At CIA, Petraeus taking up top spy post

September 6, 2011 - 3:15 AM
Petraeus Retirement

Former Commander of International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan Gen. Davis Petraeus speaks during an armed forces farewell tribute and retirement ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va., Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — David Petraeus, the newly retired general with the megawatt media profile, is taking up his post running the CIA, leaving behind his uniform and his military brain trust.

Retired last week after 37 years in the Army, Petraeus will be sworn in as the 20th director of the so-called silent service in a private ceremony Tuesday.

Silent is what some in the White House want the well-connected former four-star general to remain, said two current and one former U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive discussions at the National Security Council.

Admirers and detractors alike are watching to see whether Petraeus will use his influence with the media and Capitol Hill to pursue policies discordant to the White House officials who disagreed with him over the course of the Afghan war.

At a time when top figures close to President Barack Obama were arguing for a troop drawdown, Petraeus helped persuade Obama to increase troops in Afghanistan in a repeat of his counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq — a strategy now credited with producing tangible if fragile progress. That ran counter to the strategy favored by Vice President Joe Biden, among others, to leave the job to a much smaller force of trainers and special operations troops to hunt terrorists.

Similarly, there is some unease among intelligence officials as Petraeus assumes leadership of an organization that has produced a series of grim assessments of conditions in Afghanistan, where the general oversaw the war directly or indirectly for more than four years. Petraeus has acknowledged differences with CIA analysts in the past, saying in Senate testimony that he thought the analysts were forced to rely on data at least six weeks old; He thought that skewed their analysis, whereas his battlefield data had been more current.

The most recent CIA assessment of the Afghan war could be used to either back or declaim Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy, which advocated a surge of troops to protect the Afghans and buy time to build a local force to do the same. The analysis predicted a grim, continued stalemate in fighting with the Taliban, according to one current and one former U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified matters.

The recent announcement to draw down troops has invigorated the Taliban, both officials say. Intelligence intercepts between Taliban commanders show they plan to bide their time until more U.S. troops leave over the coming year, and then step up attacks, the current official said.

Policymakers could interpret that as damning Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy of the past two years. Or they could argue that it shows the drawdown is coming too soon — before the Taliban was weakened enough to be forced to cut deals with the Afghan government or before local forces were strong enough to present a credible deterrent.

The analysts have expressed worry that they may be forced to match their new boss' point of view, the current official said.

White House officials fear Petraeus might use the analysis in his new position to back his old war strategy. Petraeus addressed that concern openly when he told senators at the confirmation hearing that he would be serving the policymakers, not shaping policy.

Some top intelligence officials, current and former, still warn that tension with the White House could hobble Petraeus, as it did Obama outsider Dennis Blair, the retired admiral and former director of national intelligence. Blair clashed with then-CIA chief Leon Panetta and lost his post.

But such officials were similarly gloomy about Panetta's prospects when he came to the post, and he has since been called one of the most successful CIA directors of all time.

And the White House and Petraeus both have taken steps to make peace with each other and establish ongoing communication.

Obama has promised Petraeus regular, weekly access, and face time with the president equals influence.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has already had several talks with him, and Petraeus agreed to hire Rodney Snyder, who has spent the past few years at the NSC, working intelligence issues closely with Brennan and White House deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough.

Snyder's experience could help his new boss overcome any leftover heartburn from the Afghan war strategy debates, and his previous experience in the intelligence world will help Petraeus navigate the interagency process. Before the NSC, Snyder was seconded to the Homeland Security Department, where he oversaw border intelligence, working with law enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as the DNI and the other intelligence agencies.

The Snyder hire is a reassuring signal to current and former officials whom Petraeus asked for advice over the past several months. They told him not to repeat the missteps of previous directors like Porter Goss, who brought in a large staff of outsiders who became known as the "Gosslings." They alienated many senior spies, who quit, decimating the agency's top ranks.

Another encouraging sign is an employee who is staying put, at least for now. That's the current chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, who is an undercover operative, and the de facto chief of the agency's drone war against al-Qaida. He had initially made moves to depart because of past personality clashes with Petraeus when they both served in leadership roles in Iraq.

Petraeus said at his confirmation hearing that he would "recruit" all who worked at the CIA — agency-speak for winning over a CIA source. He'll be speaking to them on his first official day in the CIA auditorium, known as the "bubble," and he has already complimented top CIA officers during his orientation period, calling them strong leaders, said a U.S. official who heard the general's remarks.

The general with the Princeton University Ph.D. also impressed the top spies during that orientation by asking detailed follow-up questions after sitting through hours of complex, top-secret briefings, according to a former intelligence official. Both people spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss matters of intelligence.

Like Panetta, Petraeus showed a distinct fascination with the CIA's science and technology branch, the former official added.

One crossover skill from the military that agency staffers welcome is Petraeus' reputation for taking care of troops he commands. That's a crucial skill in a secret world where you can't tell your neighbor what you do, why you travel so much or, perhaps, how you got wounded overseas.

A Petraeus trait that CIA staffers are less excited about is his penchant for taking his staff on 10-mile morning runs.

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AP National Security Editor Anne Gearan contributed to this report.

Kimberly Dozier can be followed via Twitter on (at)kimberlydozier.