The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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David Petraeus and the Marshall Tradition

The general's second career as a statesman has begun.

Published on December 13, 2011

General David Petraeus’s unanimous confirmation in the Senate as director of the Central Intelligence Agency on June 30 followed a familiar script: a medley of gentle grilling on Afghanistan, prodding on his capacity for objectivity, and some musings on the challenges of adapting to civilian culture. Just as predictable were some Senators’ attempts to use the opportunity of Petraeus’s confirmation hearings to carp on the dangers of undue military influence within the U.S. intelligence community. Here’s how Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) raised the issue:

While the majority of our intelligence dollars are spent in the Department of Defense, the CIA is tasked to provide independent, strategic assessments to the President. It is, by design, outside of the military chain of command, and supposed to balance the need to provide intelligence to warfighters with the need to operate and make assessments globally.Feinstein’s remark brought together the two main elements of concern, the first about funding, the second about operational control and bureaucratic-cultural ethos. The nation spends some $80 billion each year on intelligence. The Defense Department directly owns about a third of that, and also retains a great deal of authority over the remainder—especially the big ticket items like code breaking or satellite imagery. That authority is symbolized by the leadership of the nonmilitary elements within the intelligence community. Current Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, nominally in charge of the non-military component, is a retired general. His predecessor, Dennis Blair, is a retired admiral.

This is one of the reasons some observers hoped President Obama would nominate another civilian to head the premier civilian intelligence agency after Leon Panetta moved to the Defense Department. This camp doubts that Petraeus will accurately convey the views of his analysts to policymakers on issues like the Afghan war, which is being directed according to the counterinsurgency strategy Petraeus himself helped devise and implement. They suspect it will be difficult for Petraeus to distance himself from the institution he served ably for nearly four decades, the U.S. Army.

General Michael Hayden faced the same types of criticisms in 2006 (to little avail: his nomination survived in a 78–15 vote, although the primary objection at the time was his involvement in anti-terrorism wiretapping, not his uniform). Former Director of Central Intelligence Robert Gates emerged as one of Hayden’s most avid supporters during his confirmation hearings. The future Secretary of Defense wrote of the importance of “reestablishing a strong civilian institutional counterbalance and alternative strategic intelligence perspective to the historically strong Defense Department intelligence arm.” And indeed, Hayden’s status and experience in the military served to amplify, not muffle, civilian voices. The collaboration between the two sides has deepened further under Panetta’s watch, and there is no reason to suspect Petraeus will deviate from that path.

In truth, there is nothing the least bit unusual about tapping a senior military officer to direct Central Intelligence Agency. From its beginnings as the Central Intelligence “Group” in 1946 to the appointment of Allen Dulles as its head in 1953, a total four admirals and generals sat in the director’s chair. Military influence returned again in 1965 with the appointment of William Raborn, a recently retired vice admiral, and again with Admiral Stansfield Turner (1977–81). Six presidential terms elapsed before civilian stewardship passed from the hugely unpopular Porter Goss to General Hayden (2005–09). Excluding Petraeus, seven of the Agency’s past 21 directors were generals or flag officers and 14 served in some capacity in the armed forces.

The record of top military brass at the CIA is, unsurprisingly, rather mixed. Some of the best and some of the worst directors in the Agency’s history have worn stars on their collars. General Walter Bedell Smith’s tenure, which stretched from October 1950 to July 1953, covering the bulk of the Korean War, succeeded admirably by any measure. As an unclassified CIA history puts it, “Smith is remembered as one of the CIA’s most effective DCIs [Directors of Central Intelligence], a leader who defined its structure and mission.”1 His restructuring included a new system for producing “national intelligence estimates.” (As controversial and contentious as these estimates are and have been in the recent past, imagine making decisions on national security without them.)

On the other hand, Admiral Turner, President Jimmy Carter’s loyal ally at Langley, has long been considered one of the most unpopular directors ever (although Goss may have eclipsed him in recent years). Turner dramatically downsized the Directorate of Operations, firing hundreds of officers and emphasizing more technological means of gathering intelligence. Most professional observers of American intelligence date the disastrous decline of human intelligence capabilities from Turner’s tenure. The twin failures of 1979—missing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and misreading the revolutionary situation in Iran—also occurred on his watch. Fairly or not, his name still upsets old Agency hands.2 In terms of competence, then, the record is clear: Military service isn’t a good predictor of success or failure at the CIA. This hasn’t stopped politicians or the media from trying to read his future in the glint of his general’s stars.

The real story here is not about the undue influence of military professionals within the intelligence community. It’s that Petraeus is joining an elite handful of military officers in the post-World War II era who spent a career in the armed services, attained high rank (typically at least O-9, or lieutenant general), and then transferred into top civilian posts in the State Department, Defense Department, White House or intelligence community. Here the record is not so mixed: As a group, they have performed extraordinarily well in their “second” careers.

Consider once again Walter Bedell Smith. A veteran of both world wars, he crossed over from the military to be Under Secretary of State in the Eisenhower Administration immediately following his tour as Director of Central Intelligence and his official retirement from the Army. Or think Colin Powell, who served as both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of State. Or Brent Scowcroft, who retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant general in 1975 but has remained engaged in national security and foreign policy questions as a civilian longer than anyone in this group, including as National Security Advisor to two Presidents and involvement with untold numbers of committees, commissions and councils. But the quintessential member of this group is George C. Marshall. One of a handful of five-star “Generals of the Army”, Marshall is widely known for his two-year stint as Secretary of State (1947–49). His subsequent role as Secretary of Defense is often overlooked (1950–51), overshadowed as it is by his Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

The men who have followed in Marshall’s tradition have done so consciously. Scowcroft regards him as a personal hero. Smith, who served under him during World War II, worked with the George C. Marshall Foundation after Marshall himself died. Upon accepting the Foundation’s Marshall Award in 2003, Powell declared: “He truly was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived.” Powell so revered Marshall that he hung his portrait on the wall of his inner office at the State Department.

Marshall’s informal disciples are bound together by more than just their shared admiration for a particular role model. Like him, they all share a determination that the United States take a leadership role on the world stage. Scowcroft and Powell have shown this determination over the years: a willingness to work with other nations and institutions combined with a pragmatic but muscular view of American power.

The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s decision in 1983 to grant their own Marshall Award to a young captain named David Petraeus has since proven remarkably prescient. The Washington Post’s resident sage, Walter Pincus, asked this past summer, “Which Petraeus will arrive at the CIA: The officer or the gentleman?” Like so many others, Pincus missed the real heart of the story. Langley and the Pentagon will always be joined at the hip, regardless of who is in charge at the CIA. The better question is whether the Petraeus is the last of Marshall’s generation or the first member of a new generation. If the latter, what fundamental belief about America’s role in the world will bind that new generation?

1CIA History Staff, “Fifteen DCI’s First 100 Days”, Studies in Intelligence (Vol. 38, No. 5), Center for the Study of Intelligence (1995).

2Douglas MacEachin, Predicting the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan: The Intelligence Community’s Record, Center for the Study of Intelligence (2002).

Tristan Abbey is senior editor of Bellum: A Project of the Stanford Review.