petraeus recently described success in the war as "fragile and reversible," which suggests that some kind of victory is still possible but that it will require much more time, money, and manpower. (News releases from Petraeus’s command have supported his public statements, though critics have charged that these announcements seem allergic to bad news about the Taliban.)

If confirmed as CIA director, Petraeus will be in charge of the same analysts who will implicitly judge the results of his strategy. Suppose they judge it is failing. Will he faithfully transmit their conclusions to the president, or will he stifle dissent? Will he create an environment at the agency that is open to debate and disagreement, or will he pressure analysts to toe the line?

These are serious questions because history shows that the quality of analysis suffers when intelligence leaders become key players in policy debates. At the height of the Vietnam war, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration enlisted intelligence officials to help justify its strategy to a skeptical public. It wanted to present evidence that the Viet Cong was withering under U.S. firepower, and it needed the imprimatur of the intelligence community to make its claims sound credible. Not all analysts agreed, however, and throughout the summer of 1967 a controversy raged within the intelligence community about the size and resilience of the enemy. To placate the White House, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms ultimately ordered his deputies to sign off on an estimate that offered clear support for the war. The estimate conveyed a false sense of consensus among analysts, causing readers to conclude that the intelligence community was fully on board with the administration’s strategy.

Two years later, President Richard Nixon called on Helms to help make the case for a new missile-defense system. The administration argued that such a system was necessary because the Soviet Union had developed a much more accurate and lethal intercontinental ballistic missile called the SS-9. Some analysts were skeptical about the actual capabilities of the SS-9, disputing the notion that it was equipped with breakthrough technologies, but once again their doubts were downplayed in official estimates once the administration brought Helms on board.

Most recently, George W. Bush’s administration enlisted intelligence to help make the case against Iraq. The intelligence community was divided about the reality of the threat, and many analysts had serious doubts about Iraq’s supposed arsenal of unconventional weapons. Nonetheless, intelligence estimates became increasingly ominous in the months before the war, especially after CIA Director Tenet offered public support for the administration’s claims. Tenet put the agency’s prestige on the line by sitting behind Secretary of State Colin Powell during his famous briefing to the United Nations, and with top intelligence brass firmly siding with the administration, skeptical analysts were increasingly marginalized. As one frustrated CIA official later put it, "I watched my staff being shot down in flames as they tried to put forward their view that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction."

Intelligence fails when intelligence leaders are also policy advocates. For Petraeus to succeed as CIA chief, he must find a way to set aside his strong advocacy of a particular strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senators will soon have an opportunity to ask how he plans to do so. The general should ask himself the same question.

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