It is, of course, the ultimate irony. The head of a spy agency has resigned because he couldn’t be trusted, due to infidelity, to continue to run an agency that as its raison d’etre revels in treachery, subterfuge, and deception. Perhaps that he was caught cheating in the first place is evidence enough that he wasn’t competent enough in the dark arts to do his job.
Whatever the case, the American media will lap it up the affair for days to come, combining as it does a serious news story with personal gossip and relationship issues so that either readers of the New York Times or supermarket tabloids will feel equally at home discussing the details.
Yet, the Petraeus-affair affair is also an illustrative lesson in the past, present, and future of the Central Intelligence Agency.
First, there is the involvement of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI has long had a contentious relationship with the CIA stretching all the way back to immediately after the Second World War, when a permanent foreign-intelligence agency was first proposed and the FBI under its long-time director J. Edgar Hoover feared the emergence of a rival. The two agencies experience a strained relationship as a result.
The chief evidence of how dysfunctional the relationship would eventually become emerged in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The 9-11 Commission documented repeated incidents of a failure to share information between the two, most grievously of all when the CIA neglected to inform the FBI until August, 2001, of the presence in the United States of two of the men who would hijack the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11. As a result of this intelligence debacle, the relationship has apparently improved over the last decade but not enough to stop some speculation about the FBI’s motivation in the Petraeus case.
Then there is the involvement of Congress. Members of Congressional intelligence committees have complained about a lack of notification of the on-going investigation of the Director of the CIA, citing their oversight responsibilities. Prior to the 1970s, such interventions would have been unheard of because Congress was only too happy not to ask questions about the activities and personnel of the agency. What changed was a series of major scandals involving the CIA that began in the late 1960s and escalated into the 1970s, prompting Congressional inquiries and a new pattern of Congressional oversight over the CIA that continues to this day.
Finally, and most significantly of all in terms of the present and future of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Petraeus affair emphasizes the increasing marginalization and militarization of the agency in the post-9/11 world. Despite a reputation of omnipotence, the CIA has always been buffeted by forces outside of its control, including its bureaucratic competitors and the whims of whomever is in the White House.
From a position already lacking in strength, the CIA became one of the biggest losers from the post-9/11 reforms of the American intelligence system. The National Director of Intelligence, a position created to co-ordinate the American intelligence community, superseded the Director of Central Intelligence in the intelligence pecking order. This, coupled with a military-led counter-terrorism emphasis over the last 11 years, has meant that the CIA increasingly has found itself engaged in paramilitary activities that seem further and further divorced from the duties of an intelligence agency.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the still-officially-covert CIA drone campaign in Pakistan, which has killed over 2000 people since 2004. Before his career imploded, Mr. Petraeus had made it clear, according to the American media, that he wanted the CIA to continue its central role in carrying out drone attacks as part of an expanded fleet.
A paramilitary prominence for the agency is hardly surprising given that Mr. Petraeus is a military man. Indeed, his resignation over infidelity emphasizes his background, as such personal conduct is officially forbidden in the U.S. military. Mr. Petraeus is certainly not the first military man to head the CIA and won’t be the last. His tenure in the context of the ongoing counter-terrorism campaign and the nature of his departure, however, reinforce that the future of the CIA may involve a lot more military activity and a lot less subterfuge outside of personal relationships.
Steve Hewitt is senior lecturer in American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and author of “Snitch: A History of the Modern Intelligence Informer.”