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Under David Petraeus a smaller CIA may work better

What sort of agenda will David Petraeus pursue as director of the CIA, after he leaves Afghanistan later this month? He laid out a basic road map in his June 23 confirmation hearing. After spending a week with Petraeus’ entourage in Kabul, perhaps I can add a few guideposts.

Petraeus knows the agency needs a strong leader who can motivate and also discipline a sometimes stubborn secret bureaucracy. He knows, too, that the CIA culture is insular – good at co-opting the outsiders it likes and at undercutting those it doesn’t. But he has coped with similarly strong cultures within the military and doesn’t seem worried about the poison darts that may come his way.

Petraeus also senses that to succeed at the agency, he will have to lift his game – operating more like the CEO of a flat global business than as commander of a hierarchical military organization. In the military, you can give orders and expect that they’ll be carried out, but a CIA director needs a subtler kind of communication.

The best thing, from the CIA’s standpoint, is that Petraeus wants the job. When he talked about his future with Defense Secretary Bob Gates last November, he wasn’t captivated by book offers and business proposals, however lucrative. He wanted to stay in the public arena, and the CIA job seemed a huge challenge – one he could enjoy for a long while, assuming President Barack Obama is re-elected.

The CIA post, among other things, would allow Petraeus to stay with the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are likely to shift to paramilitary-intelligence missions once the uniformed troops leave.

When Petraeus talked about the new job during his hearing, the voice was somewhat different from the one that’s familiar from his previous testimony about Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was the super-intense commander in a ribbon-bedecked uniform. Petraeus is likely to be a bit looser in style and more wide-ranging intellectually in the new job. The laser-pointer may stay in the briefcase, along with the PowerPoint images that reduce a complex problem to a single screen.

The agenda for a CIA director isn’t executing a set campaign plan but helping conceptualize one. Many of the issues are blank slates: the political evolution of Iran and Saudi Arabia; the trajectory of the Arab Spring; the rise of other popular revolts; and, most of all, the puzzle of China. For an intellectual omnivore such as Petraeus, this is a rich feast.

Petraeus understands that the CIA work force is, as one senator put it, “nervous” about the agency being run by a military “superstar.” This is a bruised organization, wounded by so many years of public criticism, and it needs a leader, not a martinet.

Petraeus reassured the committee that he will be open to the work force, including the agency’s dissenters and grumblers. He plans to continue answering his own email (subject to advice from agency lawyers) and told the senators that he’d like to eat in the cafeteria some days. (In the military he hasn’t been known for such casual encounters.)

The challenge for an intelligence chief is to develop sufficient intellectual distance from military plans and policy papers so that he can give the president independent assessments. Petraeus gets that, in principle; he assured the senators he could step back and “grade my own work” in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But this intellectual disengagement won’t come easy for one of the most focused military commanders in modern American history. The best CIA directors I’ve encountered, such as Richard Helms and (in his early years) William Casey, had an ability to shrug their shoulders when internal debates got too thorny and say, as Helms liked to, “Let’s get on with it.” They didn’t try to noodle every problem. Petraeus will need that shrug.

Petraeus has some sympathy with the notion that at the CIA, smaller may be better – in the sense that the agency shouldn’t try to be all things to all intelligence consumers. He’ll be lucky, in that respect, to have the discipline of a flat budget and a shrinking contractor work force. He may find that a smaller, more elite agency does a better job.

The best CIA directors have cut through the mediocrity that can develop inside a closed bureaucracy, and demanded excellence. I hope Petraeus can do that, too. America needs a great intelligence service, and it will soon have a director whose ambition matches the agency’s mission.

David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 09, 2011, on page 7.

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