First with the Truth

Pictures of David Petraeus

CIA Director David Petraeus discusses integrity on and off battelfield.

by Michelle Simmons
July 1, 2012

In May CIA Director David Petraeus received an honorary doctor of public service and delivered the Commencement address at Dickinson. He also spoke at the ROTC commissioning ceremony and took time with Editor Michelle Simmons to share some of his insights and experiences over a 37-year military career, as well as his new role. 

You came of age during the Vietnam era, when public confidence in the U.S. military—and internal morale—was at its lowest point. What was it about a military career that appealed to you?

I grew up seven miles from West Point, and there were dozens if not hundreds of West Point graduates in my town and the immediate area. I was exposed to cadets and faculty and staff, some of the latter who lived in town. Like lots of people, I did something because I wanted to be like people that I admired.

Your father was in the Dutch navy? 

My father was born and raised in the Netherlands, and he went into the Dutch version of the Merchant Marine Academy. He was commissioned in their merchant marines and was at sea when the Nazis overran Holland in ’39. The ship had no alternative but go somewhere else; it couldn’t go back to Rotterdam, from which it had departed. It ended up docking in New York Harbor, and a number of the crew members decided to sign up with the U.S. Merchant Marine. So my father, who survived the war, had some fairly adventurous moments, including a convoy to Murmansk. He ended up being the captain of a ship before the age of 30.

Was there any discussion between the two of you when you decided to enter West Point? 
I think he would have loved to see me go to the Naval Academy. He did retire from the sea in part because there was so much time away from family. At that time, ship captains were away from home 11 months out of the year, so it was quite an extraordinary amount of absence. We settled in the small village of Cornwall-on-Hudson. In fact, we had a sailboat when I was growing up. When I was 14, I had my own sailboat for several years. It wasn’t just a little Sunfish—it was a 19-20 footer that when you turned it over, you didn’t just flip back. That happened one time, and we had to tow it back, put slings on it and hoist it out of the water with a crane. That was pretty embarrassing for my father and pretty embarrassing for me. He was out on the family sailboat—that was not my finest hour.

Today, the military is highly professionalized and well regarded; at the same time, fewer are serving in the armed forces. Do you have concerns about the general public’s understanding of the military’s purpose and function?

I don’t have that concern. First, the central reason our armed forces are so highly professional is because the draft was ended. I was in West Point from July 1970 through June 1974—that was a period of enormous turmoil for our country, of antiwar sentiment.
We [at West Point] were shielded from that. Don’t get me wrong, we read The New York Times, we watched the news. But by and large, we were in a bit of a cloistered existence. In fact, the superintendent—who ultimately turned out to be my father-in-law—really did try to shield the cadets as best he could, so we could focus on our studies and on leadership development.
Now, what I’ve seen and experienced personally is incredible support for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guardsmen and their families. That doesn’t mean that everyone agrees or subscribes to the various foreign-policy decisions that have been made.
Moreover, I think that we’re coming out of a period in which the U.S. Congress has seen a steady reduction of members who have served our nation in combat, or even served in uniform. Now you start to see the young alumni, if you will, of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, who are now being elected, taking their positions in various forms of government service.

In Paula Broadwell’s All In, she notes that your experience in Bosnia was a key influence on your counterinsurgency philosophy. Could you tell us about that? 

It would go back even further. I spent a summer in Central America working for my mentor, Gen. Jack Galvin. That was an early formative experience. Then going to Haiti was quite important. It was a true civil-military operation. We learned about coalition building, maintaining operations, all the challenges and pluses.
And then Bosnia, which was a full year, in which I was dual-hatted in a U.S. special-mission unit as the NATO assistant chief of staff of operations and as special deputy commander of the Joint Interagency Task Force. It was very much a civil-military effort, very much a coalition effort—a lot of the same NATO countries would ultimately participate in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.

Was there a particular aha! moment for you, or was it a process? 

For me, you get a little idea, and then you shape it. During the course of all these deployments I developed seeds of big ideas, among which is the whole nature of a civil-military campaign. It was essentially what we codified in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual. One of the big ideas for Iraq, and then for Afghanistan, was that you had to achieve a unified civil-military effort. It had to be a coalition effort. You’re not going to get unity of command, but you have to ensure unity of effort.

Now, stepping into a civilian agency and a civilian role, are there specific ideas you were comfortable taking with you to the CIA or others that you had to revamp? 

The CIA is an organization full of highly educated, highly motivated, highly experienced individuals who have enormous capacity for initiative and independent action, who love principled discussion and who at the end of the day are about as pure in patriotism as it comes. These are individuals who signed up knowing that they’re not going to be publicly recognized for what they do.
So it’s an organization that requires a light hand on the reins. This is not an organization that you have to drive, in the same way you might drive an infantry company or battalion. It’s one in which you develop a vision collaboratively.
There have been big ideas that have emerged in recent years, what we term emerging mission imperatives. They have to do with big data, with digital identity, which has enormous implications for the trade craft of clandestine operatives. It’s hard to have a different identity if your parents have been putting pictures of you on Facebook ever since you were born. The old tricks of the trade no longer are as effective as they used to be. And the massive amounts of data that we’re accumulating, the terabytes of data, the applications to correlate that data to provide our analysts with swift, accurate answers—those applications are looming very large.
When you come into an organization, any organization, but particularly when you come in at the top, you also need to do some self-assessment. There are some experiences I have, some capabilities that can really help the organization. I know how to do operations, I know the Central Command region, the Arab Spring areas—I’ve been riveted to that for a decade. I know the leaders of the countries in that region and the nearly 50 countries that provided forces in Afghanistan alone.
Having said that, I clearly have to do the Asia pivot, together with the rest of the U.S. government. I also haven’t been in Latin America for well over a decade. We have very important partnerships with countries like Colombia, and it’s been very intellectually stimulating to rediscover these countries.

You’ve mentioned education quite a bit in the past. What are some things you think colleges and universities need to be doing? 

We are in quite an enviable position right now; we have about 150 applicants for every space in the national clandestine services. We can truly hire the best and brightest. In a recent on-duty class that I swore in, one woman spoke five languages and the other spoke six, and they spoke them fluently. One was also a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. That’s the kind of education that we need, that our country needs. 
I think there is an economic recovery that will continue and that natural-gas development in the U.S. will go up. Assuming this can be done in an environmentally safe way, which is obviously a must, this is going to provide an incredible boost to our economy. As discovery continues, it has tremendous implications for our country. So what can our country do to take advantage of that? Well, we need people who have the right tools, the right education to be able to take advantage in a variety of different fields.
I highlight science and technology, but a broad liberal-arts education is an awfully good foundation for all else that follows: It teaches critical-thinking skills; it teaches writing and speaking. It develops one intellectually in a broad-based manner that is very helpful in whatever field the individual focuses on thereafter. That’s frankly why Dickinson students and others who pursue similar courses of study typically do very well, and I think will do even better, given the economic potential we’re going to see in the U.S.

You seem to have a real sense of optimism. 

Well, actually, for a number of years now, starting with the surge in Iraq in particular, I’ve declined being labeled either an optimist or a pessimist—I’m a realist. I try to provide my most forthright assessment, but at heart, I think it is true that I’m an optimist. I think one of the qualities of a leader is to figure out how to provide energy and encouragement and enthusiasm to an organization and to immediate subordinates, while doing it in a manner that is accompanied by a realistic appraisal of the situation in which you’re engaged.

[In the counterinsurgency guidance letter] there are admonitions, and that was how I cast it: One of those was be first with the truth, and another was live our values. But being first with the truth meant stop trying to sugarcoat bad situations. If it’s bad, just step up and say, “This was a terrible day, it was a terrible event, here’s what took place, here’s what we will strive to learn from it, here’s how we will try to avoid such situations in the future.”

I’ve often noted that there’s no greater privilege than commanding America’s sons and daughters, and coalition countries’ sons and daughters. There’s nothing—and don’t misinterpret this—there’s nothing greater than commanding combat on a good day.
But there are very few good days in combat. There are very few days when there aren’t at least some seriously injured soldiers, if not killed. There are very few days when there’s not some form of drama in some fashion—whether it’s with a host-nation leader or a serious misstep of some type, or even various political challenges with coalition countries, you name it. The list of challenges is endless, and there are very few days where you can revel in the privilege. At the end of day, commanding combat is a fairly grinding existence, frankly.

I understand you and Mrs. [Holly Knowlton ’74] Petraeus have moved 25 times in your career. 

I think it’s 27.

The two of you have become quite the dynamic duo, with the work that’s she’s doing now [helming the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau]. 

We’re very proud of what she’s doing. If you look up Petraeus right now, you’ll get more hits with her name. I love it. Someone was saying the other day, “Wow, it must be tough not to see your picture on the cover of Newsweek anymore.” I said, “It’s wonderful. What are you talking about?”

Maybe it’s too soon to ask, but I am curious. Have you discussed what happens after the CIA? 

I would like to do it for quite some time. It’s the most intellectually stimulating job imaginable. As a former professor of international relations and economics, I feel as if I should pay the agency for what I get to read each morning.
I do feel really privileged to be able to continue serving our country. The fact is, there were commercial opportunities that were fairly staggering. A book advance alone was just breathtaking. But none of that excited me. It’s not about making money; it’s about making a difference.

You’ve been pretty unequivocal about public office. 

Right. I won’t. I really mean it. I’ve started quoting that country song that Lorrie Morgan used to sing: “What part of no don’t you understand?” The truth is we’re just so happy to spend a weekend in our own home, to go out to dinner on a Friday or Saturday night, to do something like this here at Dickinson. We’re just happy to putter around the house. It’s the first time we’ve lived in a home that we own for decades. I’m just really enjoying it.

Published July 1, 2012