It was something more than a blip, but not a lot more. David Petraeus hardly inhabited Langley long enough to establish anything that can rightly be called a legacy. His brief directorship of the CIA is unlikely to encompass very many of the pages of any future biographies written about him. Neither will it form a large part of histories of the agency, despite the drive that Petraeus has brought to each of his jobs.
Petraeus's tenure as CIA director was one of the shortest ever. It exceeded by one day the unhappy directorship of William Raborn, a retired Navy vice admiral whom President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed in 1965. Only two other CIA bosses had even shorter tenures. James Schlesinger was director for five months in 1973 before becoming defense secretary when that position unexpectedly became vacant. George H.W. Bush led the CIA during the last year of Gerald Ford's administration and would have been happy to continue under President Jimmy Carter, but Carter wanted to install his own man. And though Bush won enough admirers at the agency during his one year there that the Langley campus is now named after him, none of these short-timers otherwise had significant lasting impact on the CIA and how it does its business.
Especially given the circumstances under which Petraeus went out, he is unlikely to be memorialized with something like the naming of a CIA facility. But the way he came in was admirable. He knew he had much to learn as he transitioned from his military career to an enterprise that, though still part of the national security apparatus, involves much different lines of work. He collected advice on how to run the agency. He was aware of some of the pitfalls earlier directors had encountered and thought about how to avoid them. One mistake Petraeus easily could have made, having become accustomed to the personal staffs and acolytes he enjoyed in the military, would have been to bring with him to his new job an entourage of aides. In not doing so he avoided the error of a recent past director, Porter Goss, who deserved better than the bad press he got and whose problems stemmed less from his own performance than from the bevy of assistants he brought with him from Capitol Hill. It is these sorts of things that go a long way to determining the nature of the relationship between a director and the workforce, the effectiveness of the director's leadership, and ultimately the impression of success or failure that surrounds him.
Possibly the biggest lasting consequence of Petraeus's directorship has been to dispel some of the very concerns about the leadership of intelligence agencies that his own appointment tended to highlight. One concern was how a media-savvy celebrity could fit into an organization where secrecy is a stock in trade. Petraeus came to the job as the most celebrated U.S. military leader of his generation and with probably more public name recognition than any other CIA director had at the time of his appointment. The combination of a star and a secret spy agency nonetheless worked, mainly because Petraeus did not behave like a star, at least publicly. Petraeus certainly was aware of the hazards involved and viewed these as another set of potential mistakes to be avoided. The lowering of his public profile as he made the change from general to CIA director was so stark it became the subject of media commentary. He kept a profile that was lower even than the one his immediate predecessor, Leon Panetta, kept when he was director. The lasting lesson is that even stars can adapt.
That star power, however, despite Petraeus wisely occluding it, will benefit the standing and stature of the CIA even now that the celebrity has gone. Petraeus was not drafted into the job; he wanted it. If someone with his stature and his post-Army options sought to head this agency, then the obvious conclusion is that the agency must still be -- notwithstanding the dislike, disdain, and disregard to which it is frequently subjected -- very important.
Petraeus did not rock boats at the agency for the sake of rocking boats. He did not see his mission as a turnaround job. Panetta's directorship was widely regarded as successful, as reflected in the Senate confirming -- with no dissenting votes -- his nomination to be defense secretary. Petraeus also was genuinely impressed with how much gets accomplished at the CIA with resources far smaller than what he was accustomed to having when heading major military commands. And the favorable things he said about his new organization seemed to be more than polite boilerplate.