On April 16, 2011, Fox News contributor Kathleen T. McFarland met with Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was then head of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Below is an edited transcript of a portion of the conversation in which the two discuss Petraeus’s future, his views of the news media and his reaction to the suggestion by Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes that he run for president.
McFarland: I’ve got something to say to you, by the way, directly from Roger Ailes.
Petraeus: Oh, at . . . with no one else in the room? I hope?
Q: Well, you know. . . . You guys have ears? Or your ears are dead? No. Okay. Here’s the . . . what I told Roger . . .
Petraeus: I’m not running. [Laughs]
Q: Okay. But I’m going to tell you that Roger Ailes — and I told him I was coming . . .
Petraeus: I love Roger.
Q: I know. And he loves you, and everybody at Fox loves you. So what I’m supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, is first of all, is there anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?
Petraeus: You know, actually, ask Bret Baier about this, because I actually did say that I thought that. . . . I actually thought, in a sense, sort of the editorial policy of Fox had shifted. Now, that . . .
Q: On the online, or on the news channel?
Petraeus: Well, I only watch the — you know, the. . . . But I mean, it’s your stories that are online here. But it just struck me that it was almost as if, because they’re going after Obama, they had to go after Obama’s war as well, actually. And I told that to Bret when he was out here. That — again, some of it was headlines, but they . . .
Q: Well, headlines is easy to fix, because the lady who does that is the desk next to mine, if you . . .
Petraeus: Well, my honest sense was that — you know, I mean, papers and news outlets have editorial policies.
Q: Yeah, of course they do.
Petraeus: They know sort of how their bosses feel about things.
Q: Of course they do.
Petraeus: And it causes a certain shading.
Petraeus: And with respect, for example. . . . I mean, again, off the record, the New York Times was never going to give Bush or Iraq a break, I don’t care what happened.
Q: No. No. He could come up with the cure for cancer, and he’s still . . .
Petraeus: They could never. . . . It just was never going to happen. I remember, in fact, one time [New York Times reporter] Thom Shanker, who I think very highly of, wrote a piece. And it was on me, before I was going to testify one time, and they had — a pretty good piece, I mean, factual, in other words. Again, all we want is the truth. We’re not out to spin. But then it had this sort of really odd thing inserted in it. And it was something that had been proven unfounded, but it sort of bounced around on the MoveOn.org kind of Webs. And I said, Thom, where did that come from? He said, oh, that was added by the editors. So again, you . . .
Petraeus: But I sensed, actually. . . . She asked is there something that Fox can do better?
Q: Fox — yeah. This is a direct from my boss to . . .
Petraeus: I mean, we discussed this actually with [Fox anchor] Bret [Baier], and you may want to spend a little more time on it with her.
Q: I can tell you, though, that politically — and Fox represents, I guess they love to say they get a map of the United States, and they cover the East Coast, they cover the West Coast and say, our audience is in the middle. There, I think there is a split, which I certainly saw in the Reagan administration, where you come in. . . . When Reagan came in as a conservative, where he had fiscal conservatives and foreign-policy conservatives united.
Q: And everybody was happy with that plan. And then two years into the Reagan defense buildup, when there were questions about, do you choose? Do you have to choose balanced budget or defense buildup? The fiscal conservatives . . . and a bunch of guys in the Senate . . .
Petraeus: Yeah. Yeah.
Q: They broke off. And they said, well, defense is not exempt.
Petraeus: You bet.
Q: And I think so that’s what you’re seeing now in the Republican Party. And I don’t know that it’s an Obama reflection as much as it’s a tea party . . .
Petraeus: Yeah, there’s some of that.
Q: Is that their sense, that the most important thing America can do — and they always quote Hillary and they always quote Admiral Mullen saying, the most important national security interest is the American economy. Therefore . . . and so I think that’s what you’re seeing. And you’re certainly seeing it with Bill O’Reilly.
Q: And you’re seeing it with some of the other anchors, where they’re becoming very skeptical. Like Shepard Smith is saying: Oh, right, we’ve heard that before.
Q: I think that’s it. But I don’t think it’s an editorial policy.
Petraeus: Yeah, okay.
Q: And it’s a very pro-military — it remains . . .
Petraeus: It is. I mean, Bill O’Reilly has been one of the. . . . He stuck . . . you know that old saying that — actually I say it also about the Three Amigos, [Sens. John] McCain, [Joseph] Lieberman and Lindsey Graham.
Q: Yeah, yeah, and Lindsey Graham, yeah.
Petraeus: Grant used to say, yeah, there’s old Sherman. I stood by him while he was crazy, and he stood by me while I was drunk. And every time I see McCain, I think about that. [Laughter] Because they stood by me when I was crazy. And so did Bill O’Reilly, actually. But again, I do sense there is a little — it is. You can sense a skepticism.
Q: It is a skepticism. It’s a cynical skepticism.
Petraeus: But skepticism is informing the reporting, to a slight degree. Or the way it’s being reported. And I guess that’s the concern that I have. That it could sort of unduly undermine — Bret got it right, I think, when he was out here, certainly. Again, judge for yourself. You’re going to get out and see stuff for yourself, and you’ll see how it’s different from two years ago. I mean, the fact is that two years ago . . .
Q: I wrote it off two years ago. I thought it was hopeless . . .
Petraeus: Marja [Afghanistan] . . . this is right after the debate and then voting. Two years ago, Marja was the headquarters of the Taliban, and also the illegal narcotics industry. So in the market in Marja, they sold illegal narcotics and explosives.
Q: In the same stall.
Q: No, when I was here two years ago, everybody I asked — military, Afghan military, Afghan political, NGO — what’s the mission? Who’s the enemy? How do you know you’ve won? And every single time, I got different answers.
Petraeus: Yeah. I think you’ll find that . . .
Q: You know, who’s the enemy? And I think now it’s not.
Q: Now, the other thing — I know you’ve only got a minute left — the other thing, which is directly advice to you from Roger Ailes is . . .
Man: You want us to leave, sir? [Laughter]
Petraeus: [Laughs] I’m not runnin’.
Q: That’s not the question at this point. He says that if you’re offered chairman, take it. If you’re offered anything else, don’t take it, resign in six months and run for president. Okay? And I know you’re not running for president. But at some point when you go to New York next, you may want to just chat with Roger. And Rupert Murdoch, for that matter.
Petraeus: Well . . . Well, Rupert’s after me, as well. Look, I . . . what I have told people is, I truly want to continue to serve my country if it is in a — you know, a quite significantly meaningful position. And there’s all of about two of those in the world. You all have really got to shut your mouths — or shut your . . . Yeah, shut your mouths, too.
Q: I’m only reporting this back to Roger. And that’s our deal.
Petraeus: And obviously the chairman would be one of them, and there might be one other. But that’s about it. And I’m not going to — you know, don’t want to go to NATO meetings for the rest of my life, or fight service budget battles or anything like that.
Q: Can I give you the gossip that I’ve picked up about all that?
Petraeus: What’s that?
Q: I mean, I’m sure you hear better gossip, but I talked to some former chiefs about this very topic. And they said, well, you know, the White House is particularly nervous . . .
Petraeus: Of course they are.
Q: Well, but . . . and here’s the thinking: that they’re nervous about. . . . They feel that Obama had this mandate. And the mandate — in his own mind. Obama wanted to do Obamacare. . . . He wanted to do environment, which is basically controlling all aspects of the economy. And education, which is the future. So he pushed for Obamacare. He got that done. They didn’t anticipate 2010 results. But he now is going to lie low and be very centrist so that they win in ’12 and they get the other two. Now, what they need — and this is not from the chiefs, this is from political people — and what they need to cement it so that it doesn’t get reversed is a third term. And that means 2016, they need to win, the Democrats need to win, and they need to win with their guy. Their kind of guy. So that then you’d have the stuff as locked in place for a generation. Nobody can come in like Reagan came in and reverse.
Petraeus: Yeah. Yeah.
Q: And that’s their plan. You’re their problem.
Petraeus: [Laughs] I’m not.
Q: “I’m not” — okay. You can laugh all you want. Here’s the rationale.
Petraeus: They can never believe . . .
Q: I know. They’re probably related to [Pakistani President] Asif Ali Zardari. They are. But their plan is . . .
Petraeus: [Laughs] That’s right. [Laughter]
Q: Okay. But they think if you’re chairman, they can’t overrule you. They can’t go against whatever your advice is going to be, militarily. Plus, they have a Colin Powell problem. Where Colin Powell, very successful chairman, is everybody’s sort of rallying point to run for an office where there’s nobody that they think is — that the group can . . .
Petraeus: But of course he didn’t run.
Q: But he could have.
Petraeus: And he wouldn’t have. No.
Q: He could have. Politically, he could have. So they look at you and they think, how can we keep him quiet? We don’t want him out on the loose to potentially run in ’12, and we sure don’t want him in ’16. We’ll put him at the CIA, where he can speak publicly twice a year before an open session of Congress. No backgrounders to the press, no Sunday talk shows, no speeches, no nothing. Now, I’m throwing that out as gossip. Whether it’s true or not, whether it’s a bunch of Zardaris wandering around Washington. . . . But I’ve heard that from more than one person. I mean, I’ve heard that from some pretty significant and senior people.
Petraeus: Well, look, I mean, I can do math and reason, as well. But an awful lot of what we do in the future — believe it or not in Libya, right now, perhaps . . .
Petraeus: . . . is what that organization can do. So that’s . . .
Petraeus: And if you want to contribute. . . . I’m not out to go out and make money. The offers are unbelievable.
Q: No, you would’ve done that before now.
Petraeus: I would have done it long ago. So it really is about serving.
Q: So what do I tell Roger when he says . . .
Petraeus: Tell him I don’t. . . I mean, I don’t know what they’re going to offer me, anyway. I really don’t know.
Q: Okay. But there are only two. . . . So I can say something along the following lines . . .
Petraeus: Well, but don’t — that has to be off the record.
Q: There are potentially two jobs that you’d be interested in. His deal with me was that I was only supposed to talk to you.
Petraeus: Yeah, okay.
Q: And my deal with you will be, I sit down with him. And he is a little paranoid, so — believe me, he doesn’t have anybody in that room.
Petraeus: Sure. Yeah. Okay.
Q: Okay, so . . .
Petraeus: Well, so we’ll see what happens. Look, he gets to pick the chairman he wants, and the guy he’s comfortable with. That’s the deal. And if they’re uncomfortable with a guy who they know will be heard, then okay, so be it. That’s his choice.
Q: But you’re looking at something like the other one as potentially where you make the difference in Libya.
Petraeus: I think you can make a huge difference. I think that’s a national asset — I think it’s a treasure.
Petraeus: No, I’m talking about the organization.
Q: Oh, you mean covert ops.
Petraeus: I think that organization is full of just, heroes. Unsung heroes, which is the way they want to be. And again, so . . .
Q: And I agree with you. With the Arab Spring, you lose or you win it on covert . . .
Petraeus: If you look at . . . we’re not going to go out, do much more, I don’t think — I mean, I was surprised we did Libya.
Q: Oh, that was insane.
Petraeus: I mean, we’ve got . . . so if that’s the extent of what we’re going to do, we’re going to be retrenching militarily.
Petraeus: Again, you’re going to take big budget cuts, and it’s going to be all about . . . it’s going to be the post-, sort of the early 1990s kind of stuff.
Q: Yeah. It’ll be the “peace dividend” after Iraq, and after Afghanistan, it’ll be the peace dividend. Libya is a little bit of a screw-up on that.
Petraeus: Yeah. Yeah. But on the other hand, the other folks — on the other hand — I think are going to be in a growth industry.
Q: You mean Obamacare . . .
Petraeus: No, intelligence.
Q: Oh, the bad guys?
Petraeus: Yeah, the intelligence community, I think, is going to be . . .
Q: The bad guys, or our — you mean our intelligence community?
Petraeus: Our intelligence community. Going to have to be. I mean, there’s so much going on.
Q: Or you opt out.
Petraeus: Yeah. Yeah.
Q: Or you do what Carter did in the 1980s and the late ’70s.
Petraeus: Yeah, well, and if you do that, then I say, well, it’s been great to serve.
Q: And then you come to Fox, and then we all sign up. [Laughter] No, but can I just say that — can I just tell him what I’ve suggested, and that we’ve discussed . . .
Petraeus: Yeah, sure.
Q: . . . is that next time you go to New York you’re going to stop by and see him?
Petraeus: I’d be happy. I would love to see him. I haven’t seen him in a while, so . . .
Q: I think he would very much appreciate the conversation.
Petraeus: I would love to see. . . . Yeah. He’s a brilliant guy.
Q: He is simply brilliant. I don’t know if you’ve ever . . .
Petraeus: He is. Tell him if I ever ran [laughs] but I won’t . . .
Q: Okay, I know. I know.
Petraeus: But if I ever ran, I’d take him up on his offer.
Q: Okay. All right.
Petraeus: He said he would quit Fox.
Q: I know. Look, he’s not the only one.
Petraeus: And bankroll it.
Q: Bankroll it? [Laughs]
Petraeus: Or maybe I’m confusing that with Rupert. No. [Laughter]
Q: I know Roger, he’s done okay, but . . . no, I think the one who’s bankrolling it is the big boss.
Petraeus: That might be it.
Q: Okay. The big boss is bankrolling it. Roger’s going to run it. And the rest of us are going to be your in-house.
Petraeus: Yeah, right. Okay.
Q: We’re all set. . . .
Petraeus: It’s never going to happen. You know it’s never going to happen. It really isn’t.
Q: I know it’s never going to happen.
Petraeus: My wife would divorce me.
Petraeus: And I love my wife.
Q: Tell her it’s a beautiful house.
Petraeus: We have a beautiful house. [Laughter] With his-and-her’s bathrooms, believe it or not. I just want to live in it. I’ve never spent a night in it.
Q: I know, that’s the happiest marriage . . .
Petraeus: Keep your mitts off my dressing room.
Q: My husband and I have had a very long and happy relationship because we have completely separate bathrooms.
Petraeus: Isn’t that . . . I mean, that’s the ticket.
Q: It’s great.