As the Petraeus scandal unfolded last week, we got a crash course on the Tampa social scene, General Allen's superhuman ability to write 20,000 to 30,000 pages of "potentially inappropriate" emails, and the romantic attraction of the six-minute mile. What we did not get was a serious discussion of whether it was a good idea to let a warrior-general run the CIA in the first place.
The real Petraeus story is about much more than a seedy tabloid sex scandal. It's about what he did on the job -- his brief tenure at Langley and the militarization of intelligence it represents.
To the outside world, intelligence and defense don't seem so different -- they're both vaguely national security-ish. But looks are deceiving. Military officers, as Samuel Huntington famously wrote, are professionals in the "management of violence." Intelligence, by contrast, is all about the management of information -- how to get it, analyze it, hide it from the wrong people, and share it with the right ones. The Pentagon's primary mission is to fight. The CIA's primary mission is to learn. Fighting and learning are related, but distinct, producing different organizational cultures, activities, and leadership requirements in the Pentagon and the CIA.
Three concerns arise whenever a military leader runs the agency. The first is the risk of tactical tilt -- that war-fighter directors will favor tactical military operations over long-term strategic assessments. Even with a $75 billion overall budget, U.S. intelligence agencies cannot do it all: Too much focus on today leaves us vulnerable to nasty surprises tomorrow.
Michael Hayden, another former general who ran the CIA, during the Bush administration, understood this danger precisely because he was an Air Force intelligence officer. Hayden pushed hard to keep the CIA looking at emerging threats, not just today's battles. He knew the most important customer for the CIA wasn't the war-fighter, it was the president. And because he knew it, "the building" at Langley trusted him. But Petraeus was never an intel guy. He was an infantryman who came to Langley from the battlefield and continued to wage war from within the CIA. Under Petraeus, the CIA's paramilitary activities have continued to escalate. The agency routinely conducts and oversees strikes in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Targeted killing is such big business that the CIA is borrowing drones from the military while its own drone fleet is expanding. Many now worry that old-fashioned intelligence collection and analysis in the nation's premier intelligence agency is getting short shrift.
The second concern with a warrior-director is that military leaders can clash with the CIA's culture. The American military prides itself on having a hierarchical, can-do culture. When the boss gives an order, subordinates are expected to follow it, no matter how great the odds of success or how dangerous the circumstance. American forces are the best in the world in large part because of these cherished values.
The CIA has a different cherished value: speaking truth to power. Analysts and collectors are supposed to present information and assessments even if they know the boss won't like it. No one salutes inside Langley. Hierarchy exists, but the culture prizes rigorous debate to sharpen analysis. Intelligence reports have dissenting footnotes. Military orders do not. As Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said of Petraeus before the scandal broke, "I think he's a brilliant man, but he's also a four-star general. Four-stars are saluted, not questioned. He's now running an agency where everything is questioned, whether you're a four-star or a senator. It's a culture change."