The Real David Petraeus Scandal

Petraeus.jpgPetraeus, his wife, and Paula Broadwell at his CIA confirmation hearings. (AP)


When, in the fall of 2011, David Petraeus moved from commanding the Afghanistan war effort to commanding the CIA, it was a disturbingly natural transition. I say "natural" because the CIA conducts drone strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and is involved in other military operations there, so Petraeus, in his new role, was continuing to fight the Afghanistan war. I say "disturbingly" because this overlap of Pentagon and CIA missions is the result of a creeping militarization of the CIA that may be undermining America's national security.

This trend was clear during the Bush administration, but it accelerated under President Obama, who greatly expanded drone strikes, and it reached a kind of symbolic culmination when Obama nominated this four-star general to run things at Langley. That would have been the perfect time to reflect on the wisdom of the convergence of the CIA's and Pentagon's jobs. But, instead, the network of journalists, think tankers, public officials and others who constitute the foreign policy establishment preserved their nearly unblemished record of not focusing on the biggest questions.

There were exceptions, notably in the Washington Post. Its reporters raised the militarization issue shortly after Petraeus was nominated for the CIA post and then, the week before he took office, raised it again. Discussing the ongoing "expansion of the paramilitary mission of the CIA," Greg Miller and Judie Tate wrote:

The shift has been gradual enough that its magnitude can be difficult to grasp. Drone strikes that once seemed impossibly futuristic are so routine that they rarely attract public attention unless a high-ranking al-Qaeda figure is killed... The drone program has killed more than 2,000 militants and civilians since 2001, a staggering figure for an agency that has a long history of supporting proxy forces in bloody conflicts but rarely pulled the trigger on its own.

The militarization of the CIA raises various questions. For example, if the CIA is psychologically invested in a particular form of warfare--and derives part of its budget from that kind of warfare--can it be trusted to impartially assess the consequences, both positive and negative, direct and indirect?

And then there's the transparency question. That Post piece noted concerns among some activists that "the CIA now functions as a military force beyond the accountability that the United States has historically demanded of its armed services. The CIA doesn't officially acknowledge the drone program, let alone provide public explanation about who shoots and who dies, and by what rules." Indeed, only a few months ago, in compliance with the War Powers Resolution, the Obama administration reported (vaguely) on targeted killings in Somalia and Yemen that had been conducted by the military, but not on those conducted by the CIA.

What's wrong with this opaqueness? For starters, you'd think that in a democracy the people would be entitled to know how exactly their tax dollars are being used to kill people--especially people in countries we're not at war with. But there's also a more pragmatic reason to want more transparency.

These drone strikes are a radical departure from America's traditional use of violence in pursuit of national security. In contrast to things like invading or bombing a country as part of some well-defined and plausibly finite campaign, our drone strike program is diffuse and, by all appearances, endless. Every month, God knows how many people are killed in the name of the US in any of several countries, and God knows how many of these people were actually militants, or how many of the actual militants were actual threats to the US, or how much hatred the strikes are generating or how much of that hatred will eventually morph into anti-American terrorism. It might behoove us, before we accept this nauseating spectacle as a permanent feature of life, to fill in as many of these blanks as possible. You can't do that in the dark.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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