WASHINGTON >> In 14 months as CIA director, David H. Petraeus has shunned the spotlight he once courted as America’s most famous general. His low-profile style has won the loyalty of the White House, easing old tensions with President Barack Obama, and he has overcome some of the skepticism he faced from the agency’s workforce, which is always wary of the military brass.
But since a terrorist attack killed four Americans seven weeks ago in Benghazi, Libya, his deliberately low profile, and the CIA’s penchant for secrecy, have left a void that has been filled by a news media and congressional furor over whether the tragedy could have been prevented. Rather than acknowledge the CIA’s presence in Benghazi, Petraeus and other agency officials fought a losing battle to keep it secret, even as the events there became a flash point in the presidential campaign.
Finally, on Thursday, with Petraeus away on a visit to the Middle East, pressure from critics prompted intelligence officials to give their own account of the chaotic night when two security officers died along with the U.S. ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and another diplomat. The officials acknowledged for the first time that the security officers, both former members of the Navy SEALs, worked on contract for the CIA, which occupied one of the buildings that were attacked.
The Benghazi crisis is the biggest challenge so far in the first civilian job held by Petraeus, who retired from the Army and dropped the “General” when he went to the CIA. He gets mostly high marks from government colleagues and outside experts for his overall performance. But the transition has meant learning a markedly different culture, at an agency famously resistant to outsiders.
“I think he’s a brilliant man, but he’s also a four-star general,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Four-stars are saluted, not questioned. He’s now running an agency where everything is questioned, whether you’re a four-star or a senator. It’s a culture change.”
Petraeus, who turns 60 next week, has had to learn that CIA officers will not automatically defer to his judgments, as military subordinates often did.
“The attitude at the agency is, ‘You may be the director, but I’m the Thailand analyst,”’ said one CIA veteran.
Long a media star as the most prominent military leader of his generation, Petraeus abruptly abandoned that style at the CIA. Operating amid widespread complaints about leaks of classified information, he has stopped giving interviews, speaks to Congress in closed sessions and travels the globe to consult with foreign spy services with little news media notice.
“He thinks he has to be very discreet and let others in the government do the talking,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon, a Brookings Institution scholar who is a friend of Petraeus’ and a member of the CIA’s advisory board.
Petraeus’ no-news, no-nonsense style stands out especially starkly against that of his effusive predecessor, Leon E. Panetta, who is now the defense secretary. Amy Zegart, a Stanford professor who has studied how often CIA directors have appeared in the news since 1980, ranks Panetta first in public profile and Petraeus, ascetic and now tight-lipped in public, near the bottom.
Panetta, a gregarious politician by profession, was unusually open with Congress and sometimes with the public — to a fault, some might say, when he spoke candidly after leaving the CIA about a Pakistani doctor’s role in helping hunt for Osama bin Laden, or about the agency’s drone operations.
Petraeus’ discretion and relentless work ethic have had a positive side for him: Old tensions with Obama, which grew out of differing views on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, appear to be gone.
Petraeus is at the White House several times a week, attending National Security Council sessions and meeting weekly with James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, and Thomas E.
Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser. Donilon said recently that the CIA director “has done an exceptional job,” bringing “deep experience, intellectual rigor and enthusiasm” to his work.
“When Obama came into office, they were very suspicious of one another,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and presidential adviser. “Clearly, over the course of the last four years, Obama has come to trust Petraeus.”
Petraeus has managed the delicate task of supporting rebels in Syria’s civil war while trying to prevent the arming of anti-American extremists. But when his C-17 Globemaster touched down in Turkey in September for consultations on Syria, the trip went all but unnoticed by the news media. He worked for months to address the complaints of Pakistani officials about drone strikes against militants, while keeping State Department officials abreast of likely future strikes, a policy called “pre-concurrence” that has prevented interagency squabbles. In his travels to the tumultuous post-Arab Spring Middle East this week, only a brief mention of his arrival in Cairo surfaced in local news reports. Inside the agency, some subordinates say, he has largely defused the skepticism that initially greeted a celebrity general whose stated views of progress in the war in Afghanistan, among other things, were far rosier than those of CIA analysts. But by comparison with Panetta, who wooed the workforce and often did not question operational details, Petraeus is a demanding boss who does not hesitate to order substandard work redone or details of plans adjusted.
“I’ve never seen anyone with his drive — ever,” said Michael J. Morell, the agency’s deputy director.
“He remembers what he asks for. Three weeks later he’ll say at a morning meeting: ‘Whatever happened to that? Is that done yet?”’
But the Benghazi crisis has posed an extraordinary test for Petraeus. After the killings, intelligence officials concerned about exposing the extent and methods of the large CIA presence in the city would say little to reporters for publication. Conservative critics of Obama seized on a series of reports by Fox News and other outlets to make the incendiary charge shortly before the election that four Americans had died because of the administration’s negligence.
Petraeus said nothing publicly, but that did not keep him out of the story. Some news reports faulted his secret testimony to Congress days after the attack for supposedly supporting the view that it was not a planned terrorist strike but a spontaneous response to an offensive anti-Muslim video. Then, last week, Fox News reported that agency officials had refused desperate requests for help from operatives under fire in Libya, and the agency issued a flat denial.
“No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need,” its statement said.
Far from ending the speculation, the statement added to it. William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, concluded that the agency was pointing its finger at the White House, which he suggested must have refused the requested intervention. “Petraeus Throws Obama Under the Bus” was the headline on the Weekly Standard’s blog.
Perhaps worse for a former military commander like Petraeus, the father of Tyrone Woods, one of the security officers killed, accused the Obama administration in interviews of essentially abandoning his son and others to their fate and not caring about their deaths. The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that some agency employees resented the fact that Petraeus did not attend the funerals of the two security contractors. Officials said he was concerned that his presence would confirm their agency connection, still officially secret at the time.
On Thursday, hoping to subdue the gathering public relations storm, intelligence officials invited reporters to a background briefing to, in their view, set the record straight. They offered a timeline of CIA actions on the night of the attack, countering the idea that the besieged Americans were left alone under fire, and explaining why some would-be rescue efforts discussed in news reports were never feasible.
Notably, they also sought to rehabilitate Petraeus from some of the negative speculation that has surrounded him. The CIA director, said one intelligence official, “has been fully engaged from the start of the agency’s response, particularly in the rescue mission that was swift and aggressive.”
“This idea that he is somehow not engaged is baseless,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
For Petraeus — once pilloried in full-page newspaper ads as “General Betray Us” in the debate over the Iraq war — it is nothing new to be at the center of a political firestorm. “This is Washington, so naturally all controversies get caught up in the political jet stream,” an intelligence officer close to Petraeus said.
Whatever the challenges of his first year, said O’Hanlon, his friend, “I’m confident in saying that he loves this job.”
“He may miss the military at an emotional level,” he added, “but he loves this work.”
Petraeus’ future has inevitably been the subject of rumors: that he would be Mitt Romney’s running mate, or, more plausibly, that he was interested in the presidency of Princeton. In a statement in late September, he did not rule that out for the future, but said that for the time being he was “living the dream here at CIA.” That was before the recriminations this week over Benghazi.