David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Opinion Writer

David Petraeus’s first year at the CIA

CIA Director David Petraeus spoke first at an April 19 memorial dinner for agency officers killed in action. He delivered well-scripted remarks and an evocation of the agency’s heroes. Then came Leon Panetta, his predecessor at the CIA and the evening’s main honoree, who delivered a stem-winding emotional speech to fervent applause.

The freewheeling Panetta, now secretary of defense, has been a tough act to follow at the CIA, especially for a former four-star Army general who thrived in the disciplined, resource-rich world of the military. And in his first year at the agency, Petraeus’s transition has sometimes been bumpy, as the CIA’s finicky workforce struggled to adapt to its new director.

David Ignatius

Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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“I hear the rumblings” from mid-level CIA officers, says one senior administration official. But he says Petraeus gets high marks from the White House, which took the unusual step of naming the prominent general to the post.

An assessment of Petraeus as he nears completion of his first year as CIA director echoes these themes. It’s been a big change, from commanding vast U.S. military forces in Iraq, Centcom and Afghanistan to the smaller and sometimes haphazard CIA. His personal staff shrank from 50 to six.

Petraeus also gave up one of the most visible media profiles in America — the iconic man in uniform — for a civilian job in the shadows, with the Obama White House insisting that its intelligence chief stay out of the news.

The bottom line is performance, and here Petraeus gets good marks both from his senior colleagues and the administration. One senior CIA officer who has served under 11 directors thinks performance is especially high now because Petraeus is driving the organization to produce — even at the cost of frustrating some subordinates.

An example is Petraeus’s reorganization of the CIA’s famously bad system of career development. In place of a tepid, in-house system, he wanted something closer to the Army’s mid-career training, which allowed Petraeus to earn a Ph.D. at Princeton. Soon after arriving at Langley, he set to work creating a similar opportunity for the CIA’s rising leaders.

This fall, the first six “Director’s Scholars” will head off for a year at top Ivy League universities, with an eventual goal of 20 to 25 such slots.

Petraeus was well-known as a commander for fastening on “big ideas.” He has just floated to employees a new strategic plan that focuses on ways for the agency to exploit new technology more effectively.

The measure of any CIA director is operations, and Petraeus’s instincts here have reflected his military background. In Yemen, Petraeus improved coordination with the military on drone attacks and other operations. The CIA and the military (not always good partners) have shared intelligence, personnel and even hardware.

Petraeus is also said to have pushed hard in Libya, rushing case officers there to work with the opposition. Making this surge work fell to John Bennett, the head of the operations directorate. A blunt, tough officer who had planned to leave with Panetta, Bennett is said to have complained that he occasionally felt he was in a “hostile work environment.” But Bennett was able to pull officers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Perhaps surprisingly, Petraeus is also said to have exercised restraint in drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas — drawing some complaints from the agency’s Counterterrorism Center.

It isn’t easy to talk Petraeus out of a pet project, but he dropped a plan to steer $15 million to build a first-class gym. He was dissuaded by the agency’s top budget official, who argued the fancy gym wouldn’t look right in a time of austerity. Petraeus, a near-fanatic about fitness, did win his battle to install an exercise bike aboard his C-17 plane.

The former general is relentless in pushing for action, and some subordinates have chafed at this pressure. His deputy, Michael Morell, is said to have cautioned colleagues: “It’s our job to adapt to the style of the director” — good advice for an agency with a history of bad-mouthing bosses it doesn’t like.

Why did Petraeus take the job after finishing his military career? The answer is suggested by a comment he made to a senior colleague considering retirement in 2013. “You have to ask yourself if you’re really ready to be out of the arena.”

Petraeus might well have been talking about himself. He wasn’t ready to leave the arena, and after learning the peculiar culture of the CIA, he seems increasingly confident in what he calls the best job in government.

davidignatius@washpost.com

 
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