Is He the Right Person to Replace Panetta?

Ed Ross | Monday, May 1, 2011

President Barack Obama has named CIA Director Leon Panetta to replace Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and GEN David Petraeus to replace Panetta. My April 18 column discussed the kind of person that should replace Gates and concluded that Panetta may not be the right person for the job. What about Petraeus; is he the right person to lead the CIA in these troubled times; and how will Osama Bin Laden's death affect how Petraeus does his job.

It’s not uncommon for a general or admiral to head the CIA. Of the 21 men who have run Central Intelligence/the Central Intelligence Agency since January 1946 when President Harry Truman appointed RADM Sidney Souers Director of Central Intelligence, four have been admirals and three have been generals. The most recent was U.S. Air Force GEN Michael Hayden (2006-2009), who is widely regarded to have done an excellent job. ADM Stansfield Turner (1977-1981), on the other hand, did great harm to the CIA by gutting the agency’s clandestine service when he eliminated 800 operational positions.

GEN Petraeus has achieved great success in Iraq and Afghanistan, but can he achieve the successes at the CIA that he has achieved on the battlefield. And, you may ask, why wouldn’t he prefer to replace ADM Mike Mullen as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS)? Reports indicate that Petraeus sought the CIA job. With our nation at war, doesn’t it make more sense to have America’s most celebrated living combat general advising the President and Secretary of Defense on military matters?

As for which job, Director of the CIA or Chairman of the JCS, is more preferable from Petraeus’ perspective, it’s not difficult to make the case that it’s Director of the CIA. Even though the Director of the CIA relinquished his “Director of Central Intelligence,” hat to the Director of National Intelligence in 2005, the CIA remains America’s preeminent intelligence agency and critical to American security. The CJCS, an advisor the president and secretary of defense, is not in the chain of command which flows from the president to the secretary of defense to the geographic combatant commanders. Petraeus, I suspect, will be happier commanding CIA’s troops in the field than he would be fighting bureaucratic battles in the Pentagon.

“But,” as Washington Post writers Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe point out, “if Petraeus is ideally suited to lead an increasingly militarized CIA, it is less clear whether he will be equally adept at managing the political, analytical and even diplomatic dimensions of the job.”

Many challenges will confront Petraeus when he takes over the CIA. They include continuing to thwart another major terrorist attack in the United States from abroad, sorting out what’s happening in the Middle East and North Africa, and continuing increasingly lethal CIA operations in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region. All involve effectively utilizing the full range of analytical, technical, diplomatic, and clandestine assets of the agency.

Since 9/11, the CIA has done an effective job of thwarting al-Qaeda and preventing another major terrorist attack on the United States from abroad. But the Obama administration’s policies on Guantanamo, interrogating high-value detainees, and investigating CIA interrogators that used enhanced interrogation techniques after 9/11 have choked off a valuable source of intelligence. Now the CIA uses drones and other methods to kill terrorists in the field rather than capture and interrogate them. Can and will Petraeus push the envelope on interrogations, tapping this valuable source of intelligence without opening the CIA to accusations of torture?

It seems painfully obvious that either the CIA didn’t do a good job of alerting President Obama to the upheaval sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa or the White House wasn’t reading or listening to what the CIA was telling them. In either case, the Director of the CIA takes a hit. Reports that the reason President Obama was shocked when Mubarak didn’t resign when Obama expected him to was because the CIA was basing its intelligence on American media reports are disturbing.

The White House and the State Department make U.S. foreign policy, but they rely heavily on CIA intelligence to do that. Can Petraeus do what Leon Panetta apparently hasn’t done—provide them with the information they need and the confidence in it to come up with a comprehensive Middle East-North Africa foreign policy that gets out ahead of the changes jolting the region?

GEN Petraeus will have all the world’s trouble spots to worry about; and he will have many counterparts to deal with. None are more crucial, however, than the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and Pakistan’s infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization. Petraeus is as familiar with the challenges of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region as anyone; and he is, no doubt, intimately familiar with CIA operations there. As the Director of the CIA he’ll have the opportunity to deal more directly with his counterpart Amad Shuja Pasha, director general of ISI, but can he wean ISI away from its long-time relationship with the Taliban?

The news late Sunday night that Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, was killed in U.S. covert-action attack will greatly enhance the U.S. and General Petraeus' leverage with the Pakistanis. No doubt, General Petraeus played a role in Bin Laden's death; he has been a strong advocate of attacks on al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

Finally, will Petraeus have the President’s full trust and confidence? What kind of a relationship will he have with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (LtGen U.S. Air Force, Ret.) or White House Homeland Security Advisor John Brennan? When he departs the CIA, will he leave it a better place than he found it, and will he stand out among his predecessors?

Of course we can’t know the answers to these questions in advance. On balance, however, having followed GEN Petraeus career closely over the past ten years, I believe he is as good a pick as President Obama could have made for the job. Petraeus certainly has his detractors. You don’t rise to the top of your profession without stepping on a few toes. Their criticisms, notwithstanding, I believe President Obama has made the right choice.


Copyright, Edward W. Ross 2006-2011 All Rights Reserved

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