There was little doubt as Gen. David H. Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill Thursday that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan was on track to win confirmation as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Rather, Petraeus’s appearance before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee was dominated by questions from senators of both parties on whether President Obama’s announcement that he will remove 33,000 “surge” troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year represented too fast – or too slow – a pace.
Petraeus, 58, who was tapped by Obama in April to take the helm of the CIA as part of a broader reshuffling of the president’s national security team, acknowledged Thursday that Obama’s drawdown plan represented “a more aggressive formulation” than either he or Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen had recommended.
But the CIA director-nominee called Obama’s decision “understandable,” noting that the commander-in-chief had to deal with “broader considerations beyond just those of a military commander.”
“This was, indeed, vigorous,” Petraeus said of the discussion leading up to Obama’s final decision on the Afghan drawdown. “All voices were heard in the Situation Room. And ultimately, the decision has been made.”
He described the decision-making process as taking place in three meetings. “After the first meeting, I was given a homework assignment, which I answered by the second meeting, and then the third meeting was the one in which the president ultimately reached a decision,” Petraeus said.
He added that he would do “all that I can” to implement that decision during his remaining three months in Afghanistan and then, if confirmed by the Senate, in his new post as CIA director.
Another Afghanistan-related question that was frequently asked during Thursday’s hearing was whether Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent statements dismissing the U.S. military presence in the country were a source of concern for Petraeus.
Petraeus acknowledged that some of Karzai’s statements have been cause for “legitimate concern.” He added that there have been “stresses” on the U.S.-Afghan relationship and that “addressing those is not optional.”
“So, indeed, I think we have to continue the dialogue and the partnership,” he said.
If confirmed, Petraeus will stay on in his current post until September while Michael J. Morell, the deputy director of the CIA, fills in for Leon Panetta, the current director of the CIA. Panetta was confirmed unanimously by the Senate on Wednesday to succeed Robert Gates as defense secretary.
Petraeus said Thursday that he first had a discussion with Gates about moving over to the CIA last year and that he was eager to assume the post – even though it would mean his retirement from the military after a distinguished 37-year career.
“As I told you behind closed doors, I’ll say here, I wanted this job,” Petraeus told the intelligence committee members. “This is something that was not a month or two or three in the making. Secretary Gates and I discussed this all the way back last year.”
One reason he plans to retire before assuming his post at the CIA, Petraeus said, is to allay concerns over the militarization of the intelligence community. To further address those concerns, Petraeus said that he plans to make his personal e-mail address available – as he has done in his current and previous posts -- and that he has “no plans to bring my military brain trust with me to the agency.”
“There is no shortage of impressive individuals at the agency, and I look forward to interacting with them and populating my office with them,” he said. “If confirmed, I will, in short, get out of my vehicle alone on the day that I report to Langley.”
When Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill last summer, then as head of the U.S. Central Command, the hearing became something of a spectacle as the general passed out from apparent dehydration just as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was questioning him.
No such drama marked Thursday’s hearing, although Petraeus jokingly alluded to the incident as the committee chairwoman, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), noted that McCain was present in the hearing room.
“I have been staying hydrated for this very minute,” Petraeus joked, lifting up his glass of water. “I want you to know, when I saw Senator McCain, I started hydrating immediately.”