The Real David Petraeus Scandal

Petraeus, 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.

That Post piece reported that the chief of the CIA's (burgeoning) Counterterrorism Center had told a colleague, "We are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now." This kind of claim seems to neglect the possibility that the drone strikes, especially given their intermittent killing of innocents, could in the long run generate so much hatred of America that they increase the rate at which terrorists are created. Coming from the guy who heads the part of the CIA that operates the drones, this simplistic language is not reassuring. If an opaque drone program means trusting people like this to do the smart thing, the case for transparency is strong.

At the risk of raising a question that is by custom excluded from discussion of American foreign policy: What if other nations behaved as we do? What if they started firing drones into countries that house people they'd rather were dead? Couldn't this get kind of out of control? Shouldn't the U.S. be at least thinking about trying to establish a global norm against this sort of thing (except, conceivably, under well-defined circumstances that have a clear basis in international law)?

I think history is going to judge American foreign policy in the Bush-Obama years harshly. And I think a big reason is that we're missing a fleeting opportunity to help build a world civilization based on widely respected laws and norms. Shortly after 9/11, with the US holding the attention and sympathy of the world, it had the opportunity to start doing this. President Bush failed--by, to pick just one of many examples, attacking Iraq without having international law on his side.

I wish I could say that President Obama has done a whole lot better than Bush. And, in Obama's defense, he did get UN Security Council authorization before intervening in Libya (leaving aside the question of whether the intervention ultimately exceeded the UN mandate). But in many ways this president is no improvement over the last one, and Exhibit A is the acceleration of a far-flung drone-strike program that is shrouded in the secrecy of the CIA. The vision implicit in this program is of an America whose great calling is to lead the world into a future of chaos and lawlessness.

This prospect was vividly highlighted when, a bit more than a year ago, Obama had David Petraeus turn in his stars so he could move to the CIA and keep fighting wars. There have been other military men who headed the CIA, but never has there been one whose move to Langley brought so much continuity with what he was doing before he went there.

The circumstances of Petraeus's departure from the CIA are a little alarming; you'd rather your chief spy not be reckless. But the circumstances of his arrival at the CIA a year ago were more troubling. Yet no alarm was sounded that was anywhere near as loud as the hubbub surrounding Petraeus now. That's scandalous.