When David Petraeus got the job of CIA chief, he knew what job #1 was: find out everything he could about al-Qaida and its allies — and then assist in their removal from the land of living. Fourteen months and more than 110 drone strikes later, the breaking of al-Qaida’s core that began under Petraeus’ predecessors is almost complete. Yet a major chunk of the nation’s intelligence community remains singularly focused on terrorism.
It’s time to give that a rest, a former leader of the Central Intelligence Agency says — especially with Petraeus gone. There’s a whole world out there that needs to be snooped on.
“We have been tremendously focused on counterterrorism for the last 11 years [since 9/11]. How do you now begin to make sure that you cover other necessary things without making the country less safe?” asks former CIA director and retired Gen. Michael Hayden.
Nearly every major international security concern facing Petraeus’ successors is, in essence, a question of intelligence: What is Iran’s nuclear capability, really? Which way will the Syrian civil war go? Why is China building up its Navy so fast? What the hell is Kim Jong-Un up to? “Those are things that you’re not going to learn through diplomacy or through press reporting. And that takes you to intelligence,” notes John E. McLaughlin, the CIA’s former acting director. He doesn’t believe the counterterrorism necessarily needs to be pared back. There are just all these other jobs that the nation’s spy agencies have to handle. “The biggest challenge may be the sheer volume of problems that require intelligence input.”
That broader mission set carries all kinds of risks for the U.S. intelligence community, beyond the obvious ones of resource allocation. The counterterror focus has kept morale afloat at Langley, even when there’s enormous turnover at the top: five directors in eight years. The last time Washington’s spies were left to juggle so many different jobs was the 1990s, which are now seen by American intelligence professionals as a demoralizing, aimless chapter in their history.
Nor is it clear how much help the skills honed since 9/11 will be in these new missions. The intelligence agencies are going to have to redouble their efforts to listen in on phone calls, steal documents, and find well-placed sources in foreign capitals who can be turned to work for America’s interests. They’ll need the analysts who can tease out of these complex, often contradictory sources of information subtle meanings on political developments and strategic shifts. The White House isn’t about to order a paramilitary raid on Beijing, after all.
“We have been laser-focused on terrorism, OK? And some of that is very high end, very sophisticated, very nuanced. But an awful lot of that, when you step back, looks more like targeting than it does classical intelligence,” Hayden tells Danger Room.
Hayden knows a bit about targeting militant suspects. The CIA-led drone war in Pakistan began to really ramp up in the late summer of 2008, when Barack Obama was just a presidential candidate — and Hayden was in charge of the agency. He says he constantly had to be careful not to let the manhunt become the entire job.
“I knew how much of my day would have been consumed with counterterrorism if I had not tried to discipline myself — and more broadly, the agency — to work hard to have a broader perspective. That’s not a criticism [of the CIA today]. But you can’t always let the urgent drown out the important,” Hayden says. It’s a tension that’s even more acute today, he adds: “If anything, the operational tempo has only increased.”
Of course, the nation’s spies haven’t just been chasing al-Qaida. There’s been an active campaign of espionage and sabotage against the Iranian nuclear program, for instance, and a quiet effort to keep dictators like Bashar al-Assad of Syria from getting the gear and chemicals needed to make nerve gas and other weapons of mass destruction. The monitoring of China’s and Russia’s leadership has not exactly ground to a halt.
A few days before he abruptly resigned, Petraeus’ spokesperson told Danger Room that he was in no way allowing the drone strikes and the counterterror raids to dominate his day. ”From his first day on the job, Director Petraeus has sought to achieve a balance between our counterterrorism efforts and ensuring the Agency’s ability to cover the full range of national security challenges facing the U.S.,” Jennifer Youngblood said in an e-mail. ”While counterterrorism remains a top priority, the Agency is equally determined to enhance our capabilities against the enduring threats from strategic competitors and adversaries that will always be at the core of our mission. In fact, Director Petraeus has overseen the development of an initiative to increase global coverage significantly, and that effort is now ongoing.”
But according to one person who used to brief Petraeus, the CIA director didn’t seem to be completely locked in when discussing matters outside the Middle East and Central Asia. “He was focused on his legacy in the sandbox,” the former intelligence official tells Danger Room.
Almost of the candidates currently floated as Petraeus’ replacements have something of a drone warrior reputation: Michael Morrell, Petraeus’ deputy, helped his boss carry out the whack-a-militant mission; White House counterterrorism czar John Brennan presides over the administration’s “matrix” of who deserves a robotic end; Pentagon intelligence chief Michael Vickers has been battling off and on in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region since the 1980s, when he was the “principal strategist for the largest covert action program in the CIA’s history,” as his Pentagon biography puts it.
Which means the new occupant of Petraeus’ chair will have to take on some rather unfamiliar tasks — while protecting the agency as it comes under criticism for its performance in Libya. Even before Petraeus’ resignation, the CIA was being condemned for downplaying its role in the events that led up to the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, for ignoring cries for help from its field operatives in Benghazi, and then for pulling its employees from Benghazi after the assault. A closed-door hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Benghazi is scheduled for Thursday.
So add one more task to the substantial to-do list awaiting the next CIA chief: keeping the reputation it built up during the drone-and-night-raid years. As if keeping tabs on the entire world wasn’t enough.
Additional reporting by Spencer Ackerman