Petraeus: The Only Man for the CIA Job

The four-star general has handled every tough job the military has given him. Daniel Stone asks: Can his insider's knowledge help reform Langley?

04.27.11 7:47 PM ET

He's the military man who's had almost every job, and now he'll be appointed to one of the trickiest civilian posts in Washington.

David Petraeus, the four-star general leading coalition forces in Afghanistan, will be tapped Thursday by President Obama to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. It's somewhat of a career non sequitur, going from overseas battlefield to deep inside a hidden bureaucracy.

But to Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and counterterrorism adviser to several presidents, someone like Petraeus heading the country's leading intelligence-gathering agency could ruffle some feathers at Langley. "The management structure and good old boy networks are going to be a little upset, but I don't see that as a bad thing," says Riedel, a Daily Beast contributor. "Petraeus brings some very unique insights and skills to this job, which makes him a quite exceptional choice."

For starters, Riedel says, Petraeus knows the issues the agency works on—from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan—better than most people, and is familiar with the regional complexities of carrying out policies crafted in Washington. As head of U.S. Central Command from 2008 to 2010, he was deeply involved in discussions about Iran's nuclear program. He knows the policy process and how decisions are made—right down to the seating arrangements in the White House Situation Room.

The real relationship that matters will be Petraeus' with the president: A measure of agency success has long been the director's access to the Oval Office. Obama and Petraeus' relationship has been hot and cold at times. At the beginning of Obama's term, reports detailed an icy connection between the two considering that Petraeus was appointed by President Bush in 2007 to overhaul the U.S. strategy in Iraq—a strategy that Obama campaigned against. But in 2010, after Obama tapped Petraeus to take over the Afghanistan command from Gen. Stanley McChrystal (who resigned over disrespectful complaints), Petraeus was accused of being too chummy with the president for not addressing some of McChrystal's concerns with Obama.

"Petraeus had never been an intelligence operator, but he had been a consumer of it. He'll be a lot more of an insider from the day he arrives in terms of knowing how intelligence is collected," says Riedel.

But Riedel said he understands why Obama chose Petraeus, despite the general's thin resume when it comes to administrative experience. "I think the president is smart, and he sees that as an advantage. He may be able to shake up the intelligence community in ways a professional is less likely to do."

There's general agreement that a shakeup is badly needed. A 2010 investigation by The Washington Post found that more than 1,271 government organizations and nearly 2,000 companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. Findings are rarely shared and turf battles are common.

"It's a very huge bureaucracy which still has the problem of getting the different parts to talk to each other. We still have big holes in our collection effort," says Riedel. Seeing how intelligence is used in the field, he says, allows Petraeus to more directly influence how information is gathered, and what details are most pertinent.

"Petraeus had never been an intelligence operator, but he had been a consumer of it. He'll be a lot more of an insider from the day he arrives in terms of knowing how intelligence is collected," says Riedel. One likely area on Petraeus' list for more information is regarding the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since the 9/11 attacks, most U.S. intelligence muscle has gone toward Iraq; Riedel says he thinks Petraeus will want to focus more on the U.S.'s current siege.

As the U.S. turns toward its next military chapter, a growing concern is likely to be Libya. Despite the White House's promise that no American boots would be on the ground in North Africa, Riedel says sooner or later, the U.S. will have to go in and help the country prop itself back up. "We may be lucky with a bomb taking out Gaddafi, but luck isn't a strategy. We'll need CIA people and some soft people as well. Petraeus knows more about those considerations than anyone else."

Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.