CIA Director David Petraeus, who won praise as the Army's out-of-the-box theorist, is quietly reshaping the CIA toward covert paramilitary operations, and some agency hands say the continued military focus is limiting efforts to improve CIA spies’ mission of stealing secrets.
The retired four-star general—who rewrote the counterinsurgency field manual in the early 2000s and then saw it applied most effectively in Iraq and with less effect in Afghanistan—is considered one of the Army’s most innovative generals.
Now Petraeus has turned his attention to the CIA, one of the United States’ two major intelligence agencies that, post-September 11, has sought to reinvent itself as a premier human-intelligence gathering agency.
In addition to spying successes and failures in recent years, the CIA’s most significant work is its role in a relentless shadow war on terrorism most known for the ongoing covert operations involving Predator and Reaper drone strikes around the world, but mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Petraeus, who was a surprise choice of President Obama to head the CIA in the fall of 2011, has continued the CIA’s drone war that began under Leon Panetta and has become in recent years the agency’s defining policy.
Typical of the agency’s paramilitary focus was last week’s successful drone attack in Pakistan’s tribal area that killed al Qaeda No. 2 leader Abu Yahya al-Libi.
The CIA operation was based on intelligence that identified the terror leader in time to dispatch a drone equipped with a missile. The agency celebrated the attack as one of its most significant operations since the raid to kill Osama bin Laden a year ago.
In addition to the technical aspects of drone strikes involving both intelligence and military skills, the raids add a highly effective psychological aspect to the war against al Qaeda by making life as an al Qaeda leader dangerous. As evidence, the agency noted recently that one of al-Libi’s relatives called drone warfare "inhumane" after the strike.
But some in the intelligence community are critical of the drone war focus. A retired senior U.S. intelligence official with close contacts inside government said the agency remains behind the curve in developing its own agents and informants inside some of the hardest intelligence targets, including China, Russia, and Iran.
"We have a military that is superb at conducting drone strikes," the former official said. "The CIA needs to do more to steal secrets."
Petraeus, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed.
According to current and former CIA and U.S. intelligence officials, since taking over the CIA less than a year ago, Petraeus has made changes in both the analysis branch and the National Clandestine Service, the espionage branch, aimed at improving the functioning of the service.
A source close to the agency told the Free Beacon that Petraeus in the past year established the CIA’s first true strategic campaign plan for the agency. The plan is designed to give more strategic direction to an agency that critics say has become a management-heavy bureaucracy.
Petraeus also made "greater investment in human capital, the most comprehensive effort ever to increase and realign global coverage, and produced an ever more aggressive, efficient pursuit of bad guys and penetration of hard targets," the source said.
Other changes under Petraeus include the establishment of a corporate learning officer and the creation of a better system to present intelligence to policymakers.
He also beefed up the CIA’s technology efforts with a new program at In-Q-Tel, a CIA-funded group, in Palo Alto, California. Other innovations included several new leadership and management initiatives designed to improve CIA’s overall functioning.
On the spying front, Petraeus recently directed the first ever change in the way the National Clandestine Service conducts operations, the source said. No other details could be learned of the changes.
Regarding the Directorate of Intelligence, the analysis branch, Petraeus recently broke up what the source said was an "unwieldy" and poorly aligned division that included analysts working on Asia-Pacific, Latin America, and Africa.
"Talk about an impossible span of control," the source said. "Best of all, he persuaded folks that it was largely… their idea."
Michael O’Hanlon, who is on a CIA advisory board, said his conversations with Petraeus and other agency employees revealed the former general is succeeding at the agency.
"My overall sense is that he has tried very hard to be collegial, to be academic in the sense of not getting bogged down entirely in the ‘war on terror’ and not imposing military discipline or style on a non-military organization," O’Hanlon told the Free Beacon.
Petraeus has tried hard to be "curious about subjects that he hadn’t previously focused on, like Mexico and China, and other such places/subjects, and of course to get out of that uniform and learn some of the customs and rituals of the Agency," he said.
Petraeus had to learn a new culture, from how people dress and address each other, to how they interact at briefings and incorporate dissenting views on National Intelligence Estimates, which include views he disagrees with.
"He is of course famous for being a hard-charger, which inevitably turns some people off, and he is also director at a time when the agency is heavily involved on the operational side of things, which makes for a real risk that that part of the intelligence function gets prioritized and overemphasized," O’Hanlon said. "I think he is cognizant of these worries, but that doesn’t mean he can make them all go away."
Critics say one thing that shows Petraeus allows CIA bureaucrats to have their way was on the issue of past CIA harsh interrogation of terrorists. He went along with Deputy CIA Director Michael Morell in issuing a letter of reprimand last year to former counterterrorism operations chief Jose A. Rodriguez for alleged insubordination in 2005, when Rodriguez ordered the destruction of CIA interrogation videos that, if disclosed, would have jeopardized the lives of CIA officers.
Rodriguez declined to comment on Petraeus’ leadership at the agency in an interview with the Free Beacon. But he said the belated reprimand is "an embarrassment to the agency in general, because of the message its sends to the workforce to forget about making tough decisions, and forget about protecting your people when confronted with something hard like this [tough interrogations]."
The reprimand tells CIA officials that they should just "kick the can down the road" when dealing with contentious issues, he said.
Rodriguez, in his new book Hard Measures, recalled how he spent 36 months allowing CIA bureaucrats and lawyers to discuss whether to destroy the tapes. He finally took what was later determined to be the legal step of ordering the tapes destroyed.
"If the agency ever declassifies my letter of reprimand and gives me a copy, I’ll have it framed," he wrote. "To me it says: Courage to Act."
A second source close to Petraeus said one great challenge for the director was being a general heading a civilian spy agency. His directorship takes place as the CIA is largely fighting the war on terrorism behind the scenes.
Petraeus is pushing the agency through his "hyper work ethic and competitiveness," this source said.
"He wants to prove he can do it," the source said. "And he’s trying to avoid being pigeonholed on the war" by showing he can direct the agency in its intelligence-gathering priorities.
One of the most difficult things for Petraeus is his desire to make things happen at CIA, which has often put agency officials under pressure.
Petraeus also had to learn to take a more objective position on intelligence analysis. He resisted intervening in the agency’s contribution to a pessimistic National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan produced last fall. The estimate included elements Petraeus opposed, but he went along with the analysts’ assessment.
Petraeus has not been coopted by the agency’s bureaucratic culture, the second source said. "Some people want him to fire rivals or do something differently just for the sake of change. He sees that that is not always productive."
A retired general and intelligence officer agreed that Petraeus is not someone who is easily coopted.
"He is bright and perceptive. He realizes that there is a lot of institutional resistance to having another general at the helm, given the historic conflict between DoD and CIA," the retired general said.
"Things work fairly well in the battle space between the two but there are always struggles inside the beltway."
This former general said the conflict continues between the Pentagon and CIA over human intelligence gathering authority.
"Under Rummy [former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld], DoD moved ahead in clan[destine] HUMINT and refused to let CIA have a veto or approval on activities. He opted for coordination instead. That issue has not gone away and Petraeus knows how sensitive it is."
The retired general said Petraeus has been a "mixed bag" at CIA with some critics saying he is letting the old agency professionals run things.
"I doubt that because it goes against his nature," the retired general said. "Others say he is operating through some key credible and experienced operatives. I think that is more likely the case. While he is a man of great ambition and ability, he is also very shrewd and calculating. He will not do anything to denigrate his image by making controversial moves."
Ishmael Jones, a retired CIA operations officer and critic of the agency, said he has heard that Petraeus has instituted some financial reforms that "have led to reductions in some of the more egregious financial shenanigans."
"He's also responsible for an ongoing investigation of the CIA's censorship of employees' books," Jones, a pseudonym required because of life-long covert status, said. "CIA censors have sought to block written criticism of the agency that contained no secret, confidential, and/or classified material. However, they've permitted the publication of secret, confidential, and classified information when the authors are senior bureaucrats and the overall thrust of their books has been favorable to CIA bureaucracy," he said.
However, Jones said Petraeus has made no real progress in improving the flexibility of overseas intelligence collection.
"The Mossad model is one I've encouraged the CIA to follow—the Mossad moved away from reliance upon embassies in the 1990s," he said. "When a Mossad officer needs to travel from Greece to South Africa, he just does it; he doesn't need to coordinate with half a dozen bureaucrats first."
The CIA remains too reliant on official government facilities, and the result is too much focus on liaison intelligence relationships, he said.
"That's why it took 10 years to find Osama bin Laden although he was hiding in plain sight," Jones said.
"We sit inside our official facilities and rely on help from liaison," he said. "When liaison chooses not to help, we have nothing. Had bin Laden hidden in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military controls the bureaucratic turf, he'd have been caught years before."
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported recently that there have been some critics of Petraeus among mid-level CIA agents, who say Petraeus upset some of the CIA’s covert action counterterrorism officials by not being more aggressive in conducting drone strikes.
Petraeus, according to the columnist, improved CIA coordination with the military on drone attacks and other operations, sharing intelligence, people, and hardware.
Petraeus also helped surge CIA officers to Libya to support opposition forces there during the recent ouster of the Muammar Qaddafi regime.