WASHINGTON – Gen. David Petraeus said if confirmed as CIA director, he would drive up to the agency's Langley, Va., headquarters alone, leaving behind his 37-year Army career and his military staff, as he shifts to leading the "silent service."
Petraeus, testifying on Capitol Hill in his medal-laden uniform, assured senators Thursday that he will not impose a military hierarchy at the CIA and will encourage a culture of constructive give and take. His comments were aimed at those who feared a replay of what happened under previous directors, both military and civilian, who brought their own staffs and spurned the agency's culture.
"I wanted this job," he told senators, saying he had discussed it with the Obama administration for months.
Petraeus signaled he would defend the agency workforce, saying it was time to move beyond some of the agency's controversial policies and its mistakes after the Sept. 11 attacks. He alluded to the ongoing Justice Department investigation of former and current CIA employees who were linked to deaths of detainees who underwent interrogation, which outgoing director Leon Panetta has also criticized.
Petraeus called for lawmakers to set policies on how to treat future detainees who might have information to head off a "ticking time bomb" scenario, so low-level officials would not be faced with those decisions in a crisis.
He also assured senators that he could be objective about the wars he has just run in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying he could "grade my own work" and provide the president "the most accurate view possible."
Petraeus said he would work to sharpen the CIA's analysis, as he had sometimes found their reports on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq out of synch with his own — sometimes too negative and, at other times, too positive, he said. He blamed that on the agency's reliance on data collected six to eight weeks prior to the date of compiling analysis. He said he hopes to speed that up.
The most recent U.S. intelligence assessment of Afghanistan found little progress in key parts of Petraeus' counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, for instance. The CIA had a major hand in preparing the assessment.
The report found that special operations night raids, combined with village-by-village security operations, have shown more lasting progress in undermining the Taliban and their influence than attempts by conventional military forces to drive out militants, according to three U.S. officials who have read the analysis and described it to The Associated Press.
The assessment, issued in February, does not favor one strategy over another. But the information gives ammunition to those who support Vice President Joe Biden's special operations-centered counterterrorism strategy over Petraeus' backing of traditional counterinsurgency. It was seen as proof for some that the additional conventional forces Petraeus championed made little impact on the overall campaign, and a slam against parts of the strategy designed by its architect, just as he seeks to lead the intelligence service.
President Barack Obama's announcement this week of a drawdown of 33,000 troops is being seen as another departure from Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy.
Petraeus would only say it was a more "aggressive ... timeline" than he'd recommended, which meant greater risk that U.S. forces might not succeed, but he said he backed the decision and would work to carry it out when he returned to Afghanistan on Friday.
The four-star general said if confirmed as intelligence chief, he would keep up relentless pressure on al-Qaida, following the May 2 special operations raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. He praised the work of the military's Joint Special Operations Command, together with the CIA, in fusing intelligence and operations to bring that about, and he advocated continuing a holistic approach to hunting al-Qaida.
"We can't get into a game of Whack-A-Mole. We have to whack all the moles simultaneously," Petraeus said, describing the system of using a U.S. intelligence network to hunt militants.
The general also commented that armed drones used by the military in Afghanistan had proven effective and precise, a nod of affirmation from the nominee for the CIA's covert use of drones in Pakistan against militant targets.
If confirmed, Petraeus would become the 20th director of the CIA, succeeding Panetta, who has been confirmed as defense secretary.
Panetta faced an agency that initially saw the former congressman and Clinton administration official as an unknown quantity, fearing he did not know enough about the field to direct its staff and operations. Panetta won the agency's trust and many internal admirers by fighting for them on Capitol Hill and at the White House. In the most famous instance, he won a clash with former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair over who would appoint intelligence chiefs at U.S. embassies.
Petraeus signaled that he planned to continue Panetta's efforts to share intelligence around the government and to give analysts real-world experience. He said he'd also maintain close ties with Congress, and has told staff he'd continue Panetta's tradition of meeting lawmakers monthly on Capitol Hill.
At the Senate hearing, the Army general also said he'd be "reaching out, and reaching down" to agency employees to get to know them.
With a wink at the agency's job at winning over spies — and its record of trying to co-opt its leaders — Petraeus said he'd hold a meeting at the main auditorium the day he arrives and tell the audience, "You all should know that I am here to recruit you ... and I know you are here to recruit me."