Loose Canons

Petraeus Reprises Sisyphus

Gen. David Petraeus will be sworn in today as CIA director -- politically his toughest mountain yet.

By 9.6.11

Freshly retired from the Army, Gen. David H. Petraeus will be sworn in today as Director of Central Intelligence. The Princeton Ph.D. is a brilliant, charismatic man used to command and diplomacy. But leaving the military and entering a highly politicized bureaucracy, he faces some daunting challenges.

Petraeus, famous for devising and conducting the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, is credited for succeeding in both even though those accomplishments are entirely Sisyphean. They have created conditions under which we can withdraw in a moment of relative calm, but what we have won with blood and treasure will dissolve soon after we leave. In these Sisyphean results is a metaphor for what will happen when he tries to transform the spy agency while it is under extreme pressure to produce a lot more of the valuable intelligence our nation needs.

Petraeus has, for years, been one of the nation's top intelligence consumers. Now he reverses roles: as DCI, he will be the principal intelligence producer, leading an agency beset by poor morale, politicization, and an inability to produce current and accurate intelligence on many of America's most dangerous adversaries.

The CIA's relationship with Congress is one of the two sources of the agency's morale problem. From his own experience, Petraeus knows how volatile Congress can be. You can be a hero one day -- as his confirmation hearing and 94-0 vote evidence -- and a goat the next. He must remember the September 2007 hearing in which he and Amb. Ryan Crocker testified about the Iraq war. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton called the two men liars, saying that their testimony required "a willing suspension of disbelief."

That episode will color relations between Petraeus and Hillary, and it should make for some amusing moments in Obama cabinet meetings. Petraeus -- the new guy on the block -- will have to guard himself against the byplay between the two bureaucracies. The Joe Wilson venture to Niger in search of Iraqi uranium deals, and the subsequent Valerie Plame name blame game nearly brought down the Bush administration. From beginning to end, the whole thing was the product of the cooperation between the State and CIA bureaucracies with -- as former Vice President Cheney points out -- the consistent cooperation of Colin Powell and his deputy, Dick Armitage.

The CIA's relations with Congress have been very tense since the Bush administration's case on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction -- built on then-CIA Director George Tenet's assurances that it was a "slam dunk" -- fell apart. Just as damaging were the allegations of detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison that surfaced over seven years ago. Though the CIA had nothing to do with Abu Ghraib, the allegations of CIA torture brought accusations from congressional Democrats -- most vocally from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- that the CIA was lying to Congress. Those accusations have never been withdrawn.

Petraeus's predecessor -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta -- thought the situation was so bad that he penned an unprecedented op-ed in the Washington Post two years ago. In it, Panetta said the CIA's relationship with Congress had deteriorated into "an atmosphere of declining trust, growing frustration and more frequent leaks of properly classified information."

That atmosphere, as several intelligence sources told me, pushed the CIA into a "CYA" mode of operation, hampering significantly intelligence gathering and analysis. CIA morale was boosted enormously by the successful bin Laden raid, but the problem is too deep to have been cured. Petraeus's first task will be to restore confidence in the CIA both internally and in Congress to fix part of the morale problem.

The other source of the morale problem was the ongoing Justice Department investigation into CIA detainee interrogations. At about the same time Petraeus was confirmed for the CIA job, Attorney General Holder announced that the investigation was being ended except in regard to the very few cases in which detainees died in CIA custody.

That there are no coincidences in politics isn't a cliché: it's an aphorism. Was Holder's action the price the price the Obama administration paid for getting Petraeus to take the CIA job? That seems entirely likely. If Petraeus forced Holder's action to be part of the deal under which he'd take the DCI job, he will have raised his own reputation among the CIA's employees (and the CIA's morale) substantially.

The politicization of the CIA goes back at least to the Clinton era, when the president fudged CIA findings in making public pronouncements of policy. As Donald Rumsfeld's "Intelligence Side Letter" to the 1998 Ballistic Missile Threat Commission report said, "However it is manifested, 'fudging' has a corrupting influence on both the policy making and the intelligence communities."

Petraeus, as a military commander, hasn't led a highly politicized agency before. He will struggle with leaks and adverse publicity whenever he crosses the embedded CIA bureaucracy.

That bureaucracy produced the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which said the intelligence community had "high confidence" in finding that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program years ago. That NIE was a political document, aimed at pressuring the Bush administration to lessen its pressure on Iran. As CIA Director, Petraeus will at least be able to prevent recurrence of that sort of political mistake.

Petraeus's third problem -- transforming the CIA into a spy agency that can produce more actionable intelligence -- is probably the most difficult one. We cannot get current and accurate information on a host of adversaries -- Iran and China chief among them -- which are what intelligence professionals call "denied areas." He needs to build everything from spy networks to analysts' language skills to correct that and will have to deal with a president whose signature on required "presidential findings" that authorize covert action will be tough to get.

Petraeus's aims will be created by need and informed by his battlefield experience. He knows well that spies and informants who comprise "humint" -- human intelligence -- cannot be equaled in intelligence gathering. No matter how good or how many your satellites may be, they can't replace the information that spies and informants can obtain. Which means he will have to face -- again -- the issue of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Petraeus, by his reputation and experience, is precisely the right person to make the case that the "EITs" have to be restored. President Obama, in one of his first acts, prohibited them. But now, after the CIA found Osama bin Laden, the value of the EITs cannot be questioned.

Petraeus can revive the enhanced interrogation techniques by starting to talk about their absolute value as two of his predecessors -- George Tenet and Gen. Mike Hayden -- have gone on record to say.

As I wrote last year, Tenet's memoir says that what the terrorist detainees gave us under the EITs "was worth more than the CIA, NSA, the FBI and our military operations had achieved collectively." Hayden, in a June 2 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, credited the EITs -- used on three detainees -- for leading the CIA to bin Laden. Given their value, and that these techniques are not torture, Petraeus could -- and should -- build a case to resume their use. But to do that, he will have to take on his president and Eric Holder.

Petraeus has probably trekked up mountains in Afghanistan that were easier to climb than that political hill. He can either make the attempt, or fail in his principal mission: to transform the CIA into the effective intelligence agency our nation needs.

In the Iraq and Afghanistan counterinsurgencies, Petraeus's Sisyphean performance can be forgiven because of the constraints imposed on his command by presidents and adversaries. The terror-sponsoring nations (such as Iran, Syria and Pakistan) were -- and remain -- immune to action which could have enabled some permanent results from Petraeus's counterinsurgency campaigns. There will be no forgiveness if Petraeus fails at CIA.

Our nation was vulnerable on 9/11 because of successive failures in gathering and analyzing intelligence. The Iraq war was begun, in good faith, on the basis of another massive intelligence failure. And still -- a decade after 9/11 -- we still don't have reliable, penetrating intelligence on Iran, China, North Korea or even WikiLeaks.

Current, accurate and well-analyzed intelligence is the foundation of national policy. Without it, national security policymaking is nothing more than guesswork.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.