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Petraeus failed to impart his stamp on the CIA

November 11, 2012 15:46 IST

The case brings out continuing deficiencies in the functioning of the counter-intelligence divisions of the CIA and the FBI, writes security expert B Raman

In the history of the USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), there have been three instances of directors coming to grief because of their perceived wrong-doings.

Richard M.Helms (1966-73) was removed by President Richard Nixon from office because of his alleged disloyalty to the president during the Watergate enquiry.

James Woolsey (1993-95) had to resign following Congressional unhappiness over his reluctance to act against officers who were considered guilty of slack supervision in the case relating to Aldrich Ames, a Soviet/Russian mole in the CIA.

John Deutch (1995-96) had to resign following suspicions/allegations of breach of security against him. He was allegedly casual in handling classified information.

The resignation of Gen. David Petraeus reported on November 10 following the alleged discovery of an improper personal relationship between him and his biographer Paula Broadwell, who was also from the Army like Petraeus, is the first instance of a director quitting because of suspected moral turpitude. Both of them were married with children.

American society tolerates personal relationships between unmarried individuals, but looks askance at relationships between married persons from whom high standards of loyalty and faithfulness to the spouse are expected. Both Petraeus and Paula deviated from these standards and he has had to pay a price for this.

When such relationships between married persons come to light they go down in the esteem of their near and dear ones, friends and colleagues. They can no longer exercise effective leadership of the organisation headed by them. Bill Clinton's was a remarkable instance of a president continuing and flourishing in office after his relationship with a young girl was discovered and he had to face the humiliation of impeachment proceedings, which were not successful. His was an exception to the rule.

The media has projected Petraeus' resignation as voluntary. It is quite possible that the FBI brought his relationship with Paula to the notice of President Barack Obama who advised him to resign. The resignation was called for.

Gen. Petraeus was a highly distinguished officer of the US Army who had done well in Iraq and Afghanistan before he was selected by Obama to head the CIA in June 2011 when he decided to appoint Leon Panetta, the highly successful director of the CIA who co-ordinated the covert action for the elimination of Osama bin Laden, as defence secretary in place of Robert Gates.

The Congressional Intelligence Oversight Committees confirmed his posting after examining his credentials for the post and he took over in September last year. He had such a brilliant record and reputation as an Army officer in Iraq and Afghanistan that his credentials appeared to have been assumed by the Congressional committees and his case was cleared.

Normally, the FBI does a detailed background check before the Congressional confirmation hearings, but nothing negative about him that could have made him unsuitable for the post of director, CIA, appeared to have been discovered by the FBI.

It is now reported that during his posting in Kabul as an Army officer, Paula was also in Kabul to interview him for her biography and the two used to spend a lot of time together, often jogging together. It did not appear to have struck either the counter-intelligence division of the CIA or the FBI to question him about his relationship with Paula and bring it to the notice of the Congressional committees. They seemed to have assumed that it was purely a relationship between a biographer and the object of her study and that there was nothing personal about it.

It was only after he started functioning as the director that the FBI realised that there was more than met the eye in his relationship with Paula and started checking his e-mails. The personal nature of the relationship then came to notice.

The case brings out continuing deficiencies in the functioning of the counter-intelligence divisions of the CIA and the FBI. The Congressional Oversight Committees may now revisit the checks that were made before he was confirmed in order to see how the personal nature of the relationship was missed by both the CIA and the FBI.

The FBI will also go deeper into the background of Paula to determine whether she has had any illegitimate contacts with foreign intelligence agencies, how long she was having a personal relationship with Petraeus and whether there could have been any breach of security.

Despite the unfortunate circumstances of his resignation, Petraeus will go down in history as an outstanding Army officer and counter-insurgency expert. However, he headed the CIA hardly for 13 months and did not have the time to impart his stamp on the organisation.

Before him, another outstanding military officer -- Admiral Stansfield Turner of the Navy -- had headed the CIA under President Jimmy Carter. His tenure proved controversial because of his packing senior staff positions in the CIA with his confidantes from the US Navy. This caused demoralisation in the CIA and had a negative impact on the CIA.

It was reported that keeping this in view, Obama's aides advised Petraeus, at the time of his appointment, to resist the temptation to pack the senior posts in the CIA with his Army buddies. He had to rely on senior career professionals of the CIA and he took time to get to know them.

Between 9/11 and September 2011, for nearly a decade, the CIA's focus was turned to improving its HUMINT and covert action capabilities required for security and counter-terrorism related tasks. The time, efforts and resources required for improving its area expertise were not forthcoming.

Petraeus was required to re-focus the CIA's HUMINT and covert action attention on acquiring area expertise in respect of countries such as North Korea, China, Iran and the Arab countries. A new operational strategy for this purpose was required. Before he could formulate and implement such a strategy, his personal affection for and relationship with Paula brought him down. He failed to distinguish himself in Libya and Syria and he was unable to impart his stamp to the operations of the CIA. He will not be remembered as a great intelligence officer.

B Raman